This Is What an 1869 MIT Entrance Exam Looks Like: Could You Have Passed the Test?

The late 19th Century was the time of Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell, of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. It was a golden age of science and technology. So you might wonder how hard it was to get into one of the top technical universities in that era.

The answer, according to this video? Not very hard.

At least that was the case in 1869 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT,  as the young Australian science and math teacher Toby Hendy explains on her excellent YouTube channel, Tibees. MIT was brand new and desperate for tuition revenue in 1869, so the object of the test wasn't to whittle a massive field of applicants down to a manageable size. It was simply to make sure that incoming students could handle the work.




MIT opened in 1865, just after the end of the Civil War. The idea was to create a European-style polytechnic university to meet the demands of an increasingly industrial economy. The original campus was in Boston, across the Charles River from its current location in Cambridge. Only 15 students signed up in 1865. Tuition was $100 for the whole year. There was no formal entrance test. According to an article from the school's Archives and Special Collections,

The "conditions for admission" section of MIT's catalogue for 1865-66 indicates that candidates for admission as first year students must be at least sixteen years old and must give satisfactory evidence "by examination or otherwise" of a competent training in arithmetic, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the "rudiments of French." Rapid and legible handwriting was also stressed as being "particularly important." By 1869 the handwriting requirement and French had been dropped, but algebra had been added and students needed to pass a qualifying exam in the required subject areas. An ancillary effect was to protect unqualified students from disappointment and professors from wasting their time.

A couple of years earlier, in 1867, the MIT Executive Committee reported that faculty members had felt it necessary to ask parents of "some incompetent and inattentive students to withdraw them from the school, wishing to spare them the mortification of an examination which it was certain they could not pass."

Nowadays, the students who make it into MIT have average SAT and ACT scores in the 99th percentile. Of 21,312 first-year applicants hoping to join the Class of 2023, only 1,427 made it. That's an admission rate of 6.7 percent. What a difference 150 years can make!

To take the 1869 entrance examination in English, Algebra, Geometry and Arithmetic, and to see the correct answers, visit this cached article from the MIT website.

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