West Point's Open Letter to High-Achieving High School Students Highlights What's Wrong With High School

This summer, the United States Military Academy at West Point released an "open letter to high-achieving high school students." No doubt West Point released it in the hopes that it would go viral and increase the number of candidates who end up applying this fall, but the letter drives home an unfortunate reality about the high school experience and college admissions, and perhaps what West Point is looking for in applicants.

I’m even more selective than the Ivies. In addition to being academically competitive, qualified applicants must be physically fit, have leadership experience, acquire a congressional nomination and pass a rigorous medical exam just to be considered for admission. So if you’re into history, prestige, academic rigor and competitiveness, then I’ve got what you’re looking for.
— West Point Admissions

West Point emphasize their selectivity, prestige, and competitiveness in the letter. While there is no shortage of high school students who are living their schooling existence for the purpose of outcompeting their peers so they can get into highly selective universities as a marker of their own self worth, there is a severe shortage or young people who are leading remarkable lives. People who lead remarkable lives do not get validation from being tied to certain institutions, or by beating others. People who lead remarkable lives own their lives. They make the relevant decisions about how to spend their time, and they find meaning in the work they do. They value their contributions to society far more than they value how society ranks them relative to same-aged peers at any given moment in time. 

 A West Point Cadet at graduation

A West Point Cadet at graduation

West Point is seemingly choosing to pass on trying to appeal to those rare students who choose to lead remarkable lives today. Or maybe they are making a decision to pass on those who can find meaning within their lives without tying it to the prestige of established institutions?

West Point highlights that their alumni include "presidents, generals, governors, astronauts, CEOs, and captains of industry." But they don't talk about the humanitarians, scientists, and artists. They don't highlight the people who make their families and communities better by investing in the people close to home. This open letter sends the message that success is rising to the top of established institutions. Staying within your lane, doing your job very well, but never really challenging the status quo. This open letter is an extension of the high school experience for most "high-achieving" students, where they are told to take the most challenging classes, get the best grades in those classes, and seek out opportunities that will pad the resume, but never really challenge the status quo.

This open letter may bring more applications into West Point this year. That increase in applications would decrease the admissions rate. That would make West Point even more prestigious in the eyes of applicants, parents, high school counselors, and the publications that produce college rankings. And that may be what West Point is looking for. And given what West Point has to offer (an existence within a highly regimented military schooling environment), the extreme costs of attending (five or more years of required military service, and maybe one's life), and what they need graduates to do (obediently work within a hierarchical, slowly changing war machine), perhaps appealing to the desire of many schooled students to have their self-worth validated by being associated with a prestigious institution is the way to go for them.

However, this approach is completely out of step with what the most selective colleges are really looking for in applicants. Most selective colleges are not just looking to improve their admissions statistics. They are also looking for people who lead remarkable lives. They are looking for people who love to learn, who are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn, and who are trying to identify ways that they can contribute to improving the world around them. These rare applicants will raise the level of intellectual inquiry on campus. They are the ones who will dive into the additional readings in the syllabus because it will contribute to their understanding of the topics they are studying. They are the ones who will commit to leading campus organizations, joining research labs, and tutoring others because of the opportunities to help others and for personal growth, not because such activities will help them with future scholarships or graduate school applications. And when they move on from college they will have the courage to not go into the military, or banking, or consulting if they are more drawn to less "prestigious" professions that will ultimately allow them to lead lives of purpose and meaning, and contribute to the human condition.

Unfortunately, very few high school students have the opportunity to lead remarkable lives. The practices and structures (and pressures) of high school simply do not allow time for a remarkable life. And in lieu of a remarkable life lived, colleges are left using one's ability to rise to the top of high school as a proxy for their ability to someday lead a remarkable life. Or at least to be a competent military officer. Unfortunately, what it takes to get to the top of the class (including a focus on achievement and competition) is often incompatible with leading a remarkable life.  

Disclaimer: the author of this blog post graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1999.