About a month back, Katie Nash, special-collections librarian and archivist at Elon University, told one of her student assistants to sort through, and flatten, a stack of old maps. The student returned with a random find: a yellowed admissions application to the college from 1922, which looked quite foreign by today’s competitive standards. The student asked if he could upload it to the social-media site Reddit.
"Honestly, I’d never heard of Reddit until he did that," Ms. Nash said. "But then it exploded. We were just sort of like, what is going on here?"
The image has racked up more than 1.1-million views, 3,700 "upvotes," and 1,000 comments. Many gawked at the simplicity of the one-page application, complete with quaint queries like "Is your health good?" and "What county newspaper do you read?"
We, too, were amused by this higher-ed antique, and so we asked Ms. Nash if she could dig up more old applications. Here’s what she found, along with our analysis of how the college application has changed over the past century, through the experience of one institution. All images are courtesy of the Carol Grotnes Belk Library Archives and Special Collections, Elon University, Elon, N.C.
In 1913, Elon College asked applicants point blank: How much do you know? The application requests little biographical information, instead asking prospective students to detail their training in several subdisciplines—including Cicero, Greek history, and French literature.
About the Application
What Elon wanted to know: Have you read any Homer?
Elon’s enrollment: 358
There is a decided liberal-arts bent to the categories—studied much Xenophon lately?—reflecting the Classical education of the era. Though many colleges, including Elon, were introducing more courses in the social sciences, this application reflects a lingering fidelity to the Classics.
The maze of disciplines listed also speaks to a lack of standardization, one that plagued college admissions at the turn of the 20th century. "Every college loved to have its own independence to say this is what students should know coming in," says Harold S. Wechsler, professor of Jewish education and educational history at New York University. "The big occupation before 1920 was trying to figure out how to standardize things so the high schools and private prep schools wouldn’t go crazy."
In the late 19th-century, Midwestern land-grant colleges began to eschew entrance examinations in favor of a certificate system that relied on partner high schools to guarantee their graduates were prepared for college coursework, according to Mr. Wechsler. There is no mention of a certificate system in the Elon College catalogs of the time, but there are signs of a warming attitude toward high-school education. The 1913 version, for instance, is the first to note that students "from accredited high schools" do not have to take entrance examinations before beginning their studies.
All that noise about how much French literature you’ve read? It’s gone roughly a decade later, replaced by a fill-in-the-blank form and a request for $5 (about $70.94 in 2014 currency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator).
The application’s simplicity would make sense for a college whose enrollment had dropped 8 percent over the past nine years. Are you healthy? Can you pay tuition? Welcome to Elon!
About the Application
What Elon wanted to know: Is your health good?
Elon’s enrollment: 329
"Most colleges would essentially admit any applicant who could reasonably do the work, especially if they could pay," says John Thelin, a professor of the history of education and public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of Higher Education. During the same period, Elon also expanded its vocational offerings, presumably to attract a wider swath of students. By 1922, Elon, which had been coeducational since its founding in 1889, had added departments in "practical arts" and "domestic science and household arts." As the 1922 "Bulletin of Elon College" so delicately put it, "Many people are by nature better fitted to do handwork than head work."
This application from the 1950s (exact year unknown) is stunningly similar to the 1922 version. Elon, however, was not. The college had nearly vanished after a fire in 1923, and its recovery was later hampered by the Great Depression. The admissions standard of the time was simple: a certificate of graduation from an accredited four-year high school, as long as the applicant had taken five subjects, including English.
About the Application
What Elon wanted to know: Got any references?
Elon’s enrollment: 1,200 (approx.)
Earl Danieley enrolled at Elon in 1941 after the college’s lone admissions officer approached him in the front yard of his family farm. Jo Williams, whose seven older siblings also went to Elon, says she arrived on campus in 1945 without ever filling out an application.
The college, like many, lurched back to life with the end of World War II and the passage of the GI Bill. In the early 1950s, enrollment boomed and the institution was beginning to eye some form of selectivity. By requesting references, Elon was at least requiring students to make some effort beyond filling out a form.
The 1959 "Bulletin of Elon College" is the first to refer to the SAT. It is also the first to mention a Committee on Admissions and Credit that would evaluate an applicant’s "intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and moral fitness to undertake academic work at the College." By 1960, the SAT was mandatory.
Mr. Danieley, who was by then Elon’s president, said he instituted the SAT requirement to keep up appearances, not because the college needed to weed out unqualified candidates. "I thought it would give us a bit of status if they knew they had to take that exam," says Mr. Danieley, noting that nearby institutions like Duke and Wake Forest Universities, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all required the SAT. "I didn’t ask the Board of Trustees if I could do it. I didn’t ask the faculty. I just did it. I was the president of the college!"
In the 1970s, Elon and its application came into the modern era. Questions we’ve come to expect from a college application—about high-school honors, legacy status, whether one has made a campus visit etc.—have been added. So too has a six-line space for stating "why you feel that Elon meets your needs." Applicants were urged, however, not to exceed the six lines.
About the Application
What Elon wanted to know: Have you visited our lovely campus?
Elon’s enrollment: 2,250 (approx.)
Mr. Danieley, who is now 90, says the implementation of this more elaborate application began in haste after he left the helm in 1973. His successor, J. Fred Young, expanded the admissions office, rotated in a roster of outside consultants, and hired a new vice president who began to utter a word Mr. Danieley says "sounded cheap to me."
"I really took offense that they talked about ‘marketing’ the school," Mr. Danieley says. "Later I understood more about what he was doing. He really wanted people to know about Elon."
Again, the changes in Elon’s admissions process reflected its aspirations more than its reality. By lengthening its application and raising its tuition—from $2,047 a year in 1970 to $3,281 by decade’s end—Elon hoped to brand itself as a college on the rise. "A consultant was with us and he said, if you aren’t careful, low tuition might indicate low quality," says Ms. Williams, who became Elon’s vice president of development in 1979. "We bit the bullet and began to raise tuition to become competitive with other institutions in our peer group."
Even the stylized Elon logo atop the application carries an image-conscious (and ticklishly dated) sensibility. (For those wondering, the silhouetted image replacing the "o" in Elon is an oak tree. Elon means "oak tree" in Hebrew.)
Elon’s ascendance during these years was later chronicled by the higher-education scholar George Keller in the 2004 book Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College’s Strategic Climb to National Distinction.
The next chapter is the part of the story you probably know well, either from personal experience, that of your child, or both. In short, things got complicated. (See the university's current application here.)
By 1981, Elon’s application—printed on neon orange stock—asked students to pick from a flotilla of potential majors and minors. By 1986, applicants could use a "separate sheet if needed" when detailing their "educational goals."
Greg Zaiser, Elon’s vice president of admissions and financial planning, says the university first required a personal essay about 10 years ago. At roughly the same time, it switched from rolling admissions to a deadline. Both moves served a practical purpose. The first helped Elon wade through a growing admissions pool. The latter made it easier to assemble a class.
Of course there was also an element of competitive strategy at play, the same impulse that led Earl Danieley to adopt the SAT almost 60 years earlier.
"Without doubt the schools with which we know we cross a large number of applications were already on deadline admission," Mr. Zaiser says. "So it made sense from a positioning standpoint."
Elon has recently installed a "think fast" section where students provide two-sentence answers to quirky questions like "What is your favorite nonelectronic invention?" and "What would you do with a free afternoon?" Its purpose is to give Elon a small window into an applicant’s personality and creativity.
Maybe, just maybe, after 90 years of growing intricacy, the college application process will simplify. Maybe, just maybe, it will self-correct.
Or maybe it won’t.
The changes in Elon’s application have likely served it well. It’d be hard to argue they’ve held the university back. The number of undergraduate applications has more than tripled since the early 1990s. In 2001, Elon College became Elon University, two years after its sports program entered Division I. According to U.S. News and World Report, the tiny college that didn’t even have an admissions committee until the dawn of the 1960s now rejects about half of its applicants.
Even Mr. Danieley, skeptical as he was of changes in the application and the adoption of a marketing-driven approach, marvels at Elon’s growth. He points with pride to a recent ranking by Princeton Review that named Elon the nation’s "best run" college. "You read E-L-O-N on the first line," says Mr. Danieley. "And then you go down the list. There’s Stanford. There’s Princeton. There’s Yale. You can imagine how happy this old man is."