NO. 14
Looking Back

Could you get in in 1891?

Stanford's library in 1891, located in today's Building 10. Stanford University Archives.
opening ceremonies 1891
Opening day, Oct. 1, 1891. Stanford University Archives
The administrative offices in 1891. University president David Starr Jordan stands at left. Stanford University Archives

Some items from Stanford’s first entrance exam

Standardized testing was not part of student life before 1899, when the College Board was founded. Until then, college hopefuls sat for exams set by the school they aimed to attend. Few applied to more than one. Stanford’s 1891 register includes the requirements of its first entrance exam, given over three days at several Western high schools and, locally, on the porch of Stanford President David Starr Jordan’s house, now the office of the Escondido Village student housing complex.

Candidates had to pass 10 tests from among 21 subjects, with only English being mandatory.

The new university was more progressive than some of these tests suggest. Members of Stanford’s entering Pioneer Class of 1895 faced the following requirements:

English: Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar; Scott’s “Lady of the Lake”; Whittier’s “Snow-Bound”; Longfellow’s “Evangeline”the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers from The Spectatorand Scott’s Antiquary.

Elementary algebra: Quadratic equations, including the theory of exponents.

Physics: A year’s work in experimental physics. Candidates for entrance credit in this subject should present their laboratory notebooks with their application.

English literature: Candidates will be tested upon their ability to quote freely and accurately, to paraphrase intelligently, and to outline symmetrically [from] a) Burke’s Speeches on the American War and Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol; or b) Genung’s Rhetorical Analysis, in connection with some such work as A. S. Hill’s Principles of Rhetoric [as well as] the etymological notes to the selections from Spenser and Milton in Hales’s Longer English Poems, [with the] word derivations in question all carefully verified in Webster’s International Dictionary.

Freehand drawing: The ability to make a correct outline drawing and an accurately shaded drawing from a group of geometrical solids.

Latin: The first six books of Virgil’s Aeneid and the translation into Latin of a connected English passage based on Cicero. Excellence in writing Latin will often compensate for deficiencies in other parts of the examination.

Greek: Grammar, the inflections, the formation of words, and the essential points of the syntax [in] Xenophon, Anabasisbooks I-IV; Homer, Iliad, books I-II.

By 1893, the Register‘s authors felt compelled to add:

It is expected of every student that he be able to read Greek aloud without stumbling.

In fact, many of Stanford’s original 559 enrollees did not meet these requirements. Instead, 147 entered in 1891 as “special students,” in line with co-founder Leland Stanford’s ideas about opportunity and inclusion. Many came from rural areas with no high school, and had had to study on their own. They were allowed into Stanford to work on a particular subject or remedy deficiencies. Roughly one-third eventually joined an undergraduate class.