Getting Ready for the Academy Application Process
Updated: Mar 26
You desire to earn an appointment to one of the U.S. Service Academies. Perhaps, you always wanted to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, or you would like to earn an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. You may be interested in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There is also the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
No matter the destination, you must prepare for the application process itself. It is long and a bit arduous. Typically, you start the ‘paper work’ in the spring of your junior year in high school. Preparation, however, is something you should start now. Not tomorrow, but now when you can make changes and adjustments as necessary in your path. But, what changes? What adjustments? What can I do to better qualify for a service academy appointment?
The best answer to these questions starts with a review of the ‘ideal candidate.’ Each of the Academies seeks individuals who possess exceptional academic prowess and leadership potential to serve as leaders in the U.S. military forces. The search is for the ‘renaissance woman’ or ‘renaissance man’ with the ability to act in the field with strong athletic dexterity, with purpose, leading the troops with the acumen of strong know-how and insight. Often, the life or death of the individuals under their command depends upon this set of skills. The military services consequently seek to find candidates that exhibit intelligence, leadership and athletic drive. Let’s look at each of the three areas that were just noted – we’ll start with “intelligence.”
Two major academic performance indicators are used by the Academies to evaluate your ability to learn and prosper in a tough academic environment. They are your prior academic record and your college admissions test scores. Both provide ideas around changes or adjustments that you might make in your path. First (and longer term) is your academic record. If you are a freshman, then you have time to re-focus and make changes to impact your future performance in each of your classes. However, if you are a senior (or, a late-year junior), it may be too late to make a significant change to affect your overall GPA and course grades.
As a high school freshman or sophomore, you should follow the recommendations from the Academies. In general, they recommend the following:
Four years of English (with a college preparatory class in writing)
Four years of math (strong background in geometry, algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus)
Four years of science (lab-based and should include biology, chemistry and physics)
Three years of social studies (to include a course in U.S. History)
Two years of a modern foreign language
One year of computer study
Thus, the first step to change “your path” is to re-visit your current academic roadmap with your high school counselor. Add the courses noted and commit to perform well in them. Extra instruction, adding a tutor, using subject-specific preparation tools and other techniques may be needed to ensure your success in these courses. Don’t just ‘pass’ the course or get through it, but instead work to internalize the material presented for long-term learning. Work closely with your teachers when you identify aspects of a topic that you do not understand. You must recognize that active learning will be the key to your success!
The next area of focus will be the college entrance examinations – the SAT and ACT (Plus Writing). Take both tests early and as often as practical. The Academies will consider only your highest scores and typically require that you take the optional writing section for the ACT. Plus, you must ensure that the test scores are sent to each of the schools of your interest. Note that your scores will not improve by simply taking the test more often. But there are a number of ways to improve you’re the results.
Some pointers from the U.S Military Academy mention that your scores typically increase by either increasing your knowledge of the test material or of the test structure and procedures. Preparatory courses and books will provide a little of both, including the preliminary tests for the SAT and the ACT.
With early testing and test preparation, you can identify areas where you need to improve. Ideally, you will take the PSAT (preliminary SAT) and the PLAN (pre-ACT) as a freshman or a sophomore, which will indicate the areas where you need to improve. Take these tests and their results seriously. Use practice versions for your preparation. Find a quiet place to practice, use a timepiece to keep track of time and pace yourself through the test sections. When the results from the PSAT and PLAN arrive, use them to shape your plans to prepare for the ‘next’ time you take the SAT or ACT.
For example, if you earn a low subscore for ‘standard English conventions’ on the PSAT, then initiate a review to re-learn or familiarize yourself with grammar usage, sentence structure and punctuation. Meet with your English teacher and ask for advice on ways you can improve your skills in this particular area. Use all of the tools available to you to construct an academic improvement plan for the skills that you need to enhance.
Let’s move from academics to the qualities of leadership sought by the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, the Military Academy at West Point, the Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy.
General Douglas MacArthur famously stated, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” Of course, he is alluding to competitive sports and the leadership that is inherent when teams are created and compete. Leadership skills are also formed through other activities, such as Scouting, school clubs, fund-raising groups and other social/civic-based organizations. These groups provide opportunities for you to work with others, to organize events and activities and to impact the overall performance of the club or group.
So, which activities do you choose and how many?
As a minimum, the Air Force Academy recommends that you participate in at least one athletic, or physical activity, and at least one non-athletic activity. All of the Academies look for well-rounded candidates who dedicate themselves to activities on which they spend their time and effort. Thus, select activities and sports that you enjoy. Jump in, have fun and look for opportunities to assume additional responsibilities or take a leadership role. Be the team captain, volunteer to run a club activity, become the club secretary or any other role that you will enjoy. If you are limited in your number of activities, then look for ones that demonstrate character, such as those that help other people or provide service to your community.
One more point concerning your activities: USAFA, USMA, USNA, USCGA and USMMA also consider work experience as a good non-athletic activity, especially for those who must work, and may not have the ability to participate in organized school activities. As with other endeavors, the responsibilities that you assume in the work place are valued and also provide opportunities to demonstrate both teamwork and leadership.
The Air Force Academy states that “all cadets are athletes.” Each of the Academies considers sports participation as evidence that you have the teamwork experience, fitness and athleticism necessary to succeed at the Academy and in the military. If you do not play a sport now, choose one and get started. Cycling, running, rock climbing, racquetball or any other vigorous sport will provide a good basis for participation. Join a team, if possible, and find a league or club to allow you to compete and actively participate in the sport. It is never too late to get started and to engage with a team.
The Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA) is used by the Service Academies to measure your aptitude for the demands of Academy life. Your chosen sport will provide a foundation of fitness to ensure success with this assessment. Active practice, preparation and participation will allow you to build your stamina and be in good athletic shape. The CFA can be challenging so start preparing early for the six different events that you will complete. Aim to accomplish each event above the average registered by candidates in the past. Doing your best will be imperative – start preparing today!
The application process for each of the Service Academies is a ‘marathon race.’ Like a marathon, one must prepare and run at a constant pace to be successful. Your academic record, your demonstrated leadership and your past athletic performance all provide the material to allow the Academy to assess your ability to succeed at USAFA / USNA / USMA / USCGA / USMMA.
‘Get ready’ now by assessing your situation and then plotting the path you will need to follow to compete successfully for an Academy appointment. Your school counselor, a college coach and others can help provide an assessment of your competitive position. Take the initiative, get your plans rolling and compete in all of the activities in which you participate from academics to athletics. If you do that, then you will be well prepared!
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