“The creation of a new system of admissions occurred in the midst of one of the most reactionary moments in American history – a few years in the first half of the 1920s defined by rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, widespread political repression, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan as a genuine mass movement, the growing prominence of eugenics and scientific racism, and the imposition by Congress of a racially and ethnically biased regime of immigration restriction. Many of the features of college admissions with which we are all familiar – the emphasis on “character”, the preference for alumni suns and athletes, the widespread use of interviews and photos, the reliance on personal letters of recommendation, and the denigration of applicants whose sole strength is academic brilliance – have their roots in this period” – Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
“[S]tudies have found that racists hold two types of stereotyped beliefs: They believe the out-group is dirty, lazy, oversexed, and without control of their instincts (a typical accusation against blacks), or they believe the out-group is pushy, ambitious, conniving, and in control of business, money, and industry (a typical accusation against Jews)” – Charles R. Lawrence III, “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism”
The origins of the college interview, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities have a common origin: anti-Semitism. The modern college admissions process came from efforts to keep Jewish students out of elite universities. An emphasis on holistic qualities that is despised by many white elites today was developed and supported in order to reject Jewish applicants.
In the 1800’s, elite universities such as Harvard drew from feeder schools – elite private schools that only the wealthy could attend, like Choate and St. Paul’s. Requirements for admission included Latin and Greek, which could hardly be met by the average student. By the turn of the century, several presidents from Ivy League universities were concerned that their universities were disproportionately educating the elite, and sought to attract public school students. Students were ineligible to apply if Black and/or female, but as long as they could perform well on an admissions exam, white middle and working-class boys were welcome.
This had unintended results for elite universities: by the early 1900s, Jewish students were disproportionately represented in many American universities.
Harvard’s Jewish population went from seven percent in 1900 to 22% in 1922. Universities in New York - with a large Jewish population - had the largest increases in Jewish applicants. By 1919, about 80% of students at CCNY and Hunter College were Jewish. Columbia’s Jewish population had reached 40% of its student body, leading to many among the white Protestant elite deciding to go to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (and resulting in a college song in the image above). Columbia instituted a quota of 22% and began to require photographs of students be submitted.
Anti-Semitism in Elite University Admissions
At many elite universities, fellow students even complained that Jewish students were not sociable enough, were too competitive, and did not have good character. It was extremely difficult to justify anti-Semitic reasons to keep Jewish students out, so these universities needed to find a way to create discriminatory policies that specifically targeted Jewish applicants.
Harvard, Yale, and Princeton - seeking to avoid Columbia’s fate - devised ways to institutionalize anti-Semitism in their admissions. Generally, they created ways to examine an applicant’s “character”.
Harvard decided to examine “character” through a letter of recommendation. It also created an application that asked questions about the applicant’s “race and color”, father’s birthplace and mother’s maiden name.
During this period, Yale had stopped giving scholarships to Jewish students in order to discourage them from attending. In order to avoid appearing discriminatory, Yale sought to find factors that could make their decision look as if it were based in merit. This backfired, however, and Jewish enrollment rose to record high levels.
Yale then went beyond what Columbia had done and required photographs not only of the applicant, but of his father. Like Harvard, “personality and character” would be taken into consideration. Yale also decided to give strong preferences to sons of alumni, which further decreased the Jewish enrollment. Legacy admissions preferences essentially serve the same purpose today as they did in the 1920’s.
Princeton hoped that the anti-Semitism among the student population would dissuade Jewish students from attending. Jewish students were largely rejected from eating clubs and thus unable to enjoy full participation in undergraduate life. This was not enough - Princeton decided to look for “character”. Princeton did not just want bookish nerds - Princeton men were to be rugged, masculine leaders. The characteristics that were preferred were often constructed to exclude Jewish students based on stereotypes.
These efforts were effective: Jewish enrollment dropped significantly for decades.
The college application process had previously been much less rigorous, but anti-Semitism was enough to create admissions offices and lengthy applications. Demographic information, a personal essay, the college interview, recommendation letters from alumni or trusted officials, and extracurricular activities became part and parcel of the admissions process for elite universities.