Remarkable Life

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.


Elon Musk Does Not Care Whether You Have a College Degree. Why Should You?

While the Abrome YouTube channel has only eight videos on it, we have over half a million views. 99.95% of those views come from a video of super-entrepreneur Elon Musk insisting that when it comes to hiring talent for his team, that he could care less where candidates graduated from college, much less if they graduated from college at all.[1]

In the clip, Musk is asked by the interviewer which colleges or universities he is most interested in hiring from. He responds that it does not even matter if a candidate has a college degree, or a high school degree. He acknowledges that a top university can serve as a signal that a candidate might be “capable of great things,” but clearly that is not sufficient to justify bringing one on his team.

Musk is not alone. Internet giant Google has moved away from their early focus on hiring from a collection of top schools, and as of 2013, up to 14% of some Google teams were filled with people who had never even gone to college.[2][3] Google did not change their hiring process based on some sort of anti-establishment ethos, they did it based on their own analysis of their own employees. They found that there was no relationship between job performance and GPA or college affiliation after the first few years on the job. In fact, Google’s senior vice president of people operations is on the record saying that grades are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”[4]

Historically, colleges were used as a lazy man’s screen for talent. This was in part due to people confusing admission into and performance at college as markers for ambition, intelligence, and perseverance. College attainment has always been more associated with class privilege than intelligence and hard work. It is a rather recent phenomenon that a stellar high school academic record can place an underprivileged applicant into an elite college in place of a privileged applicant with a middling high school record. But children of the elite still have tremendous advantages in the ability to access such educational opportunities, even though studies have shown that they are the ones that benefit from them the least.[5]

With a somewhat democratized economy, where large institutions are more easily challenged and brought down by upstarts, the companies that want to continue to grow and thrive will need to move beyond the lazy man’s screen for talent, and begin to identify better indicators for future performance and success among job candidates. With organizations such as Tesla and Google leading the way, other companies will either adapt their hiring practices or lose the race for talent.

As Musk said, evidence of exceptional ability and a track record of exceptional achievement are far more important than degrees from certain colleges. And the best way to build exceptional ability and to acquire exceptional achievements is to lead a remarkable life, not to chase degrees. However, our schooling system discourages young people from leading remarkable lives. It encourages them to aim for perfection on a narrow range of academic measures based on a narrow and out of date curriculum, and to chase degrees.

If one is intent on playing the game everyone else is playing, they can take comfort in the fact that most companies still rely on lazy screens for hiring. But the world is changing, and young people should not be subjected to the same game everyone else is playing.[6] The focus on academic achievement and degree hunting will not only fail to be an advantage in tomorrow’s economy, it will put young people at a significant disadvantage. It will leave them ill-equipped to navigate the hiring process, and unprepared to prosper in their careers.

It is remarkably difficult to lead a remarkable life while also trying to excel in the oppressive and restrictive world of schooling. Not only does schooling take up at least 6-8 hours a day, 170-210 days a year for 13 years of one’s youth, but it also take up considerable mind space that alters the way they see the world and pursue opportunities. Schooling creates a dependency on authority figures to dictate to young people what is meaningful in life. It creates a shortsighted focus on short-term, finite projects, because those can be graded, whereas deep, meaningful projects that span months or years are beyond the scope of what schools can measure and asses. Schooling also trains students to look for the “right answer” as opposed to dancing in the beautiful space of uncertainty, while risking failure, that is so essential to deeper learning.

The best hope young people have to lead remarkable lives is to divorce themselves from the schooling apparatus and to instead engage in self-directed learning experiences. Only by being able to pursue learning according to one’s unique needs, goals, and interests can one take true ownership over their educational journey. In doing so, they will ultimately find or create opportunities that allow them to develop mastery over or expertise in fields that have personal meaning to their lives, and through the continued refinement and development of their skills and the application thereof for the benefit of society, they will build meaning and purpose within their lives.

People who lead remarkable lives do not need college degrees from top colleges to get their foot in the door or to thrive in life. But a strange irony arises for those who lead remarkable lives: they have a much easier time gaining admission into top colleges, and they have the mindset and skills that allow them to outperform their schooled peers once in college. However, they are also more likely to opt out of the employment game altogether, choosing instead to pursue an entrepreneurial existence.


1.     The clip we showed came from a 2014 Auto Bild interview.      

2.     Google Doesn’t Care Where You Went to College (CNN)

3.     Google Has Started Hiring More People Who Didn't Go To College (Business Insider)

4.     In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal (The New York Times)

5.     Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours (The New York Times)

6.     It is also a game where there are far more losers than winners.

Picture of Elon Musk: Wikipedia