The First SAT

The SAT has changed a great deal in the last 90 years. Smithsonian has thankfully published a copy of the first SAT, issued in 1926. Interested in archaic terms? Foreign word association? How about story problems related to your smoking habit?

Standardized tests were a lot different in 1926.


Back then the Scholastic Aptitude Test (which was actually called that, no acronym yet) consisted of 315 questions in nine subjects. Students had 97 minutes to answer the questions.

And oh, what questions they were. A look through the almost 90-year old test reveals some pretty interesting changes.


Back then students were asked to discern the rules for an imaginary language (which certainly would demonstrate intelligence, though not perhaps the sort of intelligence that would have much practical application in college), choose the definition for words like allopathy (a now archaic word used pejoratively by practitioners of homeopathic medicine to refer to real medicine), and a sort of “some of these things are not like the other” section, in which test takers had identify three words (out of six provided) that were most closely related. One of the questions listed “pater, descendient, madre, mere, sister, and mutter.” Here, a student needed to recognize that three of these words—mutter, madre and mere—were (respectively, the German, Spanish, and French) words for mother. Because clearly knowledge of four languages is essential for success in college, right?

And then there are the word problems. The math part was super easy. Simple athematic was really all students needed to figure out the answers. The questions include such date markers as “if a man’s salary is $20 a week, and he spends $14 a week, how long will it take him to save $300?” (in 1926 one could buy a new car for $300) and this gem of the Coolidge administration: “If a package containing twenty cigarettes costs fifteen cents, how many cigarettes can be bought for ninety cents?”

Casual references to cigarettes, in an examination designed for high school students. I guess we’ve come a long way, baby.

With only 97 minutes to answer the questions, of course, students would have to complete three questions a minute; most weren’t expected to finish the exam at all. Because of this, reasonably successful completion of the exam actually required more than mere mastery of the material tested; it demanded creative time management and material selection.

But then, if all of this looks more difficult (and not entirely relevant to real college), keep in mind that it also mattered a lot less. That’s because virtually no students in America were even taking the test. The first SAT was administered to about 8,000 students (the undergraduate population of Penn is bigger).

Slightly over a quarter of men (26 percent) who took the test applied to the same school, Yale. About 27 percent of the women taking the test applied to Smith.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer