Retrospective: Rite of Passage

Trinity's Perilous Entrance Exam

Making the grade: Trinity College Class of 1904

Making the grade: Trinity College Class of 1904. Duke University Archives

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions reports that more than 26,400 high school seniors applied for admission to Duke's Class of 2014, a record-breaking number of applicants for the third year in a row.While there is little doubt that this pool of applicants contains some of the world's best and brightest, they did not face the same obstacle as their predecessors more than a century ago did: Trinity College's perilous entrance examination.

Making the grade: entrance exam excerpt

Making the grade: entrance exam excerpt. Duke University Archives

Administered to students who lacked satisfactory "certificates of proficiency" from approved schools, the annual examination determined which curriculum and class the student would join. Each year's Annual Catalogue of Trinity College presented prospective students with reading lists in European and American history, English and American literature, mathematics (mostly algebra), Latin, Greek, German, and French. The catalogue also offered "Specimen Entrance Examination Questions" to help students prepare for the summer examinations, which were held in various locations across the state.

Perhaps the most daunting question appears in the 1899-1900 catalogue: "Quote any lines from 'Lycidas' you remember," referring to Milton's 193-line pastoral elegy to a friend who drowned. (It's also the source of the title of Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel.)

Another favorite, from the 1903-04 catalogue: "What did the following men do that is worthy of our gratitude: Daniel Boone? Andrew Jackson? Elias Howe? Robert Fulton?"

One look at these questions, and surely the new freshman class will thank their lucky stars the SATs are multiple choice.

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