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  • Writer's pictureLTC Brechin, USAF, Ret.

Service Academies & Varsity Sports -- Are They Required?

Updated: May 7

One question that I often hear from students is . . .

"Must I be a varsity athlete to become a cadet or midshipman at one of the U.S. service academies?"

USNA midshipman candidate who plays soccer

The bottom line answer is: no, you do not have to be a varsity athlete. However, it helps a bunch!

If you've done your homework, you will note that more than 80% of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy were varsity athletes in high school. The same is true for USMA, USCGA and USMMA. With this statistic in mind, how does a candidate without a varsity sport address this disparity?

I have three recommendations for you:

  1. Prepare early and perform well on your Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA).

  2. If possible, join a high school team as soon as you can.

  3. Find a sport or two (outside your high school teams) in which you can participate and thrive, especially if you are not part of a high school team.

Let's review each of these suggestions, and your approach to each one.


I'm a great believer in not just 'passing' the CFA, but performing as well as you can on each event. My blog about the CFA provides more insight. However, I want to point out the 'obvious' reasoning, in case you miss it!

All cadets are athletes. To become a soldier, airman, marine, guardian or sailor, you must be physically fit and have the ability to perform the difficult physical exertions associated with our profession. You must be committed to a being an 'athlete.' Your strong performance on the CFA allows the selection board to 'see' that you are in good shape despite not being a varsity athlete in high school.

If you happen to play volleyball, golf, fence, or similar non-aerobic sports, then your CFA score may also serve as a way to confirm your physical fitness. These kinds of sports demonstrate your coordination, teamwork and commitment, so continue to participate in them. Just be aware of the importance of your CFA performance.

Some students simply do not have the time to participate in team sports. Groups, such high school marching band or Junior ROTC, often require significant time commitments. Some students may have a part-time job to help their families. Plus, school work and other responsibilities are important, too. If time commitments are an issue for you, then you must note this point in your essays and interviews during the nomination, academy and ROTC applications process.


Even a senior in high school may find a opportunity to join a team. Often, sports like cross-country and track are "non-cut" sports. In other words, anyone can join and participate.

Having this experience on your résumé -- even if you do no earn a varsity letter -- will help you address this 'disparity' in your application. When combined with a strong CFA score, you increase your chances of earning an appointment.

Team sports provide valuable experiences by allowing candidates to engage with and lead others. This experience is very important to the military, as everything in the military is accomplished with teams of individuals that must work well with each other. Team sports provide this kind of experience for student athletes.


Club sports teams, martial arts, ultimate frisbee teams, biking groups and many others are typically available in local communities and cities. Often, these groups are more flexible than high school teams that practice more often and are less tolerant of busy students that cannot participate in every practice session and competition. Many of my students are involved in Taekwondo, Jiu Jitsu and other martial arts. These activities provide a great way to improve your fitness and learn combat related skills with a sport that will fit into your schedule.

What's more, just like any other team, your participation provides additional opportunities to engage and work with others as a member of a team. Adding these kinds of sports to your résumé will help. During lulls in your schedule and over summer break, you may find more time to participate to improve your fitness.

As a varsity athlete, you're in a better position to earn an appointment than candidates that do not have this component on their application. However, if you are not a varsity athlete, then the combination of the three suggestions outlined in this blog will make you more competitive. Score well on the CFA, participate on a high school team (if possible) and join other athletic endeavors outside school to provide you with valuable team experience and improved fitness.

You may not be a varsity athlete, but with the right plan and execution, you can be a cadet or midshipman!

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

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