Thought Prelims Were Hard? Try These Vintage Entrance Exams

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By Joe Wilensky

It’s test time—everyone, pick up your pencils! How did the kingship come to an end in Rome? What are isothermal lines? Can you name the four leading breeds of dairy cattle and their characteristics? How would you travel by water from Malta to Glasgow?

Oh, and while you’re at it: find two numbers whose sum added to the difference of their squares is 330, and whose difference added to the sum of their squares is 510.

1903 Cornell entrance exam page
The algebra section of a 1903 exam bears a test-taker's notes. (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Now, imagine several days of this sort of testing, mainly comprising essays and show-your-work questions in math and science. (No multiple choice!)

That gives you a sense of what entrance examinations were like for prospective Cornell students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Similar to other elite universities at the time, Cornell’s exams reflected what a high school education prioritized—from a working knowledge of Latin and Greek to ancient history, classical literature, and mathematics, plus a deep dive into the sciences.

“I used to spend an entire class giving students the entrance exam from 1874,” says Carol Kammen, who spent 24 years on the Hill as a senior lecturer in history.

“It was exceedingly revealing of what was expected of students at the time.”

A favorite exam question Kammen posed to her classes was this head-scratcher: If one were to travel from Helsinki to Istanbul, what countries would one pass, in sequence, on one’s left?

“It allowed me to get them to understand how their education is different; it’s not dependent on memorization,” she explains—noting that, for example, the only maps available to students in the 1800s were likely the ones on their schoolroom walls.

“The question I would ask them today about a trip from Helsinki to Istanbul is more dependent on thought: why might you go? But the 1874 test was asking the specifics.”

For decades, the exams were held just days before the fall semester started—determining not only whether students would be accepted (the vast majority reportedly passed), but also for which classes they could register.

Requirements and procedures varied. Individual colleges asked their own questions within specific subject areas; in some years, recipients of Regents diplomas didn’t need to take the exams; some tests were given specifically to those seeking state scholarships.

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The exams were generally given on the Ithaca campus, though they were sometimes offered in other locations around New York State.

University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14, finds the difficulty and subject range of the tests remarkable, especially from a modern perspective.

“Those exams are pretty neat, and amazingly hard,” he says.

“When you think of the breadth and specificity of the questions—everything from African river history to hygiene, and how students needed to answer them without easy access to a library and certainly without Wikipedia—you can see how rigorous it was.”

Those exams are pretty neat, and amazingly hard.

University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14

The use of individual entrance exams by universities began to decline in the first half of the 20th century, as the College Entrance Examination Board (of which Cornell was a founding member in 1899) worked to develop uniform tests that would measure students’ aptitude for university-level work.

Even the early College Board exams, however, required five days to complete— assessing knowledge in nine subjects, from Greek and Latin to physics.

College Board tests evolved and were eventually rolled out nationally. In 1926, the organization administered the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—and by 1942, the essay portions had been phased out completely.

Could you have gotten in? Try your luck with our quiz!

Students take final exams in Barton Hall

With the aim of letting modern readers experience what it was like to take Cornell entrance exams in the late 1800s, we’ve approximated 10 questions—albeit in much-simplified form—with this multiple-choice quiz.

(If you don’t do well, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone.)

Top: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published November 9, 2022


Comments

  1. Charles Trevor Edward Ogle-Emery, Class of 1950

    This is the same format as the old Matriculation, but you are missing Latin. Also, if you failed in one subject you failed the lot. No wonder the last set of graduates that went up to Oxford and Cambridge during WW2 were so bright and helped to shorten the war. This is before my time, but I knew some of those clever chaps and ladies.

    • Alaina Friend

      I wish education still had the high expectations it used to. We shouldn’t be doing it for paper (degrees and money). We should be doing it for the betterment of society. I’m am glad that we, as a society have begun to focus more on subject area specialization (focusing on honing the strengths of students than comprehensive generalized knowledge of all subject areas). Collaboration of specialists in different fields will create more innovation in the current educational climate.

      Even for us polymaths, there isn’t enough time to learn enough subject areas to a great enough depth of high expertise in one lifetime. There is now too much knowledge out there to fully learn it all. Just as there are too many books, songs, or movies to consume any reasonable fraction of them in one lifetime.

      New models for higher education acceptance tests are needed and I though I agree that a *basic* knowledge of many subject areas is important for a well-rounded education, it’s not what the world needs to progress forward.

      Collaboration between highly diverse subject area experts is where innovation is happening. Not putting the burden on singular individuals like Einstein, as used to be the case. We are so far beyond that educational mindset at this point. The chances of a single person changing the world like that are minuscule. Academia needs to focus on creating subject area experts, with heavy focus on collaboration with others, rather than an egotistical model of ‘one student needs overall comprehensive knowledge.’

      I believe that if a student miserably fails every subject area on the SATs except one, but has the highest possible score in that one area, then they ought not have to take classes in those other subjects, and instead schools should create alternatives to general ed requirements by replacing them with courses teaching collaboration with other students from other subject areas.

      This is the new model of education that we ought to move forward with. There are grants out there for developing these types of new models for IHE’s.

      • Carla Holder, Class of 1976

        Agree with much of what you have said, Ms. Friend. Think through the consequences of having educated people who are mostly ignorant of 95% of basic facts in areas outside of their field of expertise. How do we collaborate when we don’t agree our ground truths? How do we form society and move it forward? Not only that, but in terms of innovation and the growth of knowledge, cross-functional approaches often create breakthroughs. I had an 800 on the chemistry advanced placement, math-chemistry double major, and was a working chemist for a bit, but broadened my career and now am working on the UN Sustainable Development Goal Corporate Guidebook Series. Glad I didn’t just do a narrow chemistry specialty for 40 years.

  2. peter bloom, Class of 1965

    a couple of good guesses.😁 It would be fun to see what recent and current students know about these topics.

    • Alaina Friend

      I don’t know about choking an Ox, but if they’re anything like the cattle here in Oklahoma, I have some good guesses. I’m much more worried about noxious invasive plant species eradication and tall grass prairie conservation than some choking due to improperly yoking an Ox.

      • John Skawski

        I’ve heard that oxen of old preferred riddles over bad yolks.

        • RC de Mordaigle, Class of 1964

          If the eggs had been refrigerated, the yolks likely would
          still be good.

  3. Alaina Friend

    The answer to the geography question has changed due to technology. I would personally focus on efficiency of movement, going straight up 65 miles, and stay there for one full rotation of the earth, then descend. But that’s just the most efficient way to do it. With advances in tech, we can go around the world faster, but why do that when you *could* go to space? The view is nice up there, I hear. 😉

  4. Chad Meyer, Class of 1989

    I don’t think there can be a clearer example of just how far the K-12 public, and to a large degree private, educational system in the US has fallen in the last 100 years. Students used to be expected to absorb a great deal of knowledge and then demonstrate that they can logically apply that knowledge. In other words, they were taught how to think. As demonstrated even by today’s methods of testing, math and reading scores are decreasing every year – forget about learning latin so you can actually read the orginal classics in literature and history, rather than being spoon-fed the Cliff Notes version of history, if they are even getting that in high school today. It’s truly a travesty and very worrisome for the future of the country.

    • RC de Mordaigle, Class of 1964

      Chad, I completely agree. To absorb a great deal of knowledge, you have to memorize, something which has unfortunately fallen into disfavor. It’s impossible to apply knowledge if you don’t have it in the first place.

  5. Mitchell Kirsch, Class of 1977

    How much does this count for our final grade and do we get to drop our lowest prelim score?

  6. Steve Wang, Class of 1992

    Perhaps in a century we will look back at today’s entrance exams and realize how biased they are.

  7. Robert E. Spivack, Class of 1978

    I would like to know the demographics of the student body during this period and the backgrounds of the applicants.

    Without the context of whether typical freshmen were the product of expensive, private boarding schools only available to the wealthy elite or students that had been educated in the then-available public school systems, colors this interesting historical perspective on entrance requirements.

    Then, of course, there is the historical precedent of the Ivy’s admitting progeny of previous attendees and/or big donors without regard to their academic qualifications. When was that standard practice, did Cornell participate, and when was that abolished in favor of equal opportunity admissions based on academic performance?

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