College Entrance Exams
University Hall Harvard 1869 Harvard Square view in 1869

Many Aramco ExPats have children or even grandchildren hoping to get into college and facing the fearsome challenge of taking college entrance exams such as the SAT. If you are one of those parents or grandparents, and your child is worried, I have a piece of advice that may (or may not) help: Tell your aspiring college student that he or she should be happy they’re not applying to Harvard a century and a half ago.

If they question your wisdom, here is a sampling of the sort of knowledge an applicant was expected to bring with him (no hers in those days) when he arrived in Cambridge as a freshman back in 1869:


– Translate into Latin from English three sentences, one of which read: Who more illustrious in Greece than Themistocles? who when he had been driven into exile did not do harm to his thankless country, but did the same that Coriolanus had done twenty years before.

– Also translate into Greek from English three sentences.

– Demonstrate command of Latin grammar by completing four demanding exercises, beginning with: Decline in the singular: facies, idem, odic, sidus, fillies. Decline in the plural: ports, sea, navis. Write the gender over the nouns (rules not required), and mark the quantity of all penultimate and final syllables.

– Also demonstrate a similar command of Greek grammar.


– Demonstrate your mastery of history and geography by answering a number of questions, including: Name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France. Is France larger or smaller than Transalpine Gaul? What are the two principle rivers that rise in the Alps? Where is Monut Blanc?


– Answer thirteen questions, the easiest of which arguably is number 8: One meter = 39.37 inches. Compute from this datum the value of 4 miles in kilometers.

– If you prefer answering something more challenging, try number 5: Reduce to their lowest terms as vulgar fractions the infinite or circulating decimals 0.225, 0.00225, and 0.25225. Reduce 3/7 to a circulating decimal.

- Or, for the ultimate challenge, there’s number 4: Find the cube root of 0.0093 to five places of decimals. Find the root of 531.5 to three places of decimals.


– The engineers and mathematicians among our readers will no doubt have no trouble answering number 11: Prove the formula for the cosine of the sum of two angles; and deduce the formulas for the cosine of the double of an angle and the cosine of the half of an angle.


– Nine more questions to answer, including this one, which sounds like a question I once had to answer on my SATs back when the world was a lot younger: A man bought a watch, a chain, and a locket for $216. The watch and locket together cost three times as much as the chain, and the chain and locket together cost half as much as the watch. What was the price of each?


– Here the questions are plain (pun intended) compared to many of the other math-related questions.  My favorite—and one I certainly could answer once upon a time as a sophomore taking high school geometry—is number 4: “Prove that a line drawn through two sides of a triangle parallel to the third side divides those two sides into proportional parts.

The previous 1869 Harvard entrance exam was supposed to be a breeze.

In those days colleges had to go out of their way to attract students. Harvard pointed out in a newspaper ad that 185 of 210 candidates passed the entrance test and were accepted in the previous year.

But those candidates had the benefit of a focused prep school education. ~Business Insider

A former teacher at the Aramco School in Dhahran used to tell me, “If you want your students to perform, you have to demand something of them.” The Office of Admissions at Harvard in 1869 certainly demanded a lot out of the students applying for admission.

1869 Harvard Exam