JFK’s college application essay to Harvard has been floating around the Internet for years, but his terrible high school grades have escaped my notice–till now.
When I went looking for it tonight, I saw his entire application to Harvard–a photocopy that’s in the Kennedy Library archives. And I was surprised by what I discovered!
There is no polite way to say this. His high school grades at the Choate School ranged from mediocre to terrible, from average to failing. His uneven grades were consistent, it seems, from year to year.
The slender, uninspired essay and the grades are striking evidence of how times have changed — and of how much they needed to change to bring more equity into the college admissions process.
If we think of Ivy League colleges as valuing the highest academic achievement, let’s not forget that for most of their existence — Harvard opened its doors in 1636 — they valued the student’s and his family’s social status just as much, and sometimes more. When JFK applied to Harvard, his prominent father (Harvard College ’12) was chairman of the recently created Security and Exchange Commission, the federal agency that oversees the stock market.
JFK’s slender essay, submitted with his application in May 1935, answers the question, “Why do you wish to come to Harvard?”
“The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel 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.”
No, this is not a joke. Not satire. I am not trying to amuse you! This really was the 35th president’s college application essay.
In the page below reporting JFK’s high school grades, it’s hard to understand exactly what years the grades refer to. But the numbers themselves took me aback.
In one column, his grades were: English 85; French 55; Physics 50; History 85.
In another area of the page, his grades in Algebra were 65 and 71.
His grades for June 1933, listed near the bottom of the page, were Latin 75; French 60; Math 82.
Another shocker in the application was a letter to a Harvard dean from JFK’s father in August 1936, as his son was about to begin Harvard.
“Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he’s interested,” his father wrote, “but is careless and lacks application for those in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault. However, he is quite ambitious to do the work in three years. I know how the authorities feel about this, and I have my own opinion, but it is a gesture that pleases me very much because it seems to be the beginning of an awakening ambition.”
It’s no secret that the wealthy and prominent have enormous advantages in obtaining education, from nursery school on. But unlike JFK in 1935, and unlike later generations of applicants to elite colleges, schools today put much more emphasis on academic achievement and (sometimes) less on family status. And legacy, though still considered an advantage at most colleges, is much less of a benefit than it used to be. Having two parents who graduated from Elite University no longer guarantees admission to their offspring.
The history of higher education in the U.S. is the story of the country itself–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the constantly evolving. Applicants to college, preoccupied by anxiety and uncertainty, lose sight of all the history here. And that they too are part of the evolving story.