On Latin and Getting Into College

Excerpts from a lengthy article in Bloomberg, which every high school Latin teacher will, no doubt, be posting on their door/bulletin board within seconds of reading it:

When Lena Barsky picked up her first Latin text in 2004, she couldn’t have known that memorizing the phrase “canes sunt in via” (“the dogs are in the street”) would help her win a place at Brown University six years later.

The book featured a family and its dog in ancient Pompeii, and led Barsky to “The Aeneid,” the epic poem composed in Latin more than 2,000 years ago. Her “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) passion drove her to teach fourth and fifth graders at Latin summer camp. As Barsky, of Arlington, Virginia, began to explore colleges, the language gave her “occasio,” or opportunity, to contact faculty members.

Students throughout the U.S. are finding that excelling in high school Latin can propel them to the most-selective colleges, including Harvard University, whose undergraduate admission rate was 6.9 percent this year. Because so few students these days master Latin, it can help an applicant, said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

“We certainly do take notice,” Fitzsimmons said by telephone from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It can end up tipping the student into the class.”

While half of public high school students a century ago took Latin, that portion fell to about 1 percent in 1974 and was even lower at last measure two years ago, according to records maintained by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Virginia.

A Latin scholar would have excited an admissions officer 38 years ago when Fitzsimmons began his career, and “such a student today would be even a greater rarity, standing out even more,” he said.

Classics Focus

Harvard, whose motto is “Veritas,” Latin for “Truth,” received more than 30,000 applicants this year and took 2,110, Fitzsimmons said. Of 4,873 Harvard sophomores, juniors and seniors this past school year, less than 1 percent concentrated their course load in classics — a field comprising Latin and Greek language and literature, ancient history, archaeology and philosophy — said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. That contrasted with the 14 percent who went for economics, the leading choice.


Seeking Scholars

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts; the University of Chicago; and Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, all want Latin scholars in order to keep up enrollment in classics departments, admissions officials at the schools said in interviews.

Barsky’s journey was “ad augusta per angusta”– through narrow to lofty places — for the funnel to Brown is circumscribed.

Barsky, 18, said she wrote to Brown’s Joseph Pucci, who teaches classics and comparative literature, during her junior year and also met with him on campus. She exchanged e-mails with him for nine months before applying in November for early admission, she said. She was accepted, and plans to study classics and physics.

‘Expand My Thinking’

She didn’t set out to study Latin in middle school as a way to help open the door to a selective college, she said in an interview.

“I knew it would help me expand my thinking,” Barsky said. “At the time, it didn’t really occur to me that people didn’t take Latin.”

Since 1996, Pucci has been writing to applicants who tell the Brown admissions department that classics could be their major. He sent an e-mail last October to 300 students.

Pucci estimates he spends 160 hours per annum meeting with applicants, responding to e-mails, reading admission files and commenting on students who impress him. While Brown had more than 30,000 applicants this year and 9 percent won offers of admission, the odds were better for Latin scholars, according to the university.

A total of 222 applicants said classics was their probable course of study, and 26 percent won acceptance, said Panetha Ott, Brown’s associate director of admission, in an interview.


‘Hunting Grounds’

Farrell said he talks each year with 5 to 10 high school students who have taken Latin, and who find him through a Latin teacher or through his department’s website.

“They tend to get in,” Farrell said in an interview. “Many of the good New York prep schools are good hunting grounds for these kind of students.”


I have omitted a lot … this is definitely must-reading …

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