artwork depicting historic admissions requirements

Getting in, admission standards then and now

Remembering The Days Podcast – Episode 4

How difficult was it to get admitted to the University of South Carolina in 1897? At that time, regrettably, only white students were admitted. Students also had to know grammar, geography, algebra, history — and Latin and Greek! Admission standards at the university have varied in the past two centuries. The bar for admission is a lot different than it was in 1897, but it guarantees that those who get in are ready to succeed.

Show notes 

Check out a sampling of University of South Carolina student exams from 1854 to 1917, from astronomy and literature to mathematics and medicine.



Getting in

Male voice: “The wages of 10 men and 8 boys for a day amount to $31, and four men receive $5 dollars, 50 cents more than six boys. How much does each boy receive?”

If you wanted to get into the University of South Carolina in 1897, you had to pass an entrance examination. 

Female voice: “Write in one hundred words of the cause of the American Revolution. Describe the Battle of King’s Mountain in about fifty words. Name the principal rivers flowing into the Mississippi River…”

There were a handful of questions about history, geography and English — (Male voice 2: “Define with examples an abstract noun, a collective noun and a verbal noun.” — and 10 problems in arithmetic and algebra. No calculators, of course — it was 1897 after all. 

If you think you had what it took to get into the university back then, better think again. A hundred twenty three years ago, you also had to be well-versed in Classical Greek and Latin. Carpe diem, anyone?

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking at entrance requirements at the University of South Carolina, then and now.

When the university opened its doors as South Carolina College in 1805, there were no SAT or ACT college exams — those tests wouldn’t be invented until well into the next century. Candidates for admission in those early days were required to render from Latin into English several passages, including Caesar’s commentaries and Virgil’s Aeneid and to translate into English any passage from the Gospel of John in the Greek New Testament. They also had to be well acquainted with arithmetic as far as the rule of three — whatever that is.

I asked Elizabeth West, the university archivist, why our institution once placed so much emphasis on those arcane languages.

West: That was very much the mark of being an educated gentleman. Our motto is ‘Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel,’ and so this type of classical study was meant to build up that person’s character and education so that they would be prepared for whatever field they decided to go into, politics or business or whatever…

Requirements for admission didn’t change an awful lot in the decades before the Civil War. There were prescribed books on geography and arithmetic and other subjects that everyone was just expected to know. And there were the ever-present Latin and Greek requirements.

In the years just after the Civil War, admission standards were loosened up quite a bit because most college-age students had been on the battlefield instead of in school. Kind of hard to practice your declensions of nouns and adjectives in Greek while you’re dodging cannonfire.

Let’s go back to that late-19th century entrance exam — the one from 1897. The questions on that test were formulated by university faculty and some of them reflect the Southern sensibility of the time — for example, let’s see here, ‘Name five Confederate generals of note. Write 30 words on John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis.’ You get the idea.

By early in the 20th century, the University of South Carolina was becoming a more modern institution of higher learning. The entrance exam for 1912 includes a section for Latin, French and German, but those were optional requirements. You could be admitted without knowing any language other than English.

So when did the university stop using its own internal entrance exams and adopt standardized college exams? 

West: It really wasn’t until the 1950s that the university turned to using standard entrance exams like we think of today.

West: The reason, the main reason, that the university adopted that standardized exam was because of issues they had with accepting percentages of high school students in the state. High school programs, the quality could vary widely across the state and so if you were taking the certain top percentage of students, you would have some that were very well prepared for college and others that weren’t and so those inconsistencies were causing difficulties and so the university moved to that standardized exam as a way of smoothing that out and making sure that students were admitted were actually prepared for college.

West: I was a freshman here at the university in the late 1970s, and it’s true that admission requirements were not particularly stringent back then. But the population has grown in the past 40 years, and so has demand for a college degree. As you would expect, the bar for getting in has risen quite a bit. Here’s Mary Wagner, the university’s director of admissions.

Wagner: We do require standardized tests for admission purposes, we do consider those. I’m often asked what’s the minimum SAT or the minimum ACT and the answer is, there isn’t really one. We’re trying to look at the student relative to everybody else in the peer group.

Mary and the admissions team consider a lot of factors along with standardized test scores, including high school GPA, the level of rigor of those high school courses, extracurricular activities and so on. She says high school seniors from South Carolina have a slight advantage.

Wagner: We prioritize South Carolinians in our admission process and so South Carolina students do get a bump or a little bit of extra consideration because we’re trying to fill our class with as many South Carolinians as possible, qualified South Carolinians. And then whatever the goal for the class size is in a given year, we’re going to look to out-of-state group to help fill that number depending on what the total class size has to be. And so out-of-state students actually have to hit a higher standard.

Well, doesn’t matter where they’re from — Gamecock students are a pretty smart bunch. The average SAT score for the freshman class this year was 1273 — and the nearly 600 Honors College freshmen notched an average SAT score of 1474. 

But we had a hunch that that entrance exam from 1897 might still give students a challenge. So, with the test in hand, we set out to talk to a few students on campus, and, well, here’s what happened. 

AT, there’s a file labeled ambient background noise in case you need bumpers between the following soundbites.

Student 1
Reading one of the questions about adjectives and then says,

I don’t believe I know what two of those adjectives mean.
It’s definitely not an SAT question. Very different than the SAT. 

Student 2
I believe that the Missouri River is one that flows into the Mississippi River. Um, I don’t know.

Student 3
The wages of ten men and eight boys for a day amount to $31.

I like how there’s no girls in here.
Yeah I could do that, you just have set up an equation. 

Student 4
The principal rivers flowing into the Mississippi River. Uh, Missouri, I think that’s the only one I could probably guess. And locate, Mobile, France and Amsterdam? What am I supposed to do for this one, just say where they are? So Mobile is at the very tip of Alabama, France is across the Atlantic Ocean and Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands.

Best answers by far today. You’re almost admitted!
You’ll be in the Class of 1901!

Awesome, awesome!

Hope you enjoyed today’s blast from the past. Join us again for the next episode of Remembering the Days, a production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.

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