After an absence of several years, I was back to serve on my congressman’s Academy Selection Board.  This group of ten or so volunteers is made up of service-academy graduates, several of whom are retirees, and a few who are still on active duty.  All of them have links to West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy.  Occasionally, there will be a “nongrad” board member who had previously been assigned to one of the academies as an instructor or staff member.

The board’s purpose is to interview the candidates applying to the U.S. representative or senator for an appointment, and to review their transcripts, College Board scores, and letters of recommendation.  The process takes about 30 minutes per candidate.  Afterward, we submit to the congressman our recommendations as to whom among the young people should be considered for appointment.

I met with other board members on a Friday afternoon in the representative’s office for the purpose of winnowing down the field of applicants to the academies.  I was paired with Mike, an Annapolis grad and retired Navy captain.  Our roster consisted of six young men, applying for West Point (2), Annapolis (3), and the Air Force Academy or West Point (1).

Reviewing our first candidate’s file, we were struck by both his verbal and math scores on the SAT—410 and 370, respectively.  Yet his high-school transcript revealed a B+ in English composition and in trigonometry.  Before inviting the young man in, we consulted with Don, a Navy grad and the impresario who organizes these sessions for the congressman, and asked why there was such a disparity between transcript grades and SAT scores.  “Welcome to the South Carolina public-school system,” was his response.

Perhaps it would be constructive to review the statistics on West Point’s most recent freshmen, the Class of 2015.  (These figures were obtained from the Admissions Directorate, USMA.)  Three fourths of entering fourth classmen (“Plebes”) scored above 600 on both the math and verbal portions of the SAT.  There were 97 valedictorians, 42 salutatorians, and 227 National Merit Scholars.  A total of 13,954 young men and women applied for entry with the Class of 2015, and 1,261 were accepted and awarded appointments (a nine-percent acceptance rate).

Any high-school guidance counselor can call the admissions directorate at any of the service academies and ask for this information, and it will be cheerfully and quickly provided.  In so doing, a guidance counselor will save an unqualified candidate the time and anxiety of going through a long, arduous process that will end, for him or her, in failure.

We asked this first candidate the typical questions.  Why do you want to go to West Point?  If you’re not accepted, what is your fallback plan?  What do your parents think about you applying to a service academy?  We had no intention of forwarding his file with a “Recommend” stamp.  Don told us that, in cases where it was obvious the young person wouldn’t even get a look from an academy, we should let them down slowly.  Speak about their backgrounds, family, etc., then thank them for their time and tell them they will be hearing shortly from the congressman’s office.

Hoping our first candidate was the exception, not the rule, we invited in our second.  Slightly better SAT scores, but not by much.  He was still weak in math on both the SAT and in his GPA, yet claimed in his personal essay that his driving ambition was to be an Army officer and a civil engineer.  We asked how he reconciled poor marks in mathematics with a desire to be a civil engineer.  His response came in two parts.  The first was predictable and has been used by thousands of kids since the beginning of formal college admissions processes: “Well, I just have never done very well on standardized tests.”

So far, so good.  Then the second part: “Besides, being a good civil engineer requires some math, but not that much.”  There are times when remarks are so stunningly ignorant that one simply lets them pass without comment.

The afternoon dragged on.  I was beginning to understand better those numbers the admissions people gave me—why, out of over 13,000-plus young people who applied to West Point, only upward of 1,200 were accepted.  (Would the numbers at Annapolis or the Air Force Academy really be much different?)  It would not be a cynical exaggeration to say that at least 10,000 of those applicants had no business contacting the academy in the first place.  Again, where are the counselors or, for that matter, the parents?

Lest I sound too negative about these lads, I can say that all of them were well dressed, groomed, and courteous.  A sense of patriotism was visible in each.  In their personal essays, they all spoke of their pride in being Americans, their desire to give back something to the country that had given so much to them, and to do so through military service.  They all appeared to be sincere, and I took them at their word.

A firmly held belief in the goodness of one’s country and the virtue of its people is essential in young people who wish to serve in their nation’s military.  But feelings of patriotism aren’t enough to secure admission to a service academy or, for that matter, to qualify for a commission as an officer in the Armed Forces.

The academies have reasons for their standards—intellectual, physical, mental.  They have evolved over two centuries and are not capricious or arbitrary.  Academic standards have always been demanding, especially in mathematics and the sciences.  And with the increasingly sophisticated weapons systems being developed for the Armed Forces, these standards are only going to become more demanding.

The day finally came to a close.  Of the six young men we interviewed, we recommended none.