A Century of Dartmouth Admissions
By Sara Kassir, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 27, 2012
Regardless of how much I might have liked some of the alumni who interviewed me while I was going through the college admissions process, there was always one thing that they would say that immediately made me want to punch them in the face: “You know, back in my day, you would’ve gotten in for sure. Too bad it’s so hard for you kids now. I see kids just like you get rejected, and I know that if I had to apply today, there’s no way I would stand a chance.”
Thank you, Old White Man ’57, for your insight. I’m well aware of the fact that it’s statistically unlikely that I will be admitted to School X in spite of my good grades, high test scores and four years of sleep deprivation throughout high school. Thank you for reminding me that “back in the day,” being literate was one of the only prerequisites for attending an Ivy League School. Well that and being able to pay for it, of course.
If you think I’m kidding, consider the fact that Dartmouth didn’t come up with standardized admissions requirements for its students until 1921. Before that, it was likely that if you made a phone call or, better yet, showed up at the Admissions Office and asked for a spot at the College, you would get one. Imagine how long the line out the door of McNutt would be if that were the case today.
In 1921, however, the Boston Herald published an article titled “Dartmouth, ‘Mother of Men,’ is Turning Men Away.” In response to the College’s applicants exceeding capacity, a “selective plan” was adopted to admit men on the basis of “scholarship, character, qualities of leadership and the principles of geographical distribution and professional and occupational distribution.” In addition, “sons of old grads” would be given preference. Dartmouth, in fact, was the first college in America to institute selective admissions.
After a few years with this new process in place, the College’s intentions regarding selective admissions were called into question. President Ernest Martin Hopkins responded to accusations that Dartmouth was attempting to recruit students of superior athletic ability in a February 1926 Boston Transcript article, titled “The Dartmouth Selective System No Smoke-Screen.”
“I never have been classified among those violently hostile to intercollegiate athletics,” he said in the article. “But I think that I am likely to become so if many more articles appear suggesting that Dartmouth was insignificant until some recent period of major football victories.”
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the College’s precise standards for admission became more rigid. Alumni interviews, standardized tests and lengthier secondary school recommendations were slowly introduced. A 1934 application to the College also includes essay questions such as, “Write a paragraph concerning your health during the past two years,” as well as other prompts that are not so dramatically different from those featured on the Common Application today.
After World War II, the number of high school graduates and veterans seeking college admittance increased dramatically. A July 1947 article in The New York Times reported the shocking statistic that six of every seven applicants to Northeastern colleges were being turned down, listing Dartmouth among the schools studied.
In 1951, as selectivity of private colleges continued to increase, Director of Admissions Albert Dickerson published an official report on the principles used to select the men of Dartmouth. The report made what seemed like an absurdly obvious declaration that the first characteristic required for enrollment at Dartmouth (other than a Y chromosome) was “the ability to think.” How they actually created criteria for such a standard is honestly beyond me.
In 1961, the College published the first statistical data on admitted students. The Class of 1964 had 799 students, 45 of whom were high school valedictorians and 60.4 percent of whom were in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Their median SAT scores (when the SAT was scored out of 1600) were 621 on the verbal portion and 650 on the math section. Over 25 percent of the class was from New England, and fewer than 2 percent of admitted students were “foreign.” At the time, it cost approximately $3,000 to send your son to Dartmouth for one year.
A March 4, 1969 article published in The Dartmouth, titled “73 Applications Rise Slightly,” made the claim that the College’s still all-male campus was a possible reason for the increase in applications in light of several other Ivies’ decisions to go coeducational at the end of the 1960s. Apparently it was not enough of an enticement to keep women out of Dartmouth for much longer, since in 1972, women were finally admitted to the College on a full-time basis.
In recent decades, every incoming freshman class has been statistically challenging the title of “worst class ever” by beating out its predecessors, as admission to the College has only become more difficult. The Class of 2015 was the first to have an acceptance rate in the single digits, but the Class of 2016 dropped the number even lower to 9.4 percent, with 43.8 percent of accepted students being valedictorians and 93.8 percent graduating in the top 10 percent of their class. The Admissions Office continually boasts that the next class’ stats and accomplishments are the most impressive the College has seen in its history, and that the selection process was unprecedentedly difficult since a record number of deserving students applied.
At this rate, it’s a little hard to not feel sorry for the future ’17s, ’18s and ’19s since their chances for admission are only getting grimmer as time passes. If any of us had to apply to college five years from right now, who knows if we would make the cut? While it may have been annoying to hear alumni talk about how much easier they had it, they were probably right. The door to Dartmouth is getting harder to squeeze through all the time. Let’s just be glad we didn’t get stuck on the other side.