Parents must know these things if their kid is thinking about attending a service academy
(Photo: U.S. Army, Sgt. Ricky Bowden/Released)

By Elaine Brye

Our oldest son was 13 when he told us he wanted to attend a service academy.

I can distinctly remember the feeling of panic that started in the pit my stomach and rose to my throat. “That’s a pretty lofty goal,” I told him, hiding that I was worried about the possibilities of success. It did not help when he went to counselor at our rural high school: “The Academies? No one from here ever gets into those. I suggest you make a different plan.”

Fast forward 20 years and a lot had changed. He and two of his siblings graduated from the United States Naval Academy (USNA), and our youngest son turned down two appointments to service academies to accept an Army ROTC helo scholarship from the University of North Dakota. I became a Blue and Gold Officer for eleven years for the USNA and was responsible for evaluating and counseling candidates. I also served on the Ohio 6th District Nominating Committee for eight years. I worked with dozens of candidates and many of them achieved their dreams of a service academy education.

While the process is daunting, it is not impossible, especially when you have a road map. After all, thousands of students are accepted every year. Why not your son or daughter? Here is my guidance if your child has expressed an interest in attending a service academy and wants to make the effort to apply:

Assess their motivation

Do they want to be an officer or do they just want the “service academy experience”? If becoming an officer is their goal, they really need to examine all options. My children received ROTC scholarships as well as appointments.

When I came across an applicant who only applied to an academy, it gave me pause. My question for them was: Where do you see yourself in five years? The goal should be a commission and job in the military. It is a tough four years, and if they don’t have a future focus, it can be very hard to be successful. They also cannot make the decision to fulfill someone else’s dreams. Mom or Grandpa won’t be there at 5 AM for physical training during Plebe Summer to cheer them on. The desire must come from within.

Understand the admission requirements

Each academy has its own idiosyncrasies, but when it comes to admissions, every candidate needs to be triple qualified. That is, they must be qualified physically by passing the medical exams and fitness test, academically  qualified (which includes GPA and test scores), and receive a nomination from a nominating source. (The US Coast Guard Academy does not require a nomination.) On top of that, the admission boards judge candidates on leadership and character.

Everything is evaluated on a point system. You can check online to see what each academy posts regarding the biographical components of each of the classes.

Being a child of a graduate, an Eagle Scout, or a team captain are all things that can gain extra points, but points are are certainly not limited to that. Working a job to help provide for the family, raising 4-H animals, or setting up a food bank at a local church are all other ways to stand out and show leadership.

Nomination processes vary from source to source

The key there is to apply to all sources. It is not necessary to be politically active to secure one. Most now have committees like the one I served on to assess each candidate’s potential as a future officer.

Start early

Ideally, the time to start preparing is junior high. All academies have a focus on math and science, so future applicants should take the hardest math and science classes offered. Our little rural school was limited, so our kids took post-secondary option classes at the local university. Start taking the ACT and SAT–yes, even in junior high. They can adjust to how to take the test and identify weak areas. You do not have to report the scores. Academies use the highest verbal and math scores from any combination of tests.

Make a resume-building plan

What activities and volunteer programs does your child want to pursue, understanding that these are important in the application process? If they start later, don’t panic. . .  but understand that they may be playing catch-up in terms of maxing their standardized test scores. Investigate opportunities to send them to a summer sports camp to learn more about the academy they are interested in. Midway through their junior year, they can apply to Summer Seminars (the name of the program varies by academy). This is a great way to get the academy experience and demonstrate motivation.

Be persistent

The application process is dubbed “the fifth year.” Every year, more than half of my candidates did not complete their applications. Get organized in the junior year, making a master list of everything that needs to be completed. Nomination sources will have different deadlines, medical exams will need to be completed as well as the actual application. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to see so many miss the deadline for submitting their nomination requests or completing their PT tests. ROTC applications also open in April of the junior year. It can be a tough climb–one third of every class has applied at least one or two times before. Persistence pays off in the big picture.

I do not recommend enlisting to try and get admitted. It is possible, but it is my opinion that your student will be better served by attending a year of college and taking classes that replicate the first year of the academy to prepare and apply again.

Advice for parents

Suggest that your child (not you!) get in touch with the local service academy representative in their area. I was happy to counsel kids as young as 12 or 13 who had the desire to make their dream come true.

Find your local parents club and make a connection.

Suggest your child apply to all academies. Sometimes the best fit is not what they first thought they wanted.

Help them keep their eye on the prize, which is to guarantee a path to commissioning and preparation for a career in service.

It’s hard work, but they can make their dreams come true with planning and effort. Do not be intimidated. All the paperwork, deadlines, and patience will be worth it.