For most students, the summer after high school graduation is often filled with making memories with friends, dreaming about freedom from parents, and the excitement of freshman year. At the end of August, new grads will head off to college: dorm rooms will be set up with recently purchased accessories, school-sponsored functions will be attended, and families will take time for a meal together to celebrate the start of a new adventure. But the scenario for students who have chosen a military college education will be quite different. If you’re considering attending a federal service academy in the future, here are the basics and what to expect.
The 5 US service academies
There are five distinct US service academies that students can attend to prepare for service in the respective branches of the US military:
- United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York
- United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland
- United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut
- United States Military Academy in West Point, New York
- United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado
Admission, requirements, and nominations
Your four years at a service academy would certainly be different than what most college students experience. The application process alone provides additional challenges. All of the academies, with the exception of the Coast Guard Academy, require candidates to receive a nomination from their senator or congressional representative before applying. The United States Naval Academy stresses the need for applicants to begin early, stating, “You can begin the application process as early as your junior year of high school, and we encourage the earlier the better!” Students should also be aware of the specific eligibility criteria that’s required for each school.
Starting your journey
The differences in preparing for a service academy begin early as well. For starters, summer vacation for students entering service academies is short. In-Processing Day (I-Day) at the US Air Force Academy—the start of six weeks of Basic Cadet Training before the more than 1,100 incoming freshmen officially become cadets—is at the end of June. The student drop-off scenario is also different. For I-Day, the Academy indicates that “guests may watch as their appointees board buses, as this will be the final opportunity to see them before Parent’s Weekend” in September. That means no help setting up dorms or hanging family photos. The focus for new service academy students is on an immediate transition from civilian to military life.
At the United States Military Academy, every incoming cadet is required to carry out the same requirements on Reception Day (R-Day), the start of their 47-month experience, where “they undergo administrative processing, are fitted with their initial military clothing issue, receive haircuts, undergo medical and physical evaluations, and begin their first lessons in marching, military courtesy, and discipline.” An Oath of Allegiance is also taken at this time. During the six-week Cadet Basic Training and throughout the plebe year, the new class can expect limited interactions with upper-class cadets. New cadets are also quickly taught four acceptable responses to questions:
- Yes, sir/ma’am.
- No, sir/ma’am.
- No excuse, sir/ma’am.
- Sir/ma’am, I do not understand.
This basic training period helps new cadets learn the initial skills of a soldier as well as adapt to mental and physical stress. They participate in rifle marksmanship, small-unit tactical training, and rigorous physical activities and are formally accepted into the Corps of Cadets at the end of the initial training period.
Is the academy life for you?
Personal character and a life of honor are critical components emphasized at all academies. West Point’s motto is Duty, Honor, Country. Midshipmen at the Naval Academy commit to a standard that they will not lie, cheat, or steal. Character-building activities and rigorous challenges are built into the daily lives of future military officers.
A day in the life
Here’s an example of a typical day for a US Coast Guard Academy cadet:
- 6:00 am—Reveille. Cadets get an early start to the day.
- 6:20 am—The morning formation and breakfast period include sharing of daily activities and uniform inspections.
- 7:00 am—Military training that might include professional and leadership development.
- 8:00 am—Morning classes. At the service academies, all students must stand at attention when their teacher arrives.
- 12:00 pm—Cadets form up and march to lunch. Meals aren’t just for eating; cadets are taught good table manners and superiors may ask questions to test a cadet’s knowledge.
- 1:00 pm—Afternoon classes.
- 4:00 pm—Athletics. Every cadet is considered an athlete at the Coast Guard Academy. Intercollegiate teams, club sports, and intramural programs provide a lot of athletic activities to choose from.
- 6:00 pm—Dinner allows the 1,000+ new cadets to share a meal together.
- 7:00 pm—The evening study period may include club meetings or Corps-wide events.
- 10:00 pm—A bugle plays taps, signifying the sacrifices of others and the end of the day.
The academies are vastly different
Some students apply to all five service academies not understanding that they are significantly different from one another. Many high school students find interest in the academies because there’s no tuition and other costs are covered by the government or deeply subsidized. However, attending these schools isn’t free. The federal government’s investment in students is “repaid” by the fulfillment of a service obligation. Careers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard provide different career paths, and graduates will serve in one of the armed forces after graduation.
However, the United States Merchant Marine Academy provides more options than the other federal academies when it comes to postgraduate life. The Academy “educates and graduates leaders…to serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States as licensed Merchant Marine Officers and commissioned officers in the Armed Forces.” That means graduates can choose to work in the civilian US maritime industry, with their commitment fulfilled through eight years of service as an officer in any Armed Forces reserve component. Another option is to serve five years on active duty in any of the nation’s Armed Forces.
Attending a federal service academy isn’t for everyone. High school students should think carefully about the type of life they’d like to lead, both in college and after graduation. For those who can meet the rigorous academic, physical, and mental challenges, the academies provide an opportunity to earn a degree through an exciting and unique college experience.
Not sure a full-blown military academy is the best fit? Consider an alternative but similar path and check out our article A Quick Guide to ROTC: How to Know if It's Right for You.