Can you pass Harvard University’s entrance exam from the 1800s?

Features > World

   Nathan Redhead | Posted on June 4, 2020

According to an article released by the New York Times, top-ranking schools like Harvard University placed ads in various newspaper outlets to attract potential students during the 1800s. The article also highlighted that those ads included promises like free tuition and high-quality room and board. To gain acceptance to the university, applicants had to pass an entrance exam.  

In one of the ads regarding the entrance exam, Harvard boasted that out of 210 candidates who signed up, 185 were admitted. Today, the university seems more selective and has a track record of having a highly competitive application process. However, applicants from this generation may not consider doing the exam questions from the 1800s a cakewalk.  

The exam included topics ranging from geometry, algebra, and ancient geography to Latin and even Greek. One question required test takers to reduce 184, 800 divided by 1,180,410 to its simplest form.  

Another question was, “reduce to their lowest terms as vulgar fractions the infinite of circulating decimals 0.225, 0.00225, and 0.25225.”  

The test takers were also asked to find the square root of 531.5 to three decimal places and the cube root of 0.0093 to five decimal places.   

Incidentally, the handheld calculator we know and love today wasn’t widespread until the 1970s. That means test-takers had to solve these math problems without a calculator.  

Then, there’s plane geometry (a topic I personally haven’t heard of before). This section included problems such as “prove that the perpendicular from the centre of a circle upon a chord bisects the chord and the arc subtended by the chord.”  

Also, one question mentioned this:  

“State and prove the proportion which exists between the parts of two chords which cut each other in a circle. State what proportion exists when two secants are drawn from a point without the circle.”  

To those who love geography, how much do you know about ancient geography? Can you name the Chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France? Or do you know if France is larger or smaller than transalpine Gaul? How about the two principal rivers that rise in the Alps? Can you name them? Where is Mount Blanc?   

Fortunately for many, the curriculum has since evolved, with entrance exams becoming less complicated in the 20th century. Additionally, with the advancements in technology and with the invention of the Internet, we now have access to a wide array of information. We don’t have to spend hours poring over books and papers to learn about topics like these.   

As a STEM fanatic, how much of the questions mentioned above can you answer? If you’re up to the challenge, give the full exam a read, and see how well you fare. 

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Nathan Redhead

Nathan is a Grenadian writer and a graduate of the T. A Marryshow Community College in Grenada, where he earned an associate’s degree in sociology and psychology. While obtaining his associate’s degree, he was exposed to the world of poetry and expository writing as a member of the Writer’s Association of Grenada. He’s an avid lover of literature, and as a child, he spent the majority of his free time either watching the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet or trying to dismantle his toys to rebuild them into something that sparked his interest. As a Junior Writer, he hopes to reignite his passion for science and inventing, as well as improve his creative writing ability.

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