different times

By way of Slate, we can read John F. Kennedy’s Harvard application, sent in 1935. Things must have gotten (much) harder. Would this application get you in these days, even as a legacy candidate? I’d be surprised. Competition in admissions arises from scarcity of education opportunities. Is education necessarily a scarce resource? Perhaps not, but as an abstract enabling opportunity, that scarcity cannot be eliminated, I don’t think, even with the likes of OpenCourseWare, etc. This is by definition: the scarcity is what makes a thing (e.g. an elite education) an enabling opportunity.

His application package

1. Grades: Ranked 65 out of a class of 110, with barely passing to mediocre grades (no A’s — which, by the kindest transcript translation would require an “Honors Grade” of >80)

2. Personal Statement: Why do you wish to come to Harvard?

The reasons that I have for writing to go to Harvard are several. I felt that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

(What a horrible, if honest, essay!)

3. Recommendation Letters (one of them)

Jack has rather superior mental ability without the deep interest in his studies or the mature viewpoint that demands of him his best effort all the time. He can be relied upon to do enough to pass. We have been and are working our hardest to develop Jack’s own self-interest, great enough in social life, to the point that will assure him a record in college more worthy his natural gifts of intelligence, likableness, and popularity. Jack is Business Manger [sic] of the Brief.

Part of Jack’s lack of intellectual drive is doubtless due to a severe illness suffered in the winter of his Fifth Form year. Though he has recovered, his vitality has been below par, he has not been allowed to enter into any very vigorous athletics, and has not, probably, been able to work under full pressure. There is no reason to suppose, however, that Jack will not come up to par soon.

(Such glowing words these are…)

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