College Applications Through the Years

Seniors know the struggles of today’s college application process all too well. In the modern age, the Common App has streamlined the process a little bit, but the stress that comes with applications hasn’t dissipated.

But imagine yourself as a high school student in 1943, or 1922, or 1869. There’s no Common App, no college websites, no SAT, or GPA, or Application Fee. So what did the process look like?

A number of seniors are considering Elon College in North Carolina. Check out the Application for Elon in 1922, pulled directly from Elon’s website:

How happy would you be if two out of the fourteen questions you’re asked are “Are you a church member?” and “Is your health good?”  (to be fair, that last one is actually pretty important. Chances are, if your health wasn’t good, you would be unable to work on the family farm, so college would basically be the only option. But if you answered no, you might find it hard to get accepted. If your health was good, you’d more than likely be working for your family anyway, so there’s no time or need to go to college. Its a real Catch-22.)

If you’re noticing that the college application process was absurdly easy, you’d be half right. To even be considered for admission at some top level universities, you would have to come from a relatively well-off family, you might have to be a man, and you’d certainly have to be white. The first black student at the University of Maryland graduated in 1954. At Elon, black students weren’t admitted until 1964, 42 years after the above application was standard.

But even if you checked all the boxes, the application process back then wasn’t always this easy. Consider Harvard’s 1869 entrance exam for their incoming class of 1873.


Harvard is a reach for almost anyone, and 150 years ago it was no different. But, if you knew your Latin, Greek, and Arithmetic, you had a pretty strong chance (provided your family had a lot of money).

Before the SATs came into existence, the application process became exponentially more competitive. After the second World War, the GI bill provided for millions of recent veterans to get a college education. Add to that a new generation of kids who grew up in the Depression and the War, who were finally living in years of prosperity and opportunity, and who were willing and able to go to college, and the application process had to become a lot more streamlined.

Colleges needed a way of easily comparing each applicant. By 1946, students were required to submit a letter of recommendation, their high school transcripts, references, and to complete an admissions interview. But a new beast was emerging, something that students now shudder at just the name: the SATs.

A group of colleges that met to compare admissions tests (now the College Board) collaborated to create a robust 97 minute long exam. See if you can answer some of the questions on the first SAT:


Now, it can be difficult to even sum up the college application process. Applicants have to fill out all kinds of information online, submit SAT and/or ACT scores, their transcript, recommendations, supplement questions, essays, and of course the application fee.

But one thing is for sure: the college application process is not getting simpler any time soon. The SATs might be becoming less difficult and time consuming, but with a brand new crop of highly eligible applicants every single year, college applications must continue to evolve, and chances are they’ll probably get even more complicated.

This might not deter that many students, since 2. 7 million high school seniors applied to college in 2014, according to the NCESD. Senior Tyler Steinberg, who was recently admitted into Stevenson University, said “waiting is the hardest part.”

Who knows what the college application process will look like in 20 or 50 years. Maybe high schoolers in 2064 will look at today’s process and scoff. But seniors now can tell you, its a struggle.

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