Technology

How Did Applying For College Become Such A Nightmare?

You’ve FINALLY finished your college applications and now you wait patiently until you find out which schools have deemed you worthy of attendance. *Insert eye roll.* The process is painstakingly brutal — but it hasn’t always been this way. Applying for college used to be relatively low-key.

Here’s how the modern-day college admissions process happened to nice people like you:

Getting into college used to be hella easy (if you were rich).


The 1901 Dartmouth College football team, from Reddit user PleaseVoteForPedro

If you were an 18-year-old in the 1800s, getting into college was as easy as streaming “Orange Is The New Black” on Netflix today. In The Atlantic, Julia Ryans describes the process of getting into schools like Tufts University. She explains that in the 19th century, if you could afford the $200 downpayment (about $5,000 by today’s standards) and had graduated from a top high school, you would have been accepted.

At worst, you had to take a entrance exam. If you passed, you were in.

retrofile college

If you didn’t attend an elite high school, no worries: Ryan says that all you would have to do is take a pretty simple entrance exam, pay the downpayment and show “good moral character.”

At most universities, the process remained fairly simple through the first decades of the 20th century.

Here’s a sample application from Elon College from 1922, found by an archivist at the college who posted on Reddit:

A five dollar down payment, and you were already reserving a dorm room! As John Thelin, University of Kentucky professor and author of “A History of Higher Education” tells The Chronicle, “Most colleges would essentially admit any applicant who could reasonably do the work, especially if they could pay.”

The admissions process began to change when “undesirable” students started passing those entrance exams.

retrofile college

College officials at Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the early ’20s were shocked as immigrants, particularly Jews, started making up larger and larger proportions of their student body, according to Jerome Karabel’s book, “The Chosen.” Some administrators even referred to the trend as the “Jewish invasion,” according to NYU professor Harold Weschler.

One Harvard president wanted to impose a quota on Jewish students — but instead, schools found more subtle ways to handpick their student bodies.

Over the next decades, elite college admissions redefined “merit” to include subjective personal qualities.

retrofile college

Karabel tells Bloomberg that throughout the ’20s, “An entirely new system of admissions was invented, with emphasis on such things as character, leadership, personality, alumni parentage, athletic ability, geographical diversity. They started, for the first time, to do interviews.” According to Karabel, the purpose of these policies was to subtly reduce the number of minority students.

Over the next few…

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