- Applying to college today is an intensive and drawn-out process that requires plenty of preparation and time.
- However, when the first American colleges were established in the 17th century, the requirements were few.
- For several centuries, college entrance requirements involved no more than taking designated courses in school.
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If you’ve ever applied to college or know someone who has, you’re likely familiar with the stress and anxiety often associated with the process. With the increase in applicants in recent years, colleges and universities have not only increased their admission requirements but have demanded higher standards.
But it wasn’t always this way. For hundreds of years, college entrance requirements remained minimal. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that shifts in the application process came into play.
Find out how applying to college has changed drastically from the 17th century up through today.
In 1636, the only requirements Harvard enforced were the ability to read and translate Latin and Greek
The first college in America was Harvard College (now Harvard University), founded in 1636. The requirements for admission, otherwise known as the code of laws, at the time stated that a scholar must be able to read and translate both Latin and Greek. This code of laws remained unchanged throughout the 17th century and was also adhered to by Yale College, another established college of the time.
Though the requirements were few, knowing both Latin and Greek implied that you came from the upper class, meaning college was only accessible to privileged elites during this time.
During the 1700s, mathematics appeared as a college requirement for the first time
Around the 1730s and 40s, more colleges in America were founded and created their own requirements. Most, however, were consistent with Harvard’s. One of the most significant additions to college admissions requirements occurred in 1745. Yale College was the first American school to require mathematics or arithmetic for college entrance.
In the 1850s, colleges required students to take a broader range of subjects in high school
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that college admissions requirements saw any major changes. In 1870, students were required to take more subjects in secondary school for college entrance. The subjects were expanded to Latin, Greek, maths, history, geography, and English.
Between 1870 and the early 1900s, most colleges had developed their own set of admission requirements
During this period, admission requirements became more diverse among colleges. This meant that each school had its own set of requirements. As a result, it was difficult for high school teachers to advise their students on the appropriate requirements for college entrance. This eventually led to a push towards developing uniformity in college admission requirements.
In the 1900s, colleges were starting to agree on specific requirements
Though there was still great diversity in college entrance requirements at the time, studies found that there were a few standards that were becoming more uniform among colleges: completed four-year high school courses, recommendation letters, and test scores.
In the 1920s, the SATs became important for private college admissions
In the 1920s, the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the SAT became part of the solution for standardising college admissions requirements. Private colleges started using the SATs as their preferred exam for capturing each applicant’s aptitude for learning.
During the 1930s and 40s, merit-based requirements were becoming more important in admissions decisions
An important change in requirements that occurred during the 1930s and 40s was when colleges began to look at students’ scholastic abilities instead of only looking at the subjects they studied in high school.
College institutions were inclined to select the most academically gifted students, providing a fair admission opportunity to all as well as hoping to diversify the campus. Emphasis was placed on college entrance exams, which was a more merit-based system than what colleges ever had used previously.
From 1946 to 1956, college entrance requirements became even more uniform
After World War II, there was a sudden increase in college applicants. This created a new problem for colleges because prior to the war, nearly any student who had met a college’s admissions requirements was admitted. But colleges soon discovered it was no longer possible to enroll every student who met all of their requirements. As a result, colleges began switching over from recruitment to selective admissions.
During this period, college admissions requirements also became more uniform. There were six major factors colleges looked at in the admissions process: high-school graduation, a minimum number of prescribed units in designated subjects, rank in graduation class, the recommendation of the principal, interview, and standardised test scores.
The 1960s was a time when non-scholastic factors were taken into consideration
Another important shift in admissions occurred when colleges began to factor in information about the applicant’s identity in an effort to increase diversity on campus in the 1960s. Students were required to answer questions about their race, religion, ethnic background, marital status, etc. in order for colleges to broaden their student population.
This was a major turning point in the application process because colleges were starting to become more interested in the details of the applicant’s life. This led to the requirement of recommendation letters, references, personal essays, and even photographs being included.
Students were applying to more than one college by the late 1970s
Prior to the war, college applicants typically applied to just one college because of the difficulty in dealing with the varied requirements. However, in 1959 only one-half of all applicants applied to one school, and by the late 1970s, less than one-third of applicants only applied to one school. College guides at the time recommended that students apply to three or four colleges.
A focus on diversity was also upheld when the Supreme Court caseRegents of the University of California v. Bakke allowed colleges and universities to continue considering race when choosing qualified students for admission.
In the 1980s, higher standards for admissions were on the rise
In the mid-80s, there was a demand for higher standards for admissions as well as reduced sizes of colleges’ entering classes. The minimum high school GPA requirements were higher, minimum admissions test score averages had increased, and the years of study required in designated subject areas had increased as well.
During the 2000s, students started applying to colleges online and applying to more schools than ever before
College enrollment has more than tripled between the 1960s and 2001 from 4.1 million to 14.8 million. With the increase in applicants, colleges have created more and more requirements in an attempt to weed people out from even applying.
The early 2000s was also a time when many college applications became accessible online. In 2009, an estimated 80% applied to colleges online, up by 58% from 2006, and that number has only increased. This has allowed students to send more applications than ever.
Today, applying to college is a long, drawn-out process that requires students to excel in aspects beyond academia
Today, the college application process has changed substantially from where it first began, and is more competitive than ever. Students are forced to prepare for their college careers far in advance. With the advent of preparation materials and courses as well as personal tutors, many parents and students are doing whatever it takes to get into the top schools.
However, the best grades and test scores still may not be enough. Modern-day college admissions are now called holistic, meaning they are searching for something that makes your application special. Even having attained perfect test scores and a perfect GPA doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get admitted into the college of your choice. Colleges today aren’t solely looking at your scores and grades, but at your extracurriculars, talents, personality, and background.
But, despite attempts to diversify campuses, many colleges are still struggling to achieve “true diversity” in admissions, or even know what that means in 2019. The student bodies of the 468 best-funded colleges and universities in the US were 77% white, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University. In 2018, the Trump administration rolled back some guidance put into place under President Obama that would promote diversity in college admissions.
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