Back in the 19th century, when higher education wasn’t yet the norm for the majority of Americans, even top-notch universities placed newspaper ads to attract applicants with promises like free tuition, prime room and board, and more.
According to The New York Times, they also held entrance exams right up to the very weekend before classes started to ensure that every possible high school graduate had the chance to make a last-minute, life-changing decision to pursue a college degree.
If you’re thinking back to your own harrowing, drawn-out college admissions process and fantasizing about Harvard University begging you to go there in the 1860s, pause your daydream long enough to read the rest of this article—because you might think Harvard’s entrance exam from that era was more of a nightmare than anything else.
In addition to subjects like geometry and algebra that you might have known at some point but have since forgotten, the 1869 test includes subjects that you very likely never learned at all.
Do you have enough background in ancient geography, for example, to name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul, or explain who Jugurtha was?
And even if you have a few years of Latin under your belt, you might still find it difficult to translate this sentence:
“In the first of the spring the consul came to Ephesus, and having received the troops from Scipio he held a speech in-presence-of the soldiers, in which, after extolling their bravery, he exhorted them to undertake a new war with the Gauls, who had [as he said] helped Antiochus with auxiliaries.”
Compared to those sections, most of the arithmetic questions seem relatively manageable, but only if you can whip out your handy pocket calculator—a device that wasn’t popularized until the mid-20th century.
Hopefully, the future faces of Harvard were at least allowed to use slide rules to divide 33,368,949.63 by 0.007253, or find the cube root of 0.0093 to five decimal places.
While the curriculum has evolved enough in the last 150 years to make this exam seem like quite a doozy to us, prospective students apparently fared well. According to IFLScience, Harvard boasted in a newspaper ad that 185 out of 210 candidates passed the test.