Listening to the war stories of heroic soldiers who risked their lives for the sake of their country, saved comrades on the battlefield or received awards for their valor can be inspiring. If you have heard such stories and believe you have the intelligence, fitness and grit necessary to fight for the U.S. and lead a military unit, then you may want to apply to enroll in one of the four military academies.
Or you could apply to join the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a federal service academy that trains seafaring men and women to protect ships going to and from the U.S. and ensure the smooth transportation of goods and passengers.
All five of the major service academies in the U.S. offer highly selective and prestigious bachelor’s programs. College students at the academies — usually called cadets or midshipmen — don’t pay tuition, but in exchange for their government-subsidized education, they typically promise to complete a minimum of five years of work in the national interest after they graduate.
Each academy had an acceptance rate below 17% for fall 2020 applicants, according to data submitted for the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. Experts say students who are interested in attending should begin prepping by their sophomore year of high school at the latest.
An Overview of the Service Academies
The five federal undergraduate service academies do not charge students for tuition, textbooks, uniforms or room and board. Each academy provides extensive fitness and leadership training, which are combined with a rigorous curriculum that includes courses in the humanities and sciences. Academy graduates typically receive a military commission for a junior officer position immediately upon graduation, though alumni of the Merchant Marine Academy frequently find leadership roles at nonmilitary federal agencies.
Here’s are some key data points for each of the five schools.
Location: Air Force Academy, Colorado
Acceptance rate (fall 2020): 13%
Federal agency affiliation: U.S. Air Force and Space Force
Location: New London, Connecticut
Acceptance rate (fall 2020): 13%
Federal agency affiliation: U.S. Coast Guard
Location: Kings Point, New York
Acceptance rate (fall 2020): 16%
Federal agency affiliation: U.S. Merchant Marine, U.S. Armed Forces, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps. and U.S. Public Health Service Corps
U.S. Military Academy, often called West Point
Location: West Point, New York
Acceptance rate (fall 2020): 9%
Federal agency affiliation: U.S. Army
Location: Annapolis, Maryland
Acceptance rate (fall 2020): 9%
Federal agency affiliation: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps
All except the Merchant Marine Academy provide students with stipends. Every academy requires incoming U.S. students to perform a minimum of five years of public service upon graduation.
What a Service Academy Is Like and How to Determine Fit
A federal service academy differs from a conventional undergraduate institution because it serves a broader mission, and it is designed to cultivate strength of body and character as well as intellect. Academy students are trained to take on demanding and dangerous leadership roles that require a combination of athleticism, wits, courage and integrity.
The required core curriculum at service academies is more comprehensive than at other colleges, including a wide range of subjects that are especially relevant to the stressful and technical careers students are likely to pursue after graduation. Academy students are generally expected to study chemistry, engineering, history, law, math, physics, philosophy and psychology regardless of their major. Playing sports throughout college is often mandatory.
“The main difference you’ll find at the Naval Academy and at the other service academies is that you are being developed as a leader, not just getting trained academically,” says Jeff Webb, a former Navy SEAL officer who is now president and CEO of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.
One of the best ways for prospective students to assess whether they would excel at an academy, alumni say, is to visit the campus or, even better, participate in an immersive summer program that provides a preview of the academy experience. Summer programs, which also require applications, are available at the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Naval Academy and West Point.
Becoming Competitive for a Service Academy Appointment
To be eligible for admission into a U.S. federal service academy undergraduate program, prospective students usually must:
— Obtain solid grades in rigorous college-prep courses.
— Earn good standardized test scores.
— Demonstrate leadership via work experience or extracurricular activities.
— Pass the candidate fitness assessment, which includes a series of physical challenges.
— Meet medical and weight standards or receive an official waiver.
— Impress an interviewer.
— Submit a quality essay and resume.
— Have compelling recommendation letters written on their behalf.
— Possess U.S. citizenship (though there are some exceptions).
— Show good moral character.
— Be no younger than 17 and no older than 25 when they matriculate.
— Be unmarried, without dependents they are legally required to support, and not pregnant.
All of the academies except the Coast Guard Academy require applicants to get a nomination from an official source, such as a U.S. representative, a U.S. senator or the vice president.
In some cases, applicants can get a nomination from the Navy or Marine Corps (if an enlisted member already), the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or the president. Children of military personnel and children of Medal of Honor recipients can also receive special nominations.
To get such a nomination, candidates usually have to submit a formal application to the endorsing entity. They do not need to know these sources personally to receive a nomination.
Though it is possible to get admitted into an academy without playing sports at an elite level, most academy students are accomplished on the sports field. Regardless of someone’s fitness level on entry into a service academy, chances are high that such a person will graduate the academy with a high level of stamina, since rigorous exercise programs are incorporated into an academy education.
“It’s not for the meek and mild at heart,” says retired Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, CEO of the U.S. Air Force Academy Association of Graduates and the Air Force Academy Foundation. “You have to be a competitor, and the development in (a) competitive sense is going to set you up well for all sorts of challenges throughout your life and career.”
Gould, who was a Division 1 football player, says service academies set high standards for physical fitness. “We play at the Division 1 level,” he says. “You want to compete against the best with the best. We do bring in a lot of high-quality athletes, but in a sense, every cadet is an athlete, and they have a four-year physical education and curriculum, complete with testing requirements.”
According to Gould, a common misconception is that a person has to be “aggressive” and “hard-driving” in order to get selected for a military academy. “Believe it or not, you will find other-than-Type-A personalities,” he says.
Lt. Col. Thomas Tolman, associate director of admissions at West Point, says one of the primary qualities academy admissions officers look for is leadership potential. “We pride ourselves on being a premier leadership institution.”
Alumni say that the academy admissions process is so intense and thorough that potential students should start thinking about their candidacy as early in high school as possible. Significant planning is often necessary to ensure that all criteria for a service academy are met.
“It’s a journey,” says retired Col. Michael B. Black, an Air Force Academy graduate and vice president for defense with AFCEA International, a nonprofit that promotes solutions to national and international security challenges. “If you’re seriously interested in the academy, you need to start early. Don’t wait until your senior year of high school has already started. … You will be behind the power curve and certainly be behind other folks that are competing.”
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.
More from U.S. News
A Guide to U.S. Service Academies, Military Colleges originally appeared on usnews.com