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Thinking About a Service Academy? Here’s The Breakdown

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Are you considering a career in the military? Attending one of the five service academies affiliated with the armed forces of the United States can be a great way to prepare to serve as a military officer while also getting a high-quality college education.


With highly competitive acceptance rates and some special requirements for admission, getting into the service academies isn’t easy. The application process also starts earlier in high school, so it’s important that you research your options promptly and thoroughly before making a decision. However, if you’re a good match for the particular and challenging environment they foster, you may find that you thrive at one of these schools.


Here’s what you need to know about the service academies in general, their specialized approach to education and military training, their application processes, and the specifics of each of these five schools.



Introducing the Service Academies


The service academies affiliated with the U.S. military exist to train young people to serve as commissioned officers in the various branches of the armed forces. They combine rigorous academic coursework with other training that prepares students for the physical and mental demands of military service and leadership. Upon graduation, students at the service academies receive bachelor’s degrees and are also commissioned as military officers (with certain exceptions).


Admission to the service academies is generally restricted to U.S. citizens except by special invitation. The application process is quite tough, and involves factors that don’t come into play at civilian colleges, such as your physical fitness. Most prospective applicants start the process early, during their junior year of high school.


Except for the United States Coast Guard Academy, all the service academies require you to be nominated for admission in addition to submitting your application. This nomination can come from one of your Congressional representatives or senators, or, in exceptional circumstances, from the President or the Vice President of the United States. Typically, each member of Congress can only issue a certain number of recommendations. (Don’t worry—you don’t have to know your nominator personally in order to seek a nomination.)


In most circumstances, tuition to the U.S. service academies is covered by the branch of the military they represent. Depending on the school, you may still have to cover certain other expenses, such as room and board, the cost of an approved laptop, or costs related to your uniforms.

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In exchange for this financial coverage, you’ll commit to serving in the military for a certain period of time after you graduate. The details of this service commitment will vary based on the school and military branch. If you leave the academy before graduation, either voluntarily or involuntarily, you may be subject to consequences, including having to repay the cost of your education or serve as an enlisted military member rather than an officer.


Life as a student at a service academy is very different from life as a civilian college student. You’re not just getting an education and preparing for a particular career path; you’re being trained to serve in the armed forces, so your experience will also include physical training, military studies, and an introduction to the demands of military discipline.


If you’re considering a service academy, you definitely need to think about whether you can handle a highly regimented environment with many rules, high expectations, and a strict hierarchy. In addition to your academic performance and your physical accomplishments, your moral character will be scrutinized by intense honor codes. You’ll generally have much less freedom than you would at a civilian college. 


Attending a service academy is definitely not for everyone, and it’s not a path you should take unless you’re sure that’s what you want. However, some students find that they flourish in this highly challenging environment, and if you’re already interested in a military career, a service academy can help you get that career started.



United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)


The service academy associated with the Air Force, USAFA, is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is the youngest of the five service academies. One unexpected fun fact about the academy is that its cadet parade uniform was designed by famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, adding a touch of style to the campus atmosphere.


Admission to USAFA is highly competitive, with about 12.3% of applicants accepted. Applicants must be between 17 and 23 years old and unmarried with no dependents, and must show high academic performance as well as good character and physical fitness. Congressional nominations for USAFA applicants are subject to strict quotas, but additional slots are designated for the children of certain military personnel.


In exchange for the typical service obligation, the Air Force covers tuition and room and board for students at USAFA. Students also receive a small stipend.



United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA)


USCGA, which is of course affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard, is located in New London, Connecticut. It differs from the other service academies in a particularly important way: it doesn’t require applicants to be nominated by members of Congress, and there are no application quotas for particular geographic areas. Instead, prospective applicants are evaluated entirely based on personal merit, as demonstrated by their applications.


Applicants must be between the ages of 17 and 22, and unmarried, with no children and no outstanding debt. They’ll need to submit transcripts and test scores, recommendations, and physical fitness exam results, and optionally, interviews. About 16% of applicants are eventually admitted, making the program very competitive.


Tuition to USCGA is covered by the Coast Guard in exchange for five years of service, or more in certain circumstances. Some scholarships are available to help students cover other educational expenses.



United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA)


Sometimes referred to simply as Kings Point, this service academy is located in Kings Point, New York, on the northern shore of Long Island. USMMA differs from the other service academies in that it isn’t affiliated with a particular branch of the U.S. military, so what happens after graduation may follow a different trajectory. 


The service obligation at this academy can take the form of active-duty military service, usually in the Navy or the Coast Guard. Graduates can also elect to take up a wide range of other approved positions in the maritime world, while maintaining a commission in a branch of the military reserves.


About a third of USMMA graduates are commissioned as active-duty officers in the U.S. military. The rest serve in the reserves and generally take up jobs in the maritime industry or join the U.S. Merchant Marine, an organization which is usually concerned with commercial shipping or passenger travel, but can act as an auxiliary to the Navy during wartime.


Admission to USMMA is very competitive, with about 15% of applicants accepted. Applicants must be between 17 and 25 years old and of good character. Strong grades and standardized test scores are required, in addition to a nomination, a physical fitness exam, medical clearance, and security clearance. Most of the cost of attending USMMA is covered in exchange for your service commitment, and financial aid is available to help with the remaining costs.



United States Military Academy (USMA)


USMA, the service academy affiliated with the U.S. Army, is located in West Point, New York, and is often referred to simply as West Point or (particularly in athletics) as Army. It’s the oldest of the service academies, having been initially created under an order from President Thomas Jefferson, and its historically significant campus is a tourist attraction as well as a highly respected educational institution.


Applicants to USMA must be between the ages of 17 and 23 and unmarried, with no children for whom they’re legally responsible. Along with their nomination, they’re evaluated based on grades and test scores, recommendations, interviews, and physical fitness. Only 12.75% of applicants are accepted, so the standards are quite high.


Tuition to USMA is fully covered by the U.S. Army in exchange for a commitment to serve; the details of this service depend upon what’s available at the time and how well the student performs during their college years. Graduates usually serve in the Army, but may be able to go into other military branches.



United States Naval Academy (USNA)


Located in Annapolis, Maryland, USNA, the service academy affiliated with the Navy, is frequently referred to as Annapolis or Navy. Even if you don’t know much about the military, you might be familiar with this school due to its famous athletic rivalry with USMA. (The annual Army-Navy college football game is a popular, nationally televised event.)


USNA is the most competitive of the service academies in terms of admissions, with only 9% of applicants receiving an acceptance. Applicants must be 17 to 23 years old, unmarried, with no children, and of good character. In addition to a competitive academic application and the usual nomination, the application incorporates standardized test scores, a medical exam, fitness assessment, additional references, and an official interview with a local Blue and Gold Officer. 


As with the other service academies, the cost of attendance at USNA is covered by the military in exchange for a service commitment, typically in the Navy or Marine Corps. Students also receive regular pay, from which these educational expenses are deducted.



Learning More


Applying to one of the service academies and committing to five years or more as an active-duty service member is a major decision to make while you’re still in high school. One of these schools might turn out to be the perfect place for you to flourish; there are many young people who find that the disciplined environment and high expectations of the military motivate them to achieve. However, many others find that that life isn’t a good fit.


If you’re struggling with the question of whether to include military service in your plans by applying to a service academy, it can help a great deal to have a mentor who can assist you in identifying your driving passions, setting and meeting goals, and getting to know yourself better as a student and a person. That’s what CollegeVine’s mentorship program is here to do.


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Military service and college don’t have to be mutually exclusive paths! To learn more about the intersection of military service and higher education, check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog.


Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.