Ivy League

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.


The Academic Index at Ivy League Schools

Student athletes who hope to be recruited to play a Division I sport in the Ivy League* sooner or later come across the Academic Index (“AI”). The Academic Index was originally developed to ensure that the eight colleges of the Ivy League didn’t excessively lower their academic standards for recruited athletes in order to field competitive athletic teams. Since then, their use by admissions committees has bled into the general applicant pool, which is unfortunate for the larger pool of applicants. 

The AI is a combination of a student’s GPA, SAT scores, and SAT II scores. Every candidate to the Ivy League is given an AI number, even those who are not recruited athletes. The AI ranges from a low of 60 to a high of 240. At the most selective schools (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), the average AI for each admitted class hovers around 220. The AI formula is not publicly available, and they regularly review and tweak it. People can make fairly good approximations, as I will below, but the AI formula is held close to the vest by the various athletic departments and admission departments at the Ivy League schools.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical candidate “Tim” who wants to play football at Harvard. Tim may not have spent much time focused on school work or SAT prep while in high school, but all of a sudden the coach at Harvard has shown interest in the candidate. The candidate was previously considering other FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA) schools, but the prospect of going to Harvard has brought it to the top of his list.

Unfortunately for Tim, he has SAT scores of 670 M, 600 R, 590 W, and a 3.6 GPA, which means his AI is around a 196.

So does a 196 AI mean that Tim stands a good chance of being accepted through the admissions process? Not really, but the chances of getting in given a certain AI score depends on the athlete. The pool of recruited athletes from all sports at a given school needs to have an AI that is within one standard deviation of the student body’s AI at that school. Because the academic standards at the Ivy Leagues are pretty robust to begin with, the AI doesn’t give recruited athletes nearly the advantage that many would hope for in the admissions process. However, because the average only needs to be within one standard deviation of the student body mean, coaches are able to get candidates with lower academic records in, depending on their pull with the admissions department and the priority a coach puts on those individual candidates.

Also, not all sports are created equally. The tennis team is not going to get many (if any) favors from the admissions department. The football and basketball teams do. Hockey at Yale does, and lacrosse at Princeton does, as well. 

Even with the pull the football team may have with admissions, not all positions on the football team are created equally. Lineman are not going to get many favors from the admissions department unless the lineman are highly rated recruits. Impact players such as quarterbacks and cornerbacks, however, may be given priority by coaches. In the Ivy League, football coaches are only allowed to present 30 recruits to the admissions committee. Further, they are limited on where those recruits fall according to their AI score. According to numbers previously put out by two different Ivy League football programs, about 7-8 of those 30 recruits must fall in Band 4 (the top band), which is above the campus average. Another 12-13 football recruits must fall in Band 3 or higher, which goes down to 1 standard deviation below the campus AI (should be above the athletic AI). Another 7-8 recruits must fall in Band 2 or higher, and perhaps another 1-2 can fall in Band 1, which bottoms out at a score of 176.

Now, let’s talk specifically about Tim. If Tim was high up in Band 4 (the highest one), he might get some consideration as someone who could pull the overall pool up, but he isn’t there. He can’t change his GPA so no amount of SAT prep will get him there. Tim seems to be somewhere in Band 2 or 3. Band 3 is a good place to be if one is a recruited athlete. 

Let’s assume that Tim studies really diligently and scores a 730 in each of his SAT II tests. That would bring his AI up to around a 206. If we also assume that on top of that, Tim is able to boost his SAT score to a 710 M, 650 W, 630 R. That would jump his AI up to around 211. All of a sudden, Tim becomes a little more attractive to the Harvard coaching staff because they don’t have to pressure the admissions department to let him in, and he will help move the team AI up a little bit, allowing them to take more risk on an impact player.

Unfortunately, the Ivy League’s attempt to ensure a certain level of academic integrity in admissions for recruited athletes has only dumbed down what should be a holistic process where SAT scores and GPA are nothing more than markers to consider. The Academic Index’s emphasis on test scores and GPA means that not only do amazing athletes get turned away in the admissions process, but non-athletes who could add considerable value to the universities are also given a handicap on top of a handicap in the process. In the long run, this undermines the admissions departments’ efforts to put together the most diverse, talented, and intellectually curious classes in a way that may be even more pernicious than the focus on SAT scores for the US News rankings. 

* The Ivy League is an athletic conference consisting of eight of the oldest research universities in the country. All of the schools consistently rank in the top 15 of the US News rankings. The schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell.