Accepted: The evolution of college admission requirements

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Accepted: The evolution of college admission requirements

The choice to move onto higher education is a particularly simple in the 21st century, with 75% of college students continuing their studies after high school it has become routine. High school students prepare themselves to apply to college knowing the mass amount of stress all of the preparation will invoke. However, students were not always so expected to enter college and the admission requirements were not nearly the same. The problem with college admission requirements is that they will never stay consistent for long periods which then raises the question of how did a college receive its prestigious title and how does it maintain it. Over time, elite colleges have become more selective due to many social pressures of society, but the question of how did this selectivity become so severe must be considered in order to fully understand these changes.

The root of college admissions began during the 1600s when the first college, Harvard, was founded in America. The establishments of entrance requirement were developed a few years after the founding of the school and officially began in 1642 (Broome 1).  Harvard then created a code of laws, which can be found in College Book No. I (Broome 1). The laws created state that “When any scholar is able to read Tully or such like classical Latin Author Tempore and make and speaker true Latin in verse and prosesuo Marte, and decline perfectlt the paradigms of nounes and verbes in ye Greeke tongue, then may hee bee admitted into ye College.” (Broome 18) These requirements stayed consistent throughout the seventeenth century and remained unchanged until the mid eighteenth century (Broome 19). The reason there were no additional requirements throughout that period of time can be attributed the “struggle for existence against poverty” (Broome 19). The state of America at the time made it difficult for higher education to be a main priority of the American people.

The curriculum that was in place at Harvard maintained unchanged throughout the century and was comprised of courses that only required knowledge of Latin and Greek (Broome 20). As more colleges were being founded the requirements and courses of study would be imitated or similar (Broome 27). It was not until 1734 that the laws of Harvard were slightly changed, and at this point the only alternation was omitting the ability to speak Latin (Broome 29). As Harvard continued to make a series of small changes in their admission requirements it was evident that the significance of Latin “as a living language” was diminishing (Broome 29). As more colleges were established, there were additional admission requirements added to particular colleges plans yet remained pretty consistent with Harvards’, the only additional criteria that was being added was arithmetic and Greek was beginning to become more important than Latin (Broome 32).

As the eighteenth century was coming to a close, America was undergoing significant changes in religion, social and political conditions. The shift towards liberalism and an evident division between church and state, the development of democracy and an overall problem of classes logically led to new educational changes (Broome 40). The colonial colleges, however, were not receptive to these new demands and remained almost completely unchanged until the middle of the nineteenth century (Broome 40). However, the strong desire for “popular and useful” studies was met by the establishment of academies, which allowed people to begin their education before entering college (Broome 40). People in America strove to obtain a better education then before and were determined to expand their knowledge beyond the colonial college’s curriculum.

As more colleges were being founded and established throughout the country the colonial colleges were then inspired to rethink and expand their admission requirements. Finally in the mid nineteenth century, Harvard and other colonial colleges made advancements in their admission requirements. Subjects such as geometry, algebra, and eventually history were added as admission requirements. The original three subjects that were included in 1800 rose to eight by 1870, showing that the nineteenth century was a revolutionary time for college admission requirements (Broome 52). After 1870, colleges were updating and adding requirements, which can be assumed to be the foundation of requirements today. As the subject English became more prominent in admission requirements, Harvard decided to require a short essay based on a particular prompt each year which is likely the foundation of the various essays prompts the majority of colleges still use. The continuous development in admission requirements is directly correlated with the demand for higher education.

As people became more interested in obtaining a higher education there was a significant revolution in preparatory schools and academies. Although colleges made advancements in their admission requirements throughout the nineteenth century, the establishment of preparatory school and academies negatively affected the number of students attending college. “Academies, and a new sort of institution, public high schools, flourished because they met “the particular wants of the times”, the high school had the additional advantage of being free, at home and under complete public control” (Broome 72). In today’s society high school is expected to prepare students to go to college, yet in the nineteenth century “high schools were intended specifically for those who were not preparing for college” (Broome 73). High school essentially became an opportunity to prepare students for practical life as well as prepare them to move onto college (Broome 73). However, not all students who graduated high school could be expected to move onto The American Colleges. Although, the colonial colleges were expanding their admission requirements, the requirements were still specific enough that very few students were able to “enter the old fashioned gate” (Broome 73). Unfortunately, the transition from public high school to college was not well coordinated and the students who found themselves entering college were those attending the preparatory schools, which were established in accordance to the colonial colleges.

Beginning in 1900 elite members of society like Franklin Delano Roosevelt graduated from leading preparatory schools and immediately moved to a top college such as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton (Karabel 23). The elite members of society that were moving onto such colleges set “a cultural tone at the country’s prestigious universities”, (Brooks 1) Despite the schools intense academic reputation, young men like Roosevelt arrived on campus with little concern about his academics. The shift from a solely academic environment to a more social and elitism one can be attributed to colleges desire to be associated with America’s most powerful families.  When elite members of society arrived on college campuses “their main proving grounds were extracurricular activities and social life. Positioning themselves to edit the school paper or join the right secret society, they strove to establish their social worth and to prove how much they embodied the virtues of the Harvard Man, the Yale Man or the Princeton Man. That meant being effortlessly athletic, charismatic, fair, brave, modest and, above all, a leader of men.” (Brooks 1) Overall, elite schools like Harvard and Yale were focusing their efforts on having high social status students and were in fact, proud, of having “more gentlemen and fewer scholars” (Brooks 1). It seems that an admission requirement became a person’s social status in society and that many schools were benefitting from admitting students of high social status due to their public image.

Although, elite colleges benefited from accepting middle and upper class members of society, admission officers and school officials felt that the academic merit of the school was crucial to its existence. The fundamental conflict amongst colleges was between “those who wanted to accept more students on the basis of scholarly merit – intelligence, high test scores and good grades – and those who sought what you might call leadership skills – that ineffable combination of charisma, social confidence, decisiveness and the ability, often proved on the athletic field, to be part of a team”(Brooks 2). Elite colleges struggled between the two options in regards to its admissions procedures, the difficult continues to arise in the admission process today, but dates back to before World War II.

It was not until after World War II that this social hierarchy was altered and such colleges would benefit. The once white Protestant population that dominated schools like Yale would decline because college presidents wanted to expand their student body to a group beyond this white protestant upper class.   The shift of expectations and a more diverse study body resulted in higher SAT scores and a wider range of accepted students and led prestigious colleges to focus more on the academic merit of their students (Brooks 1). The shift to a more academically based admission process benefitted the schools merit and reputation yet has only forced competition between the true meritocrats and the upper class. This intense competition has created a series of problems that have all contributed to the brutally competitive admission process in the 21st century.

As college attendance rates have drastically risen since the mid 20th century, the competition and requirements to attend elite colleges have become more competitive then ever before. Between 1960 and 2001 college enrollment more than tripled from 4.1 million to an astounding 14.8 million (Greater Expectations 1). This rapid increase in college attendance has influenced colleges to create more and more requirements in order for students to even apply to a particular school. The typical elite college, application requirements are; Common Application, specific college questions and a writing supplement, SAT or ACT with writing, 2 SAT subject tests, school report and high school transcript, two teacher reports, a mid year school report and a final school report ( Although, the current system of admission evaluates its applicants on a variety of components, but the reason for this increased selectivity at a top university can be attributed to a variety of social and technological factors.

As the college admission process has become more technologically based the increase in number of applicants has risen dramatically. Students are sending more applications than ever, due to the universal common application that is now accepted to over 500 schools, including many of the ivy leagues (Perez-Pena). Although, elite schools are rejecting more students than ever the high number of applicants helps with lowering their acceptance rate, which in return makes them a more desirable option for next year’s applicants. These low acceptance rates, in reality, motivate students to prepare themselves for college earlier than ever before. The college admission process now begins far before high school, with many upper and middle class parents seeking early placement in the best possible education programs.

The 21st century marks a time period where parents are making absurd efforts in order for their children to attend the countries top universities. Within the last thirty years, Americas test prep companies have grown to a $5 billion annual industry, allowing those who can afford it to place their children with professionals to master the standardized tests and essays required by most schools (UNZ). The notion of a wealthy family being able to buy their child’s way into a top school would be unheard of in other countries, yet the united states has created an environment where “cheating” the system is a reasonable option (Unz). With each new admission requirements comes an attempt to stand out amongst the other applicants but people are taking it too far and essentially creating an alter ego in their applications by hiring others to take standardized tests for them or hire a professional to write essays. People are willing to go to any extreme in order to be admitted to a top college, which has created a society of extreme competition and dishonesty.

The college admission process began as a set of laws made by the college and has emerged into a long list of requirements that students must submit in order to be considered. The founding of elite colleges immediately enticed the upper class in America which forced colleges to focus their attention on those who could afford, provide and positively publicize the schools name. Due to a series of religious, social and political conditions in America, the demands for higher education increased dramatically. Originally elite colleges began seeking out those students who could positively impact the school financially and socially, but are now being bombarded with countless eligible applicants leading the admission selectivity to become increasing more competitive.


Works Cited


“Application Requirements.” Home at Harvard. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. <>.


Brooks, David . “The Chosen: Getting in .” New York Times 6 Nov. 2005: n. pag. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.


Broome, Edwin Cornelius. A historical and critical discussion of college admission requirements. New York: Macmillan, 1903. Print.


“Chapter One | We Are a College-Going Nation.” Chapter One | We Are a College-Going Nation. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2014. <


Karabel, Jerome. The chosen: the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.



PÉrez-PeÑa, Richard. “Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <>.



Unz, Ron. “The Myth of American Meritocracy.” The American Conservative. N.p., 28 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 May 2014. <>.

One thought on “Accepted: The evolution of college admission requirements”

  1. This essay’s underlying research question appears to ask how college admissions requirements became more selective over time, judging from the title and the first paragraph. But I could not find a clear thesis that responds to that question in the first page of the essay. When moving into the body of the essay, it became evident that the main focus is the admissions requirements of Harvard and other elite institutions, which would have been ideal to clarify at the beginning, since this is a small fraction of the US college population at large.

    The body of the essay advances two interesting ideas that respond to the research question. First, it refers to Karabel’s book (and Brooks’ review of it) to explain how elite college leaders used SATs to identify scholars rather than gentlemen in the post-war era, thereby raising admissions expectations. Second, the essay draws on the recent Perez-Pena NYT article to claim that “social and technological factors” (such as students applying to more schools with the Common Application) also causes higher rejection rates due to more competition for limited seats. In your next college essay, strive to find key ideas in the body and raise them in a introductory thesis, as we discussed several times in class. Good ideas are buried inside this essay, and it’s the job of the author to make them clear and convincing for the audience.

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