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Trout Fishing in Academia

To judge from its first decade, Stanford admissions always set a high bar.

Stanford University Archives/Andrew P. Hill, 1891

O PIONEERS: Encina men of the first class, the Class of 1895, pose on their doorsteps.

By Jenny Pegg

With Stanford's undergraduate admission rate lower than ever, alumni sometimes are heard to wonder whether they could still get in today. But they might also wonder whether they could have made it into the Stanford of yesterday.

While admission criteria during Stanford's first decade, 1891-1901, varied somewhat as the university made its way as an institution, student hopefuls always faced two requirements: They were asked to provide a "certificate of good moral character" and they needed to prove academic competence.

Applicants could establish their intellectual mettle by submitting an academic recommendation from a "reputable" (i.e., Stanford-approved) preparatory school, or they could pass the University's equivalent of today's SAT subject tests. Those Stanford entrance examinations were administered in about eight to 12 academic areas. Certain subjects, such as foreign languages, counted for more than others. Some students were admitted on the basis of both recommendations and tests.

Starting with a few essay prompts and then proceeding from Advanced Algebra to Zoology, here are some entrance questions from the University's early years. We've offered help for some questions, but you're on your own regarding irrigation, Miltonian etymology, grasshopper tracheae and other turn-of-a-previous-century topics.

English (1900)
Of the following subjects write two pages on one and five on another:

a. A Strange Character.
b. A Famous Building.
c. Methods of Irrigation.
d. My Favorite Children in Fiction.
e. The Principal Differences between the Republican and the Democratic Platforms.
f. My Preparation for College.
g. A Narrow Escape.
h. How to Fish for Trout. (or any other fish)
i. The Most Important Events in the History of the World during the Year.

Advanced Algebra (1892)
If a, b, c are in Harmonical Progression, prove:

b+a     b+c
——  +  ——  =  2
b-a      b-c

Chemistry (1898)
Discuss chlorine as thoroughly as you can.

(a) Occurrence. (b) Methods of preparation. (c) Physical and chemical properties. (d) Principal compounds.

Freehand Drawing (1892)
Make, without assistance or the use of instruments, a light and shade perspective drawing, from the object, of a hexagonal prism, with axis at an inclination to the horizontal and also to the picture plane, and with its highest end farthest from the eye and so placed that the hexagonal plane of the end is visible; the drawing to be from five to seven inches in greatest dimension.

English Literature (1892)
Make the proper explanations with respect to the origin, derivation, or history of the following words used by Milton: forfeit, darksome, wisard, harbinger, whist, influence, noise, its, ychained, aghast, session, forego, alive, eyne.

French (1892)
Translate into French:

Are you not ashamed to say you are neither sorry nor repentant, but, on the contrary, pleased to have struck him?

American History (1896)
How and when did New England get its population? Same of Kentucky, Kansas, and California.

Physics (1892)
Knowing the velocity of sound, how can you find the number of vibrations which a given tuning fork will make in a second? If the fork vibrates one hundred times in a second and the velocity of sound is 1100 ft. in a second, what will be the length of an open organ pipe which gives the same note?

Trigonometry (1892)

tan²Θ + cot²Θ in terms of cosΘ

Zoology (1892)
Give an account of the circulatory and respiratory systems of the clam, the fish, the frog, and the grasshopper.


Jenny Pegg is a doctoral student in the history and philosophy of science and technology.

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