What Did JFK Write in his Harvard Admissions Essay?
In May 1935, Harvard University received an application for admission from a recent graduate of a Connecticut prep school. He was ranked 65th in a class of 110, scraped together barely-passing grades in several classes, and submitted a recommendation letter from a family friend praising the fact that he “always enjoyed good health and entered into sports with a great deal of vigor and sportsmanship.”
Good thing his last name was Kennedy.
The young John F. Kennedy's complete Harvard application—featuring grades, letters of recommendation and a whopping five sentence personal essay on his desire to be a “Harvard man” (Though Harvard offered mixed gender classes beginning in 1943, it very slowly integrated with its sister school, Radcliffe, until 1999, when Radcliffe became fully integrated with Harvard.)—is one of thousands of newly digitized documents now available at the JFK Library’s website, a release timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration this Thursday.
Among the spoils are dozens of other documents from JFK’s time as an Ivy League undergrad in the 1930s. As today’s college seniors scramble to lock down their Facebook profiles and delete drunken photos from their Flickr accounts in anticipation of the job hunt, such a look at a historical figure like Kennedy in his late teenage years is a rare moment of candor.
For one thing, if JFK is any indication, early academic trajectory isn’t always revealing of someone’s abilities. Our 35th president finished his four years at the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., with a cumulative average of 68, placing him in the third quarter of his class. But by the time he graduated with honors from Harvard five years later, he’d written an international affairs senior thesis that would go on to become a bestselling book, Why England Slept. By his 30th birthday, he was a U.S. congressman. Not bad for a guy whose college admissions essay read in full:
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.
Kennedy’s gesture toward his father’s alumni status brings up another point about what a person’s young life tells about their career trajectory—if you’re young and undistinguished, connections help. Big time. In the 1930s, as now, legacy applicants, those with relatives who also who can claim that school as an alma matter, were admitted to the school at a higher rate than anyone else. And it doesn’t hurt when you can list under father’s occupation, “Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” (Incidentally, an applicant’s mother’s occupation was not even a category on the form—the only information the admissions office demanded about her was maiden name.) Children of movers and shakers tend to themselves move and shake in the same elite circles.
But that begs another question—did anyone see the 18-year old John Kennedy as anything more than his father’s (kind of unmotivated) son? Maybe his freshman advisor. The advisor, whose name doesn’t appear on the documents, wrote that he should be accepted into a concentration (Harvard’s equivalent of a major) in government because “he is planning to do work in Government.” As for whether his past academic performance gave “a fair picture of his intellectual powers,” the advisor wrote that in the future “he will probably do better on the whole.”
Ryan Brown is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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