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.
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.
Latin was spoken throughout the Mediterranean world from the first and second centuries before Christ, spreading along with the Roman Empire and its culture, said Richard Thomas, a Harvard professor of Greek and Latin. The language flourished during the Renaissance and beyond, kept alive in the church, universities and through diplomatic correspondence, he said in an interview. In 1962, the Roman Catholic Church dropped it from standard worship services worldwide.
Languages such as Spanish, French and Italian are descended from Latin, and English contains Latin words. While Latin now generally isn’t used for communication, its literature is still studied, Thomas said.
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.
While Barsky had to create her own senior year Latin course at the public Yorktown High School, in Arlington, seniors at Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side can take two electives in Latin and one in Greek. Alumni of the private school, founded in 1709, include the tennis player John McEnroe.
Almost one-third of the seniors who graduated in May participated in Vergil Academy, a yearlong study of “The Aeneid” that culminates with seniors’ being quizzed by university professors, said Don Connor, head of the six-member classics faculty.
In May, seniors printed up Vergil Academy T-shirts, “Vergil” being one way to spell the name of the author of “The Aeneid.” Trinity students quote the text of the poem to each other for fun, said Victoria Black, 18, in an interview.
“I know it’s kind of dorky,” said Black, who will start at Harvard this month and plans to study classics. She sat on a stage at Trinity in May fielding questions from Thomas, the Harvard faculty member, about Aeneas’s journey to the underworld.
Connor said he developed a network of classics professors who participate, including Thomas; Gareth Williams from Columbia University in New York; Denis Feeney from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey; Barbara Weiden Boyd of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; and Joseph Farrell of the University of Pennsylvania.
When Lucy Stamell, a Trinity alumna, was visiting colleges in 2004, she asked Connor to recommend a classics specialist at Penn, and he connected her with Farrell.
She applied early, mentioning her visit with Farrell in an essay. Stamell, 22, won admission and majored in classics. She graduated in May 2009 and works in New York as an investment banking analyst for Bank of America Corp. Her classics major probably helped Stamell distinguish herself from a sea of finance majors competing for the job, she said.
“It shows that because I didn’t just study finance all this time, I could approach things a little bit differently,” Stamell said. “I could bring something different to the table, in writing and thinking skills.”
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.”
Applicants who indicated a potential major in classics this year had an admission rate of 19 percent compared with 14 percent for aspirants generally, Quenby Jackson Mott, vice dean and Penn’s director of admissions, said in an interview.
Even when Latin isn’t offered formally in high school, pursuit of the language can help a student win admission, as was the case with Graham Edwards at Bowdoin, said Scott Meiklejohn, dean of admissions and financial aid at the liberal-arts college, founded in 1794.
Edwards, 18, and seven friends created a Latin course after urging from a Lutheran pastor, who volunteered his time to teach them during a free period at the Gibraltar High School, in rural Fish Creek, Wisconsin, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Green Bay.
After Edwards studied French for a year and Spanish for two years, he found the idea of Latin, the ancestor of modern Romance languages, alluring and “shrouded in mystery,” he said. He began by memorizing four to five vocabulary words each night, starting with “laudare,” or “to praise,” the root of the English word “laudatory.”
Edwards, who wants to pursue neuroscience, said he didn’t expect Latin “would help me out too much” in college admissions.
Edwards’s application showed “intellectual curiosity and willingness to go beyond the normal offerings of his school,” Meiklejohn said.
While often helpful, excelling in Latin by itself provides no guarantee of gaining entrance to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an interview.
Applicants shouldn’t “twist themselves in a pretzel” and take on a pursuit such as Latin because it might have a marginal effect on acceptance, Brenzel said. In April, he said in an e-mail that Yale had offered admission to 1,940 applicants, or 7.5 percent.
“Outguessing the admissions committee at a place where we are admitting 7 percent of students is really a self-defeating game,” Brenzel said. “For God’s sake, live your life.”
(Editor’s note: Here is an English translation of the headline on this story: Latin Makes Entry Into Harvard University Easier.)