This 1869 College Entrance Exam Shows How Far Our Standards Have Fallen

harvard colelge class

If you think getting into college is hard these days, try 150 years ago.

Standards for admission to America’s colleges and universities have fallen to dramatic lows. With scholarships available to any group, gender, athletic sport and ethnicity now available, it’s almost impossible for any high school student not to be admitted to college.

It wasn’t so in 1869.

In those days, colleges had to go out of their way to attract students. Still, the entrance exams were almost impossible by today’s standards. But back then, of the 210 applicants who took the test, 185 passed.

And the questions required intimate knowledge of Latin, Greek, ancient history, geography, mathematics, logarithmic, trigonometry and plane geometry. I admit I could probably answer two of these questions.

How many can you answer?

Here are some questions from the 1869 Harvard College Entrance Exam:


  • What is the logarithm of 1 in any system? Of any number in a system of which that number is the base? In a system of which the base is 4, what is the logarithm of 64? Of 2? Of 8? Of ½?
  • Reduce 184800/1180410 to its lowest terms.
  • Find the cube root of 0.0093 to five places of decimals? Find the square root of 531.5 to three places of decimals.


  • Name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France. Is France larger or smaller than Transalpine Gaul? What are the two principal rivers that rise in the Alps? Where is Mount Blanc?

Plane Geometry:

  • Prove that the perpendicular from the centre of a circle upon a chord bisects the chord and the arc subtended by the chord.
  • State and prove the proportion which exists between the parts of two chords which cut each other in a circle. State which proportion exists when two secants are drawn from a point without the circle.


  • Compare Athens with Sparta.
  • Describe the route of the Ten Thousands, or lay it down on a map.









Robert Gehl

About Robert Gehl

Robert Gehl is a college professor in Phoenix, Arizona. He has over 15 years journalism experience, including two Associated Press awards. He lives in Glendale with his wife and two young children.



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