You Would Never Have Gotten Into Harvard in 1899

If you thought getting accepted to an Ivy League school was tough  today, you should count your blessings that you weren’t born in the 1880s. In addition to having diphtheria and bad teeth and a pompadour like a mangy cat, you’d also be forced to take a comically rigid entrance exam and speak ancient Greek.

The New York Times recently unearthed a Harvard entrance exam from 1899, and man, is it ugly. The text spans three major disciplines–classical languages, history and math–and requires its victims to jump through flaming hoops in topics like Greek Composition, Random-Ass Geography, and Hard Numbers. Take, for instance:

[in Logarithms and Trigonometry] 9. Find by logarithms, using arithmetical complements, the value of the following:

[(0.02183)2 x (7)2/5]/[√(0.0046) x 23.309]

Remember, folks, there were no calculators in 1899. Nor, apparently, was there mercy.

[In History and Geography] VI. Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander.

Evidently this is a question, not just a list of people you’ve never heard of. Oh, wait, we’ve heard of Leonidas–but that’s only because we’ve seen 300, which someone living in the 1800s would most likely not have seen. Wonder if you’d get partial credit for identifying Lysander as “that dude in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[In Greek Composition] [Insert ancient cryptic mumbo-jumbo here]

Hey, it’s all ελληνικά to us. Can you imagine if this were on the SAT?

Speaking of the SAT, it’s hard to tell whether the replacement of questions like “bound the basin of the Po” with ones like “find the noun in this sentence” has been a good or bad thing. A good thing for us, certainly, because if we’d been forced to draw the route of the Ten Thousand on a map in order to get into college, we’d have been working at the 1899 equivalent of a Chick-Fil-A faster than you can say “Gay Nineties.” But perhaps not such a good thing for the overall intelligence quotient of our nation’s youth, which would unquestionably have been strengthened by the knowledge of “Pharsalia, Philippi and Actium.” All of which, by the way, sound like sleep medications.

In an interesting final coup, Columbia Spectrum columnist Thomas Rhiel has noted that the 1899 Harvard entrance exam pales in comparison to that of Columbia, which apparently required knowledge of French, German, and the following works:

Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I and II; Pope’s Iliad, Books I and XXII; the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers in The Spectator; Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, Lowell’s Vision of Sir Launfal, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, [...] Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America, De Quincey’s The Flight of a Tartar Tribe, [and] Tennyson’s The Princess.

Times sure have changed, haven’t they? Back then you actually had to read all these books in order to get anywhere in life. Now all you have to do is Google the ending and lie. Yeah, sorry we’re not sorry.

  • Anonymous

    My grandfather could speak ancient Greek, and he was a farmer. My mother could do math problems like these in her head. But she was teacher.

    • Penn GRD

      And I thought this article was some standard fare about legacy preferences and anti Semitism. A lot was made about these exams in Karabel’s book The Chosen but I had never seen them. As hard as they seem to be, most people had private tutors or went to place like Groton which had an entire curriculum designed around the passing of these exams. Even if you failed you could be admitted with “conditions” and you could take them over and over again if you came from the right family. During that time the admission rate to these school was basically 100 percent anyways.

    • Pongos2006

      Beautiful, just brilliantly beautiful grandparents – you must be very proud – it passes down in the genes!

  • Parrhesia

    FWIW Leonidas, Pausanias and Lysander are all Spartan Generals. Apparently their main achievements and respective importance is to be elucidated in the question

  • Quincy Man

    Having graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School, I can personally attest to the inanity of these “entrance exams.” I met so many drunken imbeciles in Cambridge and New Haven, who are now running this country (into the ground), that any pretense of “excellence” is a sad farce.