The Peace Corps Placement Tests!

In the very early days of the agency the Peace Corps had a set of Placement Tests that applicants were required to take. One was a 30-minute General Aptitude Test, another a 30-minute Modern Language Aptitude Test. One-hour achievement tests in French and Spanish were also offered during the second hour. The tests were ‘non-competitive; there were no passing or failing grades. The results, the agency said, were used to help find the most appropriate assignment for the person. Of course, those of us who took the tests had no confidence that that was ever done, given the assignments we finally got.

The General Aptitude Test was composed of three different types of problems: verbal, mathematical, and spatial. The verbal questions require an applicant to select from five alternatives the synonym for a given word. The mathematical questions call for one to solve a problem, stated in a sentence or two, using processes generally taught in secondary school mathematics. The spatial problems consist of pictures of piles of blocks and require one to judge the number of blocks needed to make up the pile. Many of the piles included blocks which could not be seen in the picture but whose presence could be inferred from the position of the other blocks.

The Modern Language Aptitude Test was designed to provide an indication of one’s probable degree of success in learning to speak and to understand a foreign language. One’s score on this test depended to some extent on the knowledge of English vocabulary, but the test also measured sound-symbol association ability, sensitivity to grammar structure, and the rote memory aspect of the learning of foreign languages.

The French and Spanish Tests were designed to test mastery of grammar and vocabulary and one’s reading comprehension ability.

Interestingly the Peace Corps allowed the press, radio, television, etc. to have access to the test. Reporters, for example, were allowed into the test rooms at the beginniing of the session, for the first ten minutes. And, if they wanted to take the test, they could.

The “Peace Corps Tests” were at first given in post offices around the country. I took it in 1961 while in graduate school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Later, in 1964, when working for the Peace Corps and doing “Blitz Recruiting” the tests were given during the week Recruiters were on college campuses. The tests were usually administrated by a “Peace Corps secretary’ who went on these recruiting trips–those were the days when the Peace Corps had secretaries–and not by any of us, i.e., RPCVs!

In another blog or two, I’ll reprint some of the sample questions from the placement tests and you can see if you would have made it into the Peace Corps!


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  • Having been the “secretary” who administered the first Peace Corps “blitz” tests at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I can attest that the tests did a lot of good in the early screening of applicants. We had more than enough applicants from around the country those days, but we needed more of the kind who could be recruited on college campuses. And, while the tests were a selection tool, if not as much a placement tool, they were also inadvertently a recruiting tool.

  • I remember reading the Peace Corps Staff Monday meetings minutes for November 25, 1963. The minutes were archived at the National Archives at College Park. The Peace Corps application test had been given in Philadelphia on Saturday, the day after President Kennedy had been killed. There was a request reviewed from an applicant who had taken the test that Saturday. He wanted permission to take the test over because he felt that he had not done his best because he was grief stricken. As I recall the minutes, the request was denied.

    The meeting went on, there was a note that Shriver had been excused to attend the funeral.

    Talk about “carrying on!”

  • Tom, Joey and John

    Few remember Spring 1961, I sat all day for the Peace Corps Test in the Post Office basement at State College, Pa. ( Penn State). The test was prepared bt ETS ( Educational Testing Service, Princeton).It was the same as the college board exam, although they added more geography questions.

    I think they dropped it after the first year, 1961.

    I did better on the Peace Corps Test than the college boards and started training with the first group (Colombia I) on June 25th, 1961.

  • I also took the test in the basement of the State College, PA post office. I couldn’t possibly have passed the math test. I’m amazed I got in.

  • I took those tests in February, 1962 at the post office in Chambersburg, PA. The tests took all afternoon. I was the only ‘testee’ and I never found out the results. I must have passed, however, as I was invited to train for a project to Pakistan that summer. Our training was at the University of Minnesota, the home of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Needles to say, Psychological testing and scrutiny continued all summer. Being “selected out” was everyone’s biggest fear–and rightly so as fewer than half of those who began the training were ‘”selected in” and actually went to Pakistan. As a liberal arts graduate with scant experience for my assignment as a Community Development worker, my training hours would have been better spent on less testing and more honing of Community Development skills. I’m glad times have changed.

  • Hey contacto! I was in Honduras when your cousin was arrested! Is he out? Did he quit that silliness?

  • Joey, I don’t believe that would have been correct. I was on the recruiting team with RPCV Bob Burns (RIP) in Philadelphia at UPenn, Temple and Drexel the week of President Kennedy’s death on that Friday. After getting the horrible news, we checked in with PCHQ and were told to shut things down and come back to DC.

  • I was just reading through documents from that those days at the National Archive, I didn’t take notes. I thought it was Philadelphia because that was my home and it stuck in my mind. I do remember, however, that a test was given on that Saturday, somewhere, and the applicant had requested a retest.

    If I ever get back to the Archives, I will reread. It was the Monday, November 25, staff meeting notes.

    You were there and so I certainly take your account as accurate.
    Thank you.

  • Tom,

    I have a question. Did the recruiting team administer the placement tests? I remember I took the test in the basement either at the CU
    Counseling Center or the Boulder Post Office and it was one of a
    series of federal entrance tests. Tests were administered every Saturday AM for various federal placements. I remember I almost took the one for the CIA and then at the last moment had to work that Saturday.

  • Hi Joey,

    I’m sure we both need to be careful about what our memories say, so with that: The “federal” tests administered at local post offices were used by the Peace Corps until we had our own, which was in late 1963 or early 1964. So, that may help you remember where in Boulder you took it.

    With regard to your Philadelphia story, there may be an explanation for the discrepency in our stories. Now that I think back a little harder, it may well be that we were not yet administering the Peace Corps version of the test that early, so the reference made in the archived meeting minutes may well be to the federal test.

    I remember vividly, though, being with Bob Burns in a government car (therefore, no radio) driving down Broad Street, as throngs of people began migrated toward the store fronts away from the street. It was surreal. We were curious enough to pull over to find out what was going on. Of course, we were horrified by the news, and it got worse about an hour later.

    We did check in with PCHQ and were told to hurry back to DC.

  • I took the test in the Spring of 1963, so it must have been the Boulder Post Office. I just remember a basement!

    I was in Colombia by November of 1963 and when we got the news, via transistor radio and then shortwave, Kennedy had not yet been pronounced dead.
    There was a lot of confusion on the airwaves…we listened to an open mike on something called New York World Wide. No one seemed to know if it was an isolated incident or a coordinated attack. I can see PCHQ calling everyone back.

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