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Early Admission

At first, getting into MIT was not so difficult.
March 1, 2005

Admission to MIT has never been easy, but the application process has undergone many changes over the years. In the 19th century, for instance, applicants didn’t have to submit high school transcripts, write personal essays, or stack their résumés with extracurricular activities. When MIT opened its doors in 1865, and for several decades thereafter, the Institute’s annual course bulletin declared simply: “In general, the training given at the best High Schools and Academies will be suitable preparation for the studies of this school.” The requirements for admission were mercifully few: applicants had to be at least 16 years old and demonstrate good training in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the rudiments of French. Moreover, in a stipulation that seems more quaint with each passing year of the digital era, the applicants also had to write in “a rapid and legible hand.”

To prove mastery of the specified subject areas, would-be MIT students had to score at least 50 percent on the Institute’s entrance exams. These tests, administered on the MIT campus, served a similar purpose to today’s SATs but bore little resemblance to them. There were no practice exams and no multiple-choice sections. A typical test featured questions such as “Extract the cube root of 39.304,” “Give your idea of the character and conduct of Washington as a military man,” and “Give reasons for or against the adoption of the modern word telegram

But failing an entrance exam didn’t mean automatic rejection. As late as the 1930s, MIT had a policy of admitting students tripped up by the tests “on the condition” that they spend the summer getting up to speed on the failed topics. A letter sent in 1880 to the mother of a student who failed both the arithmetic and algebra entrance exams promised fall admission to the boy provided he “spare no pains in perfecting himself in [algebra and arithmetic] in doing example after example to make himself perfectly safe and perfectly sure that he understands the principles as well as he needs.”

The early part of the 20th century brought significant changes to the MIT admissions process. As the population of the United States spread westward and proliferating public high schools turned out ever more eligible applicants, the notion of administering school-specific entrance exams became impractical. Standardized tests such as the SATs eventually relieved schools of this burden, and at the same time made it much easier for students to apply to more than one college. As a result, the pool of applicants grew faster than the Institute could accommodate it. In 1936 the school’s faculty voted to establish a fixed class size for the first time. Alden Thresher, dean of admissions from 1936 to 1961, wrote in A 25-year Review of Admissions at MIT, “some modest degree of selectivity was possible as the policy of selective admission began.”

This pivotal decision set MIT on a path toward becoming today’s ultra-selective university that last spring accepted a mere 16 percent of applicants. The thousands of high school seniors waiting anxiously this month for a letter from the admissions office may well wish for the days of old.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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