This post is part of a series about items currently on exhibition at Mudd Library as part of “Princeton 275.” In this series, we go in-depth about selected items on display to let you know more about the story behind them and why we chose to include them.
Living graduates of Princeton University had a much more complex admissions process than others before them, but it was important to us to show how Princeton’s restrictive admissions represented, in many respects, an paradoxical expansion of opportunities for an education for some people. Before the 1920s, students seeking admission to Princeton would simply sit for an entrance exam. Those who passed were admitted. In the 1880s, for example, the exams included English grammar and composition, world and U.S. history, geography, Latin grammar and literature, Greek grammar and literature, and mathematics. These exams effectively barred most public high school graduates from Princeton. One reason the admissions policy changed was that prep schools tended to prepare students to pass these exams, but not as much for college itself.
In 1925, Princeton’s Dean of Admission observed that high school graduates tended to be more successful at Princeton academically than those who had prepared for the entrance exams at private schools. In response, Princeton adopted a more holistic approach to admissions to give public high school graduates a better chance at acceptance, even if their schools had not provided education in the subjects traditionally covered in the entrance exams. The new application was much closer to what prospective students submit today, with letters of recommendation and high school transcripts as well as scores from the new Scholastic Aptitude Test. Records indicate that the first time public high school graduates were the majority of an entering class was the Class of 1962, who matriculated in 1958 with 50.9% from public high schools. By 1973, fully two-thirds of Princeton’s students came from public high schools.
Public high school graduates arriving on campus brought a greater diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds to the student body as a whole. We chose an example of a 1920s application that turned out well for both the student and for Princeton: Samuel D. Atkins ‘31 *35. Adkins, a graduate of nearby Morristown High School and a first-generation college student, earned his A.B. and Ph.D. from Princeton, joined the Classics faculty in 1937, served as its chair 1961-1972, and retired in 1978.
Admission Office Records (AC152)
Course Examinations Collection (AC054)
Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)
Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198)