On the applicant side, did admissions require the same documents as today? Also, since gathering the required documents presumably took longer (especially for an applicant who had already graduated), how soon did the applicant have to apply before intake? For example today's graduate programs commonly have a January application deadline for August intake - what was it like in the past? Since today's students regularly email prospective supervisors before applying, did students in the past also regularly visit campuses before applying? Finally, how much were application fees then compared to now?

On the admissions committee side, did committees rely less on personal contacts and more on the submitted documents? E.g. suppose an applicant submitted a recommendation letter by Einstein, who a member of the committee knew firsthand. Today, I presume the committee would email Einstein to discuss the applicant. Would committees of the past do the same (but with telephone / post)? If not, was there a greater risk of forgery?

  • Education in the pre-internet age was very expensive. The only possibility was to see it as Capital goods, that means as a long-term investment over the lifespan of an individual. This results into a maximum in bureaucracy and careful selection of which person is able to become a phd. If the costs are lower (for example in an online-course over the internet), education can be seen as a final good and the participants see the admission process as shopping. May 18, 2018 at 6:20
  • 12
    "Education in the pre-internet age was very expensive." That's a funny statement. In the US, higher education in the Internet age is considerably more expensive than in the period preceding. See for instance nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76 May 18, 2018 at 11:11
  • 2
    What do you mean by "before the electronic age"? Before online applications? Before email? Before computers? Before electricity?
    – Kimball
    May 19, 2018 at 2:00
  • @Kimball before computers, although I'm also interested in even-earlier periods.
    – Allure
    May 19, 2018 at 2:17

2 Answers 2


Since just before the transition to the use of the Internet for admissions—in the 1980's and 1990's—the kinds of documents submitted haven't fundamentally changed. What was more difficult back then is that everything had to be printed out and mailed, and application forms had to be individually written or typed out. Deadlines were basically the same as they are now, if not a little later—all of my deadlines were in January or February, whereas now they may be in December. It's not easy, as one might imagine, to visit lots of schools in the US, and in engineering, students normally visited after being admitted, not before. As far as fees go, they haven't changed that much, I don't think—I remember the fees when I applied being about $50 to $75 per school.

As you can imagine, credential fraud was much easier to commit because there was no easy way to teleconference via means like Skype or Google Hangouts, so you couldn't really tell who you were speaking to on the phone. This was most obviously a problem in terms of evaluating the English skills of foreign applicants. I know of at least one department that completely blacklisted all applicants from China for a number of years because multiple applicants would have a colleague with stronger English skills "stand in" for them in the telephone interview, and then the accepted candidate showed up with far worse English skills than the person interviewed. Nowadays, with the possibility of teleconferencing, and with ID's included in the test documents for TOEFL and IELTS, it's much easier to know who you are interviewing, making such fraud much more difficult to achieve.

With respect to contacts, that of course applies—if you know someone who's written a letter of recommendation, and there's any questions, of course you'd want to contact the person by phone or email.


Same deal, probably. Just call or write school and ask them to mail you the application. Like mail, mail. Type it up. I think they had mailers for the recommendation letters to go directly to them. Yeah, most deadlines were end of DEC or end of JAN. Replies by mid-March. Fat letter good...slim letter bad. Is that still a thing? (I'm actually not that familiar with current system.)

I do remember in early 90s getting the grad applications mailed to me. And then by end of the 90s, dept said they were all emailed to the kids. Change-over was fast...couple years. And lots of college undergrads were already hooked into computer systems, so they could deal with websites and email.

But I imagine the transition for undergrad applications may have been more gradual. HS students having less computer access. Donno...did undergrad in 80s and when I say "type", I mean typewriter for that time...not even a Brother word processor. There may have been some handwriting, too...and I had to concentrate as my penmanship was normally bad. Pre-wrote the stuff for practice and then transcribed...to avoid too many line-outs or white-out.

I showed up in grad school in 95 and had never used email. Prof insisted on it for something and I told him "I'm receive only" mode. He said there was no such system. I told him someone had explained to me how to get on shared comp and read my email but not how to send it. (More of an operator issue.)

  • I applied before the electronic age. There were paper formulars, these were to filled out, and attached by a list of documents. These went to the University administration, either by post, or personally. The system was partially organized by the high schools (most people continued directly his/her studies on a University, if he could pass the entry exam).
    – peterh
    Jun 25, 2019 at 21:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .