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  • Writer's pictureLTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.

Academic Preparation & the U.S. Service Academies

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

New cadets and midshipmen must have a strong academic background in high school

Academic schedule for an AF cadet candidate

Academics at the U.S. service academies -- the U.S Air Force Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S Military Academy, and the two others -- are challenging. Cadets and midshipmen take a heavy academic load, plus they must stay 'on top' of their military responsibilities and training along with their physical fitness demands. Time management and the ability to study effectively are important tools that students must possess. Closely related to these tools are the academic preparations that students make prior to arriving at USAFA, USNA, USMA, USCGA and USMMA.

So, how should you prepare? First, follow the guidelines provided by the different service academies (SAs). The general recommendations for academics in high school are to take:

  • 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

Often, my students ask if they should take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, Honors and 'normal' versions of each. In general, you should challenge yourself to learn and retain the skills that you will acquire in any of your courses. For some, it means taking three or four AP courses in a quarter or semester of school. For others, that kind of academic load will be too heavy and not allow you to do anything else, or will perhaps lead to some burnout and failure. I think there is a balance.

If you are a good math student, then take the AP Pre-Calc course or the AP Geometry course. Students who need some improvement with their writing and composition may want to take the Honors English Literature course or the 'normal' one. I suggest that you meet with your counselor and, perhaps, a teacher that runs the AP or IB course that you are exploring. Honestly discuss your goals and your current skill set. They will help you make the best selection. Start this consultation early so you may make the best decision for your academic path.

Focus on learning as you take each academic course. These skills will be a critical ingredient to your success at the Air Force Academy. Do not play games by taking easy courses that allow you to keep a higher GPA. In the end, the Naval Academy admissions officers will note the lack of quality academic courses on your high school transcripts and you will be penalized.

Let's discuss some details by each subject area.

For English, the SAs recommend that you take four years of coursework with special attention to the study and practice of effective writing. Being a good writer who writes properly and effectively is a career building skill for anyone. The SAs also suggest that you participate in surveys of English and American literature.

For mathematics, four years of math is also recommended, including a strong foundation in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. Courses in pre-calculus and calculus are also very valuable and are highly encouraged. A good foundation in algebra is more important than exposure to calculus.

As noted previously, students should take four years of science. Your studies should include one year each of chemistry and physics, with laboratory work, if possible. Note that all cadets and midshipmen graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree, no matter the academic major that they decide to pursue. Your skills in science and mathematics will be critical to ensure success through the entire core curriculum that will include engineering courses, physics, math, statistics and more.

Social studies and history are important components to your preparations, too. Take one full year of U.S. history and, where possible, a full year of European or world history.

Foreign language study should also be part of your four years in high school. You should take at least two years of a language.

Computer and typing courses are recommended as all cadets and midshipmen are required to use personal computers in most courses and will learn some programming skills.

It is never too early to learn, practice and perfect your time management and study skills. Often, talented students to not learn these skills as many high school courses do not challenge them. The academics at USMA, USNA and USAFA will be heavy and challenging so you must have good study and time management skills. My blog here discusses an approach to learning and using these important skills.

Follow the prescribed recommendations for your academic preparations while you are in high school. Make good, informed selections for your specific academic courses and focus on learning. With some good study habits and time management skills, you will carry your academic success with you when you arrive at the Academy!

[I would welcome a chance to discuss details with you. I offer coaching services to pace and prepare you (and your parents!) for the entire Academy application process . . . along with the some advice concerning your next set of high school courses! Contact me at chris@cbbrechin.com, 503.515.7406 or complete my contact form on the home page.]

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