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  • LTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.

What Do I Write? ... Essays for the U.S. Service Academies

Updated: Jan 11

Tell stories that are unique to you and relevant to your role as a future military leader

Summer seminars, nominations and applications for the U.S. service academies all require essays, short answer responses and personal statements. I work extensively with my students to brainstorm and then create their personal statements. It can be a daunting task to write a 'great' response to the prompts and questions presented to you. Let's explore a few pointers.


Tell your stories

We all have unique stories. You might use examples of successes, challenges and failures that you have experienced. Examples involving other participants as a team or group are especially interesting to the service academices. Remember the military is one big team!


Speak to the things you learned with these experiences. Be sure to provide details, such as timing, the number of people involved, your role, the task, actions taken and the results.


Don't be afraid to start the essay with an interesting hook or similar opening.


"I remember my heart racing as I stood on the podium."


"My life as a wrestler has included black eyes, sprained shoulders, a broken leg and assorted bruises covering my body. But I love the sport!"


Start with an outline

Using a classic five paragraph structure is a straightforward method to create an outline. That is,

  • Introduction (noting three points of support),

  • Paragraph #2 (covering your first point),

  • Paragraph #3 (covering second point),

  • Paragraph #4 (covering third point), and

  • Conclusion

The outline will allow you to place 'chunks' of information under each paragraph. As you add details and 'chunks' under each point, the strength and relevance of these points will become apparent. You may shuffle the order, merge paragraphs or even add additional points based on your brainstorming and added 'chunks.' It is simply easier to make adjustments in an outline prior to writing the essay itself.


Review relevance prior to writing it

With the outline completed, I recommend reviewing the relevance of the points you have written down. Does the military care? Is it relevant to your future as a cadet or midshipman? Have you included items around teamwork, leadership and engagement? Can I cover all of the essay prompts with these points?


One example I use with my students is chocolate chip cookies. You may be the best baker around and make some 'mean' cookies. But is the military evaluator going to care about this skill? On the other hand, baking cookies for a bake sale to raise money for a club or a charity, which you helped organize is very relevant!


You may want to share the essay outline with your English teacher, or someone who writes well, for their insights.


Now, you are ready to write the essay.


Use proper writing techniques and grammar

Students should use the New York Times (and other well-written newspapers) as great examples of good writing that is interesting, factual and informational. Formal writing is almost a lost art, but you will be expected to write well as a military officer.


Use a Google doc, or similar word processor, to outline and draft your essays. Use tools, like Grammarly, to review the quality of your writing. Keep a copy of your final essay prior to 'cutting and pasting' it into the application. As you complete other nominations and other service academy applications, you may reuse some or all of the essays that you have written previously.


As you write, check that your essay covers all of the prompts provided. It is important to acknowledge and address all of them.


Avoid throwing phrases into the essay that 'tell' the academy what they value, or need. E.g., "the U. S. Naval Academy desires strong leaders . . ." or "Fitness is important to the military . . ." You will save both character/word count and unnecessary details.


Previously, I noted the need to tell your stories of success or challenges. Don't write that you are a good organizer, but instead, provide a concrete example.


"My Eagle Scout project to build a small supply hut for our local elementary school is one example of my ability to organize and manage a complex task. The project took . . . "


"As VP of the Beta Club, I organized our car wash last year. Our goal was to raise at least $500 for a local charity. I asked several members to help me. One was responsible gathering the supplies and another searched for the site. I coordinated the . . ."


When you complete the draft essay, then share it again with your proof reader to review and discuss.


What do I write? . . . With the service academies and your nominations, tell your stories, use an outline to organize your prose, review it for relevance, and finally, use proper writing techniques and grammar.


Now, start writing!


[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, including working with you to brainstorm, outline and write your essays using a shared document. Contact me at chris@cbbrechin.com and/or 503.515.7406]

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