When Getting In Was Practically a Snap

Anyone who has just run the gauntlet to win a coveted spot at college could be forgiven for wishing for simpler times and a simpler process, certainly one with better odds. 

Acceptance rates have been dropping with each passing year. But it was not always this impossible to get in. Turn back the clock a century or more, and applicants practically waltzed in to their top picks, showing up just before classes resumed to take the entrance exams, and, more often than not, hitting the books that same week.

As reported for the New York Times back when I first spotted the historical evidence, getting into college in the late 19th-century was a buyer’s bazaar for qualified students. Sitting down? Universities rolled out the red carpet for students who could handle the work and even tossed in fancy perks to close the deal.

Classified advertisements that ran in the New York Times between 1867 and 1872, sandwiched between come-ons for cured hams and steamship bookings, tell the story in jaw-dropping detail. Vassar College promised applicants in one fall 1867 ad that its trustees had “appropriated some of the most desirable rooms in the Professors’ houses,” so that “50 additional students can now be well accommodated.” The City University of New York went one better: it dangled “free tuition” in an ad that ran in the New York Times four years later. 

Harvard University took pains in an ad it placed on September 27, 1870 to play down the difficulty of that week’s entrance exam, noting that of the 210 candidates who took the test the prior June, “185 were admitted.” That is no typo. Nearly 7 out of 8 candidates who sat for the test got in. 

New York’s Columbia College, meanwhile, encouraged candidates the following September to “present themselves” at the college that Friday, a mere three days before classes were resuming. No appointments necessary, according to the ad. 

How times have changed. Just this week, Harvard announced that only 4.5 percent of the hordes of students who applied for admission this fall gained acceptance. Columbia’s acceptance rate was only a smidge higher at 5.1 percent, barely one out of every 20 people.

Unless they have access to a time machine, current students who have their hearts set on certain schools have little choice but to place their faith in the process. Whether they land exactly where they had imagined or somewhere else, most students emerge stronger for it. 

Still, how thrilled this year’s graduates must be to finally have the whole ordeal behind them. Congratulations, Class of 2023! You did it. You are college-bound!    

 – Alison, Editor of “How to Survive Your Freshman Year,” 6th edition.