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Guiding Your Students to the Military Service Academies (aka, How to Manage the Chaos)

As a retired Air Force Officer who has devoted their career to officer recruitment and leadership development, I love working with talented young people with a burning desire to serve their country. Below, I will share the necessary qualifications for a service academy, a typical admitted student profile, officer characteristics, and some of the common pitfalls in the application process. Hopefully, this overview will give you enough information to encourage interested students to successfully compete for an academy appointment.

Who Are the Services Academies?

There are five federal military service academies: the United States Military Academy (NY), the United States Naval Academy (MD), the United States Air Force Academy (CO), the United States Merchant Marine Academy (NY) and the United States Coast Guard Academy (CT). Army, Navy, and Air Force are known as the “Big Three,” partially for their size and DI sports. The Merchant Marine and Coast Guard Academies are smaller and lesser-known but offer incredible opportunities and should also be considered. With a few exceptions in specific sports, these two are DIII schools. 

The academies are the ultimate co-op: hands-on career training begins day one with a guaranteed job after graduation. All students receive a BS degree (tuition free) and a commission into the Armed Forces at graduation. While students do get holiday breaks and short summer vacations, training occurs year-round for four years. The academies consistently rank nationally for academic experience, committed faculty, excellence in fields like engineering and business, and leadership development. Every student will be challenged in some way–be it academics, military training, or athletics (or all three). 

Who Is Eligible to Apply?

If you work with a traditionally aged population, your students most likely meet the basic eligibility requirements: between the ages 17 and 23 (older for USMMA), single/not pregnant and without any dependents, and a US Citizen. That’s the easy part. 

Each academy sets different standards for academics (some published, some not). A good rule of thumb is having over a 3.0 core GPA and test scores of at least 570 (Critical Reading and Math) or 24 (on the ACT) to become a candidate (also known as an applicant). 

How Competitive is the Admissions Process?

Admission to the academies is highly competitive, with more students gaining admission on their second attempt (you heard that right). Here are the average statistics for the five academies: unweighted Core GPA 3.752/4.0, 29 ACT composite, 647 CRW, and 674 Math. Average admit rate: 14.78% 

In my experience, many admitted students have closer to a 3.9 and test scores in the low to mid 30’s and mid to high 700’s. However, recruited athletes, enlisted military members, and students coming from the preparatory schools may be admitted with lower statistics. 

While academics are a key part of the picture (generally around 60% of the evaluation), the academies are looking for “the whole package:” the scholar-athlete AND the leader of character. If your student isn’t near these academic averages, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. The numbers above are averages with GPA outweighing test scores. Occasionally, I’ve seen very talented applicants admitted directly to an academy with a 3.55 core GPA and a 26 ACT. 

Are There Options for a Student Who Falls Short?

A student who aspires to a career in the military may also be a great fit for a private academy or civilian preparatory school and/or an ROTC program. Going through the service academy application process is an invaluable experience which weeds out the less serious candidate. Students will learn a lot about themselves, and their commitment, during this process (as will you!). The academies will work with students denied as seniors to reapply their freshman year of college if this is truly their goal. The hard work and persistence they demonstrate in doing so will not be lost on their nomination and admissions committees. It is important to encourage those with an interest, but also be realistic about their immediate outcomes. 

Who Makes a Great Officer?

So, who is this mythical unicorn? Think about your students. Who is a leader in the classroom, on the field, or in their community? They don’t necessarily need to be charismatic (confident introverts can be influential leaders as well), but are they the person the teacher can trust to leave the class with? Are they a go-getter who needs little direction or follow up? Most importantly, are they a leader of character? In the military, your word means everything. As an officer, accountability begins and ends with you. Officers do the right thing even when no one is looking. 

Officers are smart, empathetic, disciplined, physically fit, confident, resilient, mentally agile, and strong communicators. They are highly motivated, selfless, work well in teams, and always give 110%. If this sounds like your student, they have the potential to excel at an academy and beyond. This is asking a lot of a high schooler, and not every aspiring candidate meets these criteria. The purpose of the academies is to take that raw potential and mold these students into lifelong leaders. 

Is your student on the fence about applying? If they really and truly want to become an officer, this quote from Steve Jobs fits well: “If you are working on something that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” 

Before embarking on this journey, you should know that applying to one or more academies is the equivalent of most students’ whole application process. This means you are doubling your college application workload. Throw in the nomination applications and interview process (and add an ROTC scholarship application or two), and you are looking at A LOT of work. But, with advanced planning (read: working hard all summer) and good advice (I often consult with other educational consultants who are assisting a student through the nomination process for the first time), students can make good progress before the height of the application season. The academies have some of the lengthiest applications out there – requiring more steps and forms than any traditional college application. My recommendation is to complete the nomination applications in the late spring of junior year/early summer, and then focus on the academy applications during summer break. Next, tackle the civilian applications and finish with the ROTC scholarships in the fall.

For more information and specific details, please visit the Academy websites:

How Can I Help My Students Avoid Some Common Pitfalls in This Process?
  • In the military, we have a saying: “Early is on time, on time is late.” Candidates MUST start early and work diligently to thoroughly complete these lengthy applications before the published deadlines. The academies do not grant extensions for missing application components, even for circumstances beyond the student’s control.
    • Have your students take a practice Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA) or the Physical Fitness Examination (PFE) several months in advance to allow for additional training if needed (and to avoid injuries during high school sports seasons).
    • 25% of applicants fail the DODMERB the first time (The Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board is the agency responsible for evaluating whether or not applicants are medical qualified to serve). Candidates are encouraged to reapply, but the process can take anywhere from four weeks to five months, so start early and stay persistent.
  • Demonstrate interest early and often. The dream of becoming an officer often begins early – and so should the pursuit of it. Encourage your students to join mailing lists, follow on social media, and attend regional admission events.When attending an academy event, it’s important to be on-time, nicely dressed, and prepared to meet the officers who may be interviewing you. Have questions ready and follow up with a thank you to anyone you meet.
How Else Can an IEC Help an Aspiring Officer?

As Stephen Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.” Help your student develop checklists with detailed timelines. Encourage them to prioritize and meet these tasks ahead of schedule. Work with them on their communication and interviewing skills. Ensure their essays are well-written, authentic, and use the appropriate terminology. Teach them to anticipate problems and develop workarounds. Practice life skills such as professional communication, resume building, and being proactive. This is a long path – stay positive and keep calm; they are striving for a life-changing goal. Learn all you can about commissioning opportunities to help them and don’t be afraid to reach out for help when needed. The local liaisons and regional academy officers are there for your students. But even with an early start and the best advice and support, not every student will receive an appointment. You can help your student research other opportunities (like an ROTC scholarship) and remind them that there are many paths to serving.

If I can help, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Wishing you and your students a very successful leadership journey!

Lisa Hillhouse, Founder of Hillhouse College and Career Advising

Lisa is an IEC in the Atlanta area. During her 26 years of military service, she spent the majority of that time assigned to the United States Air Force Academy and Air Force ROTC in admissions and academics. Her passion is empowering young people to develop their leadership and challenge themselves to reach their dreams. Lisa works with students globally and also consults with IEC’s and their clients on their commissioning goals.  925-788-9663

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  • Lourdes Rosado-Ford

    Great article Lisa! I can’t stress enough starting early and staying organized through the entire process of applying to a service academy! Great tips and wonderful read.