MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Entrance Examination, 1869-70

In its formative years MIT circulated an announcement stating the requirements for admission as it readied itself for registering the first class of students in 1865. No formal entrance examinations were required at that time for admission as a first year student, although proper preparation was expected. Robert Hallowell Richards, a member of MIT’s first class (and later a noted professor of mining and metallurgy), had been struggling at preparatory school before being inspired by the practical approaches to learning that MIT seemed to represent. “I was a complete failure at Exeter,” he recalled in his autobiography. “Perhaps if I had stayed on I might have been admitted to Harvard, eventually, . . . but in spite of my efforts I was always at the foot of my class. . . . I could not adapt myself to the method of education which revolved around learning dead languages by heart. . . . William Barton Rogers was just starting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and [Mother] thought that this new school might satisfy my needs better. . .”(1) He seemed surprised by the lack of formality when he was approved for admission in February 1865, the sixth to register of fifteen original students.

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The MIT Corporation minutes for 1865 charged the faculty with “prescrib[ing] the age and degree of preparation requisite for admission.”(2) The “conditions for admission” section of MIT’s catalogue for 1865-66 indicates that candidates for admission as first year students must be at least sixteen years old and must give satisfactory evidence “by examination or otherwise” of a competent training in arithmetic, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the “rudiments of French.” Rapid and legible handwriting was also stressed as being “particularly important.”(3) By 1869 the handwriting requirement and French had been dropped, but algebra had been added and students needed to pass a qualifying exam in the required subject areas.(4)

Class of 1873

Those below who entered as freshmen probably took the exam.

Class of 1873

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Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

An ancillary effect was to protect unqualified students from disappointment and professors from wasting their time. In 1867 the faculty requested the parents of “some incompetent and inattentive students to withdraw them from the school, wishing to spare them the mortification of an examination which it was certain they could not pass.”(5) But there is also some suggestion in the early records of the Corporation that the degree of difficulty of entrance exams had some relationship to the fledgling school’s financial solvency. A Corporation member noted in the minutes for 1873 that “when the . . . financial prospects for the school were brighter . . . admission would be made so difficult that students who entered would find no difficulty” with their schoolwork. In 1873 freshmen paid $200 per year tuition--a hefty increase from the original $100 charged in 1865.(6)

MIT catalogues going back to 1865, examinations (including entrance exams) from the nineteenth century and later (collection #AC 93), and a variety of historical materials relating to students, professors, courses and other subjects are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Want to try another 19th century entrance exam?


(1) Robert H. Richards, Robert Hallowell Richards: His Mark (Boston: Little, Brown, 1936), pp. 34-35.

(2) MIT Office of the Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation (AC 278), Series I, Minutes, 1862-1995, box 1, vol. I p. 246.

(3) MIT Catalogue, 1865-1866, pp. 10-11.

(4) Ibid., pp. 14-15.

(5) MIT Corporation, Executive Committee, Minutes (AC 272), box 1, vol. I, p. 46.

(6) Ibid., p. 89.

Object of the Month: September 2004; September 2007

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