Janet Lorin / Bloomberg News

When Lena Barsky picked up her first Latin text in 2004, she couldn’t have known that memorizing the phrase “canes sunt in via” 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” passion drove her to teach fourth- and fifth-graders at Latin summer camp. As Barsky began to explore colleges, the language gave her “occasio” to contact faculty members.

Students nationwide 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.

“We certainly do take notice,” said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. “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.

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”, received more than 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, fewer than 1 percent concentrated their course load in classics. That contrasted with the 14 percent who went for economics, the leading choice.