On June 14, I received a letter from LACS, the return address written by hand. Upon opening the envelope, I discovered that the sender was in fact the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), not the school at which I was concluding my junior year. I had seen this type of letter before.
According to the NSHSS, I had displayed “outstanding academic achievement” at LACS. That doesn’t sound right. I’m not saying that this isn’t possible, because it is. While some might argue otherwise, LACS does provide the education and academic opportunities needed for a student to succeed in life. But, if you know anything about the school itself, you’d know that distinguishing select students with prestigious awards and honors is in direct contrast to LACS’ philosophy. In fact, LACS’ school newspaper, The Newsance, received criticism from the school’s administration two years ago when it featured a student as “middle schooler of the month.” The content of the letter I received made it blatantly clear that there was no communication between my school’s administration and the NSHSS as the two entities possess dichotomous ideologies. Communication was implied in the opening sentences, thus giving me immediate doubts about the legitimacy of the NSHSS as an organization.
Yet, for many students who have not received such a letter before, it can be all too easy to be lured by the letter’s commending tone and assurance that the NSHSS is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Between the mailing that I was sent—which not only contained a letter, but a registration form and an NSHSS bumper sticker as well—and an email from the NSHSS exactly a month later, the language used in each implied that organization is very prestigious and academically elite. Membership in the NSHSS, which has a “tradition of excellence,” and spans over 160 nations, is by invitation only. It “provides a special opportunity for you to distinguish yourself based on outstanding scholastic achievement and academic excellence,” according to the envelope’s contents. Also, members allegedly receive “exclusive discounts on test prep programs, textbooks, conferences, and more,” and are able to “take advantage of unique opportunities” to help reach their “potential and pay for college, international study abroad, and summer programs.”
Not only does membership in the NSHSS supposedly advance one’s academic career, but it is an “an honor that will last a lifetime.” According to them, “NSHSS will continue to help you advance your goals and aspirations as you transition from high school to college and from college to career. . . . NSHSS also provides members with lifetime access to a variety of experiences and resources, including scholarships, leadership and study abroad programs, service activities, and exclusive discounts.”
If all of the aforementioned benefits of NSHSS membership are, in fact, true, deciding whether to accept the invitation might seem like an easy decision, right? After all, such an honor surely would enhance one’s college application. Well, that might not be the case, because the NSHSS’s criteria for membership isn’t as exclusive or elite as its advertising makes it seem. According to its website, NSHSS membership requires meeting just one of the following criteria: a 3.5 or higher Cumulative GPA on a 4.0 scale; a 1280 SAT score or higher (new exam 2016); an 1150 PSAT score or higher (new exam 2016); a 26 ACT score or higher; a score 4 or higher on any AP exam; a score 5 or higher on any IB exam; or being in the top 10 percent rank in the graduating class.
Once a student accepts an invitation, the acclaimed scholarships still aren’t even a guarantee, as they cost money and require a separate application. Therefore, solely being a member of the NSHSS is not nearly as much of an honor as the organization purports it to be. Despite this, the NSHSS urged me to proudly display my personalized certificate of membership, which has the NSHSS crest and Mr. Nobel’s signature, as “a testament to your achievement.” Along with this “diploma-quality certificate,” there is also a personalized press release that students can be featured in for their local news.
The main issue that I and many others have with the NSHSS is a lack of honesty and sincerity in the organization’s communication and advertising. One example of this was that the return address on the envelope I received was “Lehman Alternative Community School,” not “The National Society of High School Scholars.” And, oddly, it was hand-written in blue pen in the bottom left hand corner, not the top left, as is customary. Within the envelope, there was a list of quotes concerning the NSHSS from a variety of people. However, one of them was from Dr. Keith T. Miller, which the letter said was currently the president of Virginia State University. The only problem with this is that Dr. Miller stepped down in December of 2014, almost three years ago. Was this just an organizational mishap, or was the NSHSS desperate for favorable quotes? While these might just be small issues, what’s really concerning about the supposed prestige of the organization is the fact that upon contacting ICSD superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown, he admitted to having no knowledge of NSHSS or any other similar organizations. This is in no part due to a failure on Dr. Brown’s part, but rather a lack of success and influence from the NSHSS.
The NSHSS is not the only organization out there with the alleged goal to honor academically advanced students and enrich their future. The Congressional Youth Leadership Council (CYLC) is another popular name, and many people share the same concerns over it as they do the NSHSS. In a 2009 article in The New York Times, Diana Jean Schemo describes CYLC letters as “ticker-tape parades in an envelope,” much like the NSHSS. This past winter, I received an email in my inbox from the CYLC. As this was my first experience with such an organization, I was originally flattered by the language. But upon forwarding it to my guidance counselor, she, like Dr. Brown, was unfamiliar with the CYLC. In an academically conscious environment like ICSD, we would expect our administrators to be aware of the wide variety of opportunities that will propel our students’ learning. So, if the NSHSS, or any group like it, is foreign to our educators, the organization’s prestige or authenticity seems unfounded.
While some of these types of organizations might provide some beneficial opportunities for students, it’s important to recognize that their top priorities are rarely the students themselves. Often, there are tuition fees; just becoming a member of the NSHSS costs $75, and as previously discussed, being a member has very limited benefits. Attendance at conferences that these organizations offer almost always costs over a thousand dollars, as detailed in Schemo’s article. Most importantly, a general lack of sincerity and real prestige in honoring students challenges their legitimacy. These organizations end up being solely an overpriced few words to put on a transcript rather than a life-changing and mentally-enriching experience.