Admission

Admission to Princeton in the early years was based entirely on a knowledge of Latin and Greek, but by 1760 entering freshmen were required also to understand the principal rules of ``vulgar arithmetic.'' The president of the College personally examined each applicant and determined whether or not he should be admitted. Early one morning in the 1790s, Titus Hutchinson, who had come down from Vermont, called at Tusculum to apply for admission, and after morning prayers and breakfast with President Witherspoon, was grilled by him in Latin and Greek and admitted, with the understanding that he was to occupy the coming vacation with the studies in which he was behind. (Hutchinson graduated with honors in 1794 and later became chief justice of Vermont.)

Population was thinner then, and so was the proportion seeking a college education. Writing to a trustee in 1803, Chemistry Professor John Maclean, Sr., ended his letter: ``We got another student today.'' Thirty years later his son, Vice-president John Maclean, Jr., received a visit from James Moffat, a twenty-two-year-old immigrant printer from Scotland sent to see him by a mutual friend, and after an hour's conversation about Latin and Greek, informed the young man, who had been unaware of what was transpiring, that he had been admitted to the junior class. (Moffat gave the valedictory at graduation in 1835 and was later professor of classics in the College and the father of five Princeton-educated sons.)

Oral entrance examinations continued until well past the middle of the nineteenth century, when they began to be superseded by written examinations, first given only in Princeton, and after 1888 also at strategic points across the country. With the founding of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900, Princeton honored the board's examinations as well as its own, and after 1915 required them of all applicants.

The great increase in the number of applicants for admission to American colleges following the First World War led the trustees in 1922 to adopt a policy of limited enrollment and selective admission in order to preserve the essential features of Princeton's residential life and to maintain its standards of individual instruction. At the same time they created the office of director of admission, subsequently occupied by Radcliffe Heermance, 1922-1950; C. William Edwards '36, 1950-1962; E. Alden Dunham III '53, 1962-1966; John T. Osander '57, 1966-1971; Timothy C. Callard '63, 1971-1978; and James W. Wickenden, Jr. '61, 1978-.

During his twenty-eight years as first admission director, Radcliffe Heermance pioneered in the development of selective admission procedures, established close relationships with secondary schools in all parts of the country, and helped guide and develop the College Entrance Examination Board, of which he was chairman from 1933 to 1936. Another pioneer during the formative years of selective admission was Psychology Professor Carl C. Brigham, who did innovative work in aptitude testing and was later chiefly responsible for the development of the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test, first given in 1926.

In the 1930s Princeton adopted a special plan of admission without examination for students of exceptional achievement and promise in the Far West and South, where school programs did not fit them specifically for College Board examinations. Thanks to this program and the missionary efforts of nation-wide Alumni Schools Committees, the geographical distribution of members of freshman classes was substantially broadened.

This temporary Princeton solution anticipated a more general and permanent one which came in 1940 when the College Board replaced examinations based on a set curriculum with objective tests that endeavored to cover the common elements of what was taught in schools throughout the country. This change brought marked increases both in the number of applicants for admission to Princeton and the number of schools from which they came.

A significant development, more recently, concerned blacks and other minority groups. Although a few blacks studied privately with President Witherspoon as early as 1774, and although, beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, black students occasionally earned University degrees, the first appreciable influx did not begin until the 1960s when the University adopted an active recruitment policy for minority students. By 1976, the freshman class of 1980 included ninety-two black students and eighty nine members of other minority groups -- Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, native Americans, and Asian Americans.

The admission process was further broadened in 1969 when Princeton began undergraduate coeducation, with separate admission quotas for men and women. That year, 171 women matriculated, 69 as transferring sophomores, juniors, or seniors, 102 as members, along with 819 men, of the freshman class of 1973. The trustees adopted a policy of equal access for men and women in 1974 and at the same time determined that the undergraduate body should remain at approximately its existing size for the foreseeable future. In 1976, the freshman class of 1980 numbered 736 men and 380 women, drawn from a record number of applicants -- 10,305.

In meeting the responsibilities involved in a necessarily comprehensive and painstaking process of selection, the admission director and his staff rely on help from alumni and undergraduates. More than 130 Alumni Schools Committees across the country act as liaison between the University and secondary school students in their communities, helping the applicants get a clearer picture of what Princeton can offer them and making certain that the Admission Office has a full knowledge of each candidate's capabilities. On campus, an Undergraduate Schools Committee helps prospective students obtain a first-hand acquaintance with Princeton by arranging meals, overnight accommodations in dormitories, attendance at classes and lectures, and meetings with faculty.

In 1976 the University's admission objectives were summed up by Admission Director Callard in these words:

``Princeton seeks to enroll a student body that will be characterized by both excellence and diversity. While the University is interested in many kinds of excellence, superior past academic performance and significant promise for future academic growth must clearly be the fundamental considerations in evaluating candidates.

``But Princeton is no less interested in the personal credentials of its applicants and is particularly concerned to find evidence of such qualities of personal character as honesty and trustworthiness, which are so crucial to the health of a residential university community like Princeton's. Beyond personal integrity, the University is continually looking for evidence of such important qualities as curiosity, initiative, energy, imagination, sensitivity, concern for others, commitment, persistence, creativity, leadership, and a sense of responsibility -- qualities which clearly relate to academic as well as nonacademic aspects of an applicant's potential performance at Princeton, yet which are sometimes more easily perceived in the record of an applicant's nonacademic pursuits.''

The director of admission and his staff are responsible only for undergraduate admissions. Graduate admissions are made by the dean of the Graduate School after reviewing the recommendations of the departments concerned.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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