In PAW’s back-page “Moment With” interview in this issue (click here to read interview), associate editor Brett Tomlinson speaks with Janet Rapelye, now in her second year as dean of admission. Rapelye has one of the toughest and most important jobs on campus: One student at a time, she and her staff determine the future face of Princeton.
In her PAW interview, Rapelye suggests that many alumni don’t appreciate how keen competition for admission has grown over the last few decades, and how well qualified today’s students really are. (More than 53 percent of freshmen have the highest academic rating.) A 1946 review of admission policies included a statement by then-Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance: “If the possibility of success seems strong, admission can be granted even though the individual involved may not seem to be potentially an outstanding student.”
Getting into Princeton never was easy and the University always has had a top student body, though one drawn from a narrower pool. Still, the minutes of the admissions committee in the years just after World War II suggest a time when a near-perfect high-school record was not always required. The post-war minutes, for example, note offers of admission to one “fine chap” who had failed a course in secondary school, another who had not passed a required mathematics course but had done good work in his reading courses, and a third, described as “a fine lad who had just not worked up to his capacity.” Many other successful applicants were academic stars.
By then, competition for admission already was getting tougher, with the return of veterans who wanted a top-notch education. The minutes include signs that committee members were beginning to question some traditional practices, such as limits on Jewish enrollment. Heermance, the minutes recount, “presented the seriousness of the work in hand because of the Jewish situation. So many in this class have done exceedingly well in school and particularly well on the College Board’s tests, and he wants the Committee’s opinion as to what should be done.” No resolution is reported.
Today, the University continues to contend with issues of diversity, and not just ethnic diversity, as Rapelye notes in her PAW interview. This year the dean marched in the joyful procession at Opening Exercises, smiling at the first freshman class she admitted. It was a ceremony that reflected today’s Princeton yet paid tribute to the past: with an African drum band and Japanese-style kites at the head of a formal academic procession into the collegiate-gothic chapel, and prayers from different traditions offered in Arabic and Hebrew as well as English. Incongruous, yes — but it also seemed something to celebrate.