First, you take a standardized test — the SAT or the ACT. Then you fill out seemingly endless paperwork, including writing 250 word essays on topics such as how you "celebrate your nerdy side," what you'd discuss with George Washington over dinner, or on "what's so odd about odd numbers." (Those are all real; click the links.) You ask teachers and others for letters of recommendation and make sure that your school sends in your transcript to the college you're interested in. And maybe, if you get far enough in the process, the college will ask you to meet with one of its admissions officers or alumni, for the oft-dreaded admissions interview.
That, generally speaking, is the modern American college admission process. There are some exceptions, of course, but the general experience is the same — in most cases, before a college invites you to fork over tens of thousands of dollars (and often take on immense student debt), its admissions department wants to get to know you. Perhaps excessively so.
It wasn't always this way, though. About 100 years ago, the application process was a lot more straight-forward: take an entrance exam. Get a high enough score, and you were in. Not hit that threshold mark? Sorry. It didn't matter if your crowning high school achievement was picking out the font for the school yearbook or if you spent the summer designing irrigation ditches in Appalachia. All that mattered was that one test score.
So what changed? Blame Yale's anti-Semitism.
Many of the elite universities of the early part of the 20th century made no effort to hide their concern that Jewish students were requesting admission in droves. In 1922, Harvard, for example, tried to explicitly cap the number of Jewish students admitted each year (at 15%) but the policy proved too controversial. (The college, instead, instituted regional quotas, which had a similar effect on the number of Jewish matriculants.)
In the book "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," author Jerome Karabel discussed how Yale took a more subtle and indirect route. For the years learning up to the early 1920s, the Jewish population at Yale was steadily increasing. The Yale administration first tried to limit the scholarship money available to Jewish students and, when that failed to deliver the desired results, they decided to require more than just an excellent admissions exam score to secure entrance to the freshman class. Yale, Karabel explained, insisted that would-be matriculants be of a certain "personality and character" consistent with whatever arbitrary requirements the admissions board deemed relevant — as discovered through a robustly developed personal profile. The student-run Yale Daily News referenced the policy favorably, noting, according to the book, that "the survival of the fittest should yield men who are equipped to do more than pass scholastic examinations or earn money," a not-so-subtile reference to Jewish stereotypes.
The new criteria included ones which are now common, as Karabel noted in an interview in support of his book. "So an entirely new system of admissions was invented," he said, "with emphasis on such things as character, leadership, personality, alumni parentage, athletic ability, geographical diversity. They started, for the first time, to do interviews. They introduced photos. A lot of things, which we take for granted today, in fact, were introduced in this period and have endured to the present." (And it could have been even more intense — in his book, he notes that Yale considered asking applicants for photos of their fathers, too.)
While the origins of the application process are insidious, there's little reason to believe that those reasons still persist. However, the chore of writing 500 words on how you'd tell George Washington about life as a nerd who likes odd numbers? Bigotry is its legacy.
Bonus Fact: In 1722, nearly a century after its founding, Harvard named Judah Monis its first-ever Jewish professor — kind of. Harvard's policy at the time required that all professors be Christian. Monis converted.