I attended a three year high school from 1978 to 1981. I took the PSAT in tenth grade, and I checked off a box in the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test application inviting colleges to send me their literature.

I was contacted by the United States Military Academy (“USMA”) at West Point, New York; my best friend was contacted by the United States Naval Academy (“USNA”) at Annapolis, Maryland. We were both invited to attend a conference for high school students interested in attending a service academy and in a military career.

I went to the USMA conference; my friend went to the USNA conference, as did 100s of other high school students that year. Everyone knew the score: (1) the government picked up your education costs; (2) the government paid you a salary as you worked towards an engineering degree; (3) when you graduated, you were made an officer; and (4) then you served for four years in the military.

It was a great opportunity: but only if you could survive the rigours of military academy life. And the conference gave you a fair opportunity to observe those rigours close up.

During the conference, a major approached me individually, by name, and pulled me out of earshot of other student-attendees. I have always assumed he (or his colleagues) had similar conversations with many if not with all the other student-attendees.

I was told that if I apply, I would get in. It was as simple as that. I had very good standardized test scores and very good grades from my high school. When the major told me that I would get in if I applied, I believed him. I was told that West Point would find a Senator or Representative to nominate me, or I would come in with a number of students the academy could choose itself. I did not inquire about the details of the application process.


I told the major—having observed what the academy expected of its students athletically and otherwise—that I was sure to fail his programme. So I thanked him for the opportunity to attend the conference, but my applying was not in the cards. I made the right choice that day—although my decision was a real disappointment to my late father.

My scores and grades were good, very good, but I have no reason to think mine were the highest among the many student-attendees. I cannot believe that I was the only person to have received, what was in effect, assurances that if I applied I would get in.

By any fair-minded description, it was an offer to attend West Point. Albeit, the offer was not in writing; it was an informal oral offer. Surely, many, many other people received similar offers. I expect that large list also includes Ben Carson.

PS: This conference was less than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. This was a time when the service academies still had to make some substantial efforts to attract candidates with strong academic records. I expect those days are long gone.


Seth Barrett Tillman is an American national living abroad and teaching in a foreign law faculty. He is a lecturer in the Maynooth University Department of Law, Ireland. Roinn Dlí Ollscoil Mhá Nuad.

This post originally ran at The New Reform Club.