Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Diggin' in Mudd: Before the White House Bicker

This document was suggested by University Archivist Dan Linke and offers us a look at the past of one of Princeton's presidential sons.

Sometimes (especially around midterms and reading period) it’s a bit easy to forget just how many important and notable people have graced our fair campus. I mean, it’s pretty hard to forget some of the more celebrated legends, Woodrow, “Scotty,” and Albert, but then there are the unsung alumni, like Jack who was admitted to the Class of 1939 in 1935. And by Jack I mean John.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

That one.

We don’t hear as much about him as we do about Woodrow Wilson, largely because JFK never graduated. We don’t hear as much about him as we do about F. Scott Fitzgerald because, unlike Scotty, Jack actually did go on to graduate from another institution. Adding insult to injury, he actually removed his name from the Class of 1939 roll. I dunno. Apparently spending four years in that safety school up in Cambridge made him feel like a Harvard man and not a Princeton son.

So, don’t expect to see an “Ask not what [Princeton] can do for you” plush tiger in the U-Store any time soon. What you can expect to see however is JFK’s Princeton application, reproduced here in full.

Apparently, aspiring to become an Investment Banker is a long-cherished Princeton tradition. Maybe Harvard changed his mind?
These are scans of photocopies. He wrote in blue ink.
Radcliffe Heermance was the first official Director of Admissions.
He did not start his admissions letters with "YES!"
Maybe that's why he doesn't have a building named after him.
It's illegible here, but the Headmaster's Report reads "Superior mental ability without deep interest in studies, attractive." his school activities are listed as "severe illness."

George W. Bush took a lot slack for his C average, but Jack’s high school transcript shows that there was a long and proud tradition of presidential underachieving. You’ll note that he was in the third quartile in his class at Choate.

My favorite part of the whole thing was his essay: Twelve whole lines of beautiful, gargantuan longhand:


My desire to come to Princeton is prompted by a number of reasons. I feel that it can give me a better background and training than any other university, and can give me a true liberal education. Ever since I entered school, I have had the ambition to enter Princeton, and I sincerely hope I can reach my goal. Then too, I feel the environment of Princeton is second to none, and cannot but help having a good effect on me to be a Princeton man is indeed an enviable distinction.
Ninety-one beautiful words of completely empty prose; as my little brother paraphrased: “I want to go to Princeton, because I want to go to Princeton, except with a better vocabulary.” (I’m told his Harvard essay was much the same.) To be fair, if I was a Kennedy applying to school in 1935, I probably wouldn’t have spent nearly as many hours writing and rewriting my 500-word college essays.

But really, in all seriousness, I think once we look past the immediate instinct to revel in schadenfreude, this application reveals some things, both about the boy who would become one of our most esteemed presidents, and about the history of Princeton and the nature of college admissions.

It’s obvious Jack wasn’t living up to his full potential back in ’39… his headmaster noted as much, and to be completely fair, it’s hard to live up to one’s full potential when one is as ill as poor Jack Kennedy was in his last few years of high school. It was the very fact that he was so cripplingly ill that forced him to withdraw from Princeton after his first semester here.

What’s also made evident by the application is that there was a time when getting into Princeton was actually easy provided you went to prep school and were named Kennedy. My father adamantly refuses to believe me that there was a time when getting into Princeton didn’t require terrible smarts (though I think the last “Diggin’ in Muddcolumn might have made some headway), but before World War II, there wasn’t a terrible demand for university places. Kennedy’s class had fewer than 700 students, and not that many more applicants. (Remember how they were complaining about the GIs in 1958?)

But maybe the most disquieting thing about this application is that it shows just how bad an indicator of potential a high school transcript and college application really is.

Full application is behind the cut, as is a transcript of his essay.

All images are courtesy of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Any other use of these images requires written permission from the University Archives.


'08 said...

wow, fascinating! can all earlier Princeton applications be accessed in Mudd, or just those of famous people, or those submitted before a certain date, or...?

Martha Vega said...

To the best of my knowledge, there is no coherent file of applications--this one was in John F. Kennedy's folder. If you're really interested, I suggest you contact the Archives.

Anonymous said...

I think this is actually a good reflection of Kennedy's potential. Though I almost certainly would have voted for him, he turned out to be a very bad president. His foreign policy was a disaster and his domestic achievements are insignificant. He is idolized because of his choices in fashion and his unfortunate, if not exactly tragic, assassination. All in all, he is perhaps the most overrated president since Woodrow Wilson. There is no small irony (or, I fear, appropriateness) in the fact that the Ivy League has named two of its government schools after such over-hyped and under-performing leaders.

Dan Linke, University Archivist said...


The policy regarding access to student records can be found at the link above. Major caveat: one must be dead before the file can be opened, among other requirements.