For many students, the military offers adventure, a way to help pay for college, and a life of service. They may have a family tradition of military service, or a desire to follow an uncommon path.

But students often underestimate the complexity of applications for these programs and overlook potential paths to a military commission.

College and Career

Military college programs exist to educate and train future officers for the US military. This dual mission of education and professional training means that the application process differs from what students go through for purely academic programs. Failure to recognize the distinctive elements of military programs often contributes to unsuccessful applications.

Multiple Paths to Service

Service Academies are immersive military programs AND degree-granting colleges. Academy cadets and midshipmen attend classes, live within a military environment, and have rank-based responsibilities and privileges. There is no charge for tuition, food, or housing. Many students are aware of the larger Department of Defense academies: US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, and US Air Force Academy. They should also consider the smaller federal service academies. The US Coast Guard Academy trains officers for the Coast Guard, which has missions in maritime safety, security, and stewardship of natural resources. US Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen split their time between the classroom and terms at sea on commercial merchant ships and must pass professional mariner licensure exams before graduation.

Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is a military training program embedded in civilian colleges. ROTC unit members are full-time college students who take military science classes, do frequent military training, and commission as military officers at graduation. ROTC scholarships can help pay for tuition or room and board, but students can also join college ROTC (and earn a military commission) without a scholarship. While individual ROTC units are smaller than academies, as a whole they produce more military officers than academies do. In addition, some colleges offer institutional discounts to ROTC scholarship students.

The ROTC experience for an individual student will vary widely depending on which college they attend and which ROTC program they are part of. Students should consider the merits of Senior Military Colleges (such as Texas A&M or Virginia Military Institute) with a uniformed Corps of Cadets, ROTC units at large and small colleges, or even attending one college while participating in ROTC at another school through a crosstown agreement.

Students at academies or ROTC programs graduate with a bachelor’s degree and commission as officers in the military. They agree to serve as junior officers for 3-10 years, depending on which program they were part of and their military career specialty after graduation.

Complex Applications

Students are evaluated as scholars, leaders, and athletes. Like other selective colleges, military academies and ROTC scholarships consider grades, curriculum, and activities. Test scores remain a very important selection factor, so students should plan to have solid test scores by early fall senior year. These applications also require physical fitness tests and a medical qualification review.

Students interested in attending an academy must not only apply to the academy for admission, but also receive a nomination from at least one nomination source. The majority of students appointed had a congressional nomination. Members of Congress each run their own competitive nomination application process and may require essays, test scores, and interviews. These nomination applications usually have deadlines in early fall and are independent of academy admissions applications. (The Coast Guard Academy does not require nominations.)

Students interested in ROTC scholarships also have a dual track process, since they need to apply to colleges affiliated with ROTC units in addition to applying for the ROTC scholarship. Each service (Army, Navy, and Air Force) manages their own scholarship review process. Applications open before senior year, and boards meet fall through spring senior year. Students should work on their military applications at the same time they are completing college apps. Waiting for college admission results before submitting ROTC scholarship applications would put students at a significant disadvantage.

Pro Tips for IECs

In 20 years guiding students as a Naval Academy admissions liaison officer and as an IEC, I’ve seen several ways that an experienced mentor can help a student through this process.

• Discuss multiple pathways to a commission or a military specialty. I encourage students interested in an academy to investigate the corresponding ROTC program. Multiple military branches offer specialties like aviation specialties, ground operations, intelligence, and logistics. Those interested in the sea services should know about Coast Guard and Merchant Marine options as well as the Navy.

• Recognize that military academy and ROTC scholarship applications are competitive. Selectees typically have strong grades in rigorous courses and leadership experience and physical fitness. Students with strong leadership and fitness traits might be offered a place in an academic preparatory program, but high grades and scores may not make up for missing leadership experience or fitness test failures.

• Help create an application timeline. Deadlines for congressional nominations and the first ROTC scholarship boards may be earlier than Early Decision and Early Action deadlines. Procrastinators often run out of time to complete the process.

• Reach out for help. Consider working with another IEC who has experience with military applications. This is an area similar to performing arts and athletic recruiting, where small details matter and building expertise takes time.

Bottom Line

Students who apply to military college programs aren’t just applying to college; they are applying to join a profession. This profession may be exciting, arduous, adventurous, and tedious—maybe all in the same day. Rather than focusing on an academy because of name recognition, students interested in military service should pursue multiple commissioning sources and take a long view, which might include military prep programs, joining ROTC without a scholarship, or applying to academies over multiple years.

Photo credit: US Department of Defense (DoD). Use of photo does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

By Lisa Rielage, MSEd, IECA Associate (VA), US Naval Academy (’91), Admissions Decrypted