LTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.
Make a Visit: Seeing, Touring, and Experiencing the U.S. Service Academies
Updated: Dec 31, 2022
"Seeing is believing" is an age-old verse from Greek civilization. The ancient Greeks believed that 'seeing' and 'knowing' were essentially the same. As a potential cadet or midshipman, seeing the service academies, such as the U.S. Air Force Academy or the U.S Naval Academy, provides important knowledge to understand how you will fit at each of the schools. Visiting the U.S Military Academy or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy are great ideas, but I assert that spending additional time at each school will allow you to dig deeply into the expectations, life style and challenges of attending one of the U.S. service academies: USMA, USAFA, USNA and USCGA. By attending an in-person program at one or more of the service academies, you will 'know' if you belong!
So, you ask, what in-person programs provide this kind of experience? Here is a quick list:
Summer Sports Camps
These programs all have key features that allow you to 'know' the school better. First, attendees stay on campus during their programs and spend several nights in the school dormitories. Second, these programs introduce you to adult (military) staff and faculty members along with cadets and midshipmen attending the school. Third, attendees see the different facilities extensively through their daily interactions during the program, and lastly, the on-site staff 'see' you and help you understand how you will live as a cadet or midshipman.
The summer seminars are the most popular programs on the list. They are intended for rising high school seniors. Students start applying for the seminar as early as December of their junior year. The Air Force Academy Summer Seminar (AFASS) application opens quite early and typically closes by the middle of January. The Naval Academy Summer Seminar (NASS) opens next followed by Army's, which is called the Summer Leaders Experience (SLE). Both close in the March time frame, but NASS usually uses a rolling acceptance so applicants should turn-in their applications in a prompt manner. The last availabe seminar is Coast Guard, which has the latest opening and closing windows. Their program is called the Academy Introduction Mission (AIM). AFASS, NASS and SLE hold sessions in June, whereas AIM takes place in July.
In all cases, thousands apply and only a few hundred are selected to attend the summer seminars. Having a PSAT, SAT or ACT score early will allow you to apply quickly so potential attendees might consider taking these tests earlier that you may have planned. Applications typically require your grades for key academic courses, a list of your activities/sports participation and an essay. Each varies but interested students can find more details on each of the academy admissions websites.
One caution: your non-selection for a summer seminar is not an indicator of your competiveness for an appointment as the vast majority of future cadets and midshipmen never attend one. I have one Naval Academy midshipman who literally stopped the process of applying to USNA because he was not selected for NASS. Fortunately, he was advised later of his faulty assumption so he and I started working together in the fall, and he won the appointment later that year! I hope this example serves as a valuable lesson for anyone who thinks otherwise about seminar selection and your ability to earn an academy appointment.
The summer seminars provide all of the key features that I noted previously along with some added benefits. Attendees work closely with a cadet or midshipman, attend some sample classes, overnight in the dorms, eat in the dining hall and meet faculty and staff during the seminar. One other feature of the summer seminars is that they introduce attendees to some of the challenges they will face during basic training as freshmen. I highly recommend that all potential cadets and midshipmen apply for the summer seminars. If nothing else, you have now registered your interest with the school, and qualified candidates will be the first 'in line' to start applications for the individual academies in late spring and summer.
If you are not selected for AIM, NASS, AFASS or SLE, then another way to spend time at any of the service academies is through their sports camps offered through the athletic departments. Camps are available for all ages and a multitude of sports. An attendee does not need to be a superior athlete, but should simply have a desire to improve their skills. The camps provide the same program features noted previously allowing attendees to stay in the dorms, meet students and staff and see the different facilities at the school. One added feature is that attendees will meet and work with the team coaches and assistants along with academy athletes. The camps provide an ideal opportunity for coaches to observe your skills. For a few strong athletes, your performance may generate enough interest to be 'recruited' by the school allowing an easier path to an appointment.
Another great way to see the academies is through STEM camps. Both West Point and Annapolis host camps for various ages: rising 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grade students. Each school's websites will provide details. Also, the Society of American Military Engineers hosts a camp at the Air Force Academy for rising sophomores, juniors and senior along with other military bases across the country. Go to this link for more details.
If none of the listed programs work out, then the last option is simply to visit the academy when you have time. Most of the schools are open year around. You can find details on the admissions websites as guided tours are often available and can be reserved in advance of your visit.
Through any of these opportunities, take advantage of your presence and ask questions! Explore! Dig deep into the back stories of the cadet and midshipmen you meet. Why did they choose the Naval Academy? What is their planned career path in the Army? What is their academic major? What do they like (and dislike) about life at the Air Force Academy? And so on and so forth . . . your inquiries will pay dividends as you affirm your commitment to taking the same path as the cadets and midshipmen that you meet in these programs.
Back in the day (when websites did not exist!), I used a paper catalog from the Air Force Academy to apply for my appointment. The photos included in the catalog were my sole exposure to the campus, the facilities and the mountains that shadow USAFA. My 'guided tour' started with my arrival one sunny day in June 1978. It worked for me so don't feel obligated to visit any of the academies if you cannot find the time to travel. YouTube videos, documentaries, virtual tours and other streaming sources will furnish some great insights to allow you to evaluate the schools and to educate youself around the life of a cadet or midshipman.
One last note: the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy does not offer any summer programs for students as the school runs a three-trimester school year, which does not allow it to support these kinds of programs. You should contact USMMA directly if you would like to tour the school.
I hope you are fortunate enough to attend one of the on-site programs -- summer seminar, sports camp or STEM camp -- at a U.S. service academy. Your visit and 'seeing' the school of your choice will lead to 'believing' that you belong there. ENJOY YOUR VISIT!
[I would welcome a chance to discuss details with you about your aspirations to attend a U.S. service academy. I offer coaching services to pace and prepare you (and your parents!) for the entire Academy application process. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or 503.515.7406]