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A Different Perspective on Brain Teasers

If you thought that the college application process used to be simpler, you’re right.

Following are excepts from one students mid-1930’s college applications.  A few simple pages, completed by hand, and supporting documentation.


  • Ranked in the bottom third of class. 65th out of 110 students. 85’s in English and History. 50 in Physics.


  • His high school principal stated “He can be viewed upon to do enough to pass.” and  ” . . . his natural gifts of intelligence, likableness, and popularity.”
  • Parental input ” . . . has a brilliant mind, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested.”


  • Enjoys football and crew. No employment history.
  • One of nine siblings. His mother is a housewife with a high school education. He attended prep school, and is a legacy.

The all important Essay? The application poses just one question, “Why do you wish to come to Harvard?”

  • “I have always wanted to go there, . . .”

Except for the fact that he began as a freshman at a different college, and withdrew for medical reasons.

The 91 word essay conclusion?

  • “To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one I sincerely hope I shall attain.”

Hmmm. I don’t sense quite the same urgency/agony/excitement of trying to express the essence of yourself, what you have accomplished and what you plan to do, that a 150-650 word essay elicits today.

He was admitted; he built on his strengths.  He achieved some success.

One letter begins “A chap by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy . . .” from Radcliffe Heermance at Princeton.

And the application form asks for name of the principal or headmaster.  Radcliffe. Headmaster. Times have changed a wee bit. Harvard also admits women now.

Was it a different time, place and privilege than I can truly fathom? You bet. But reading just the application, it seems astoundingly average.


Back to 2014 college applications . I have always appreciated the following advice from an early childhood education teacher. (Made as we parents were madly checking what was the appropriate time/age for our baby to roll over, stand, or draw a face, etc.)

Please remember, it’s a journey not a race.

Can you tell which wonderful high school senior walked, talked or was potty trained first? Or last? Didn’t think so. Does it matter now? Not really.

Breathe Class of 2014.  (Parents too.)

Just like the student above, you are just beginning to fulfill your potential. College applications are just a small part of your journey.

 JFK Pre-enrollment materials, 1935-1936

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