Professional groups are intensely interested in managing their recruitment as part of their struggle for occupational prestige and autonomy. On the one hand this requires recruits from influential and high‐status families; on the other hand it demands public demonstration that only the most competent recruits are being selected. As a way out of this potential quandary, 19th century professions relied on ‘meritocratic’ educational gantlets that simultaneously performed scholarly and social selection. This article is an account of scholarly/social selection to civil engineering in the Netherlands during the 19th century. It consists of three parts. First, an impressionistic and basically qualitative history of recruitment and training for civil engineering in the Netherlands from about 1780 to 1864. Second, a very brief account of the liberal educational reforms of 1864. Third, a largely quantitative description of the selective effects of the new educational gantlet.