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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Math Cours­es

Albert Ein­stein’s Grades: A Fas­ci­nat­ing Look at His Report Cards

Teacher Calls Jacques Der­ri­da’s Col­lege Admis­sion Essay on Shake­speare “Quite Incom­pre­hen­si­ble” (1951)

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