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December 2009

U.S. Service Academy Overview

Attending one of the five U.S. service academies is an excellent option for aspiring students from public, private, and homeschool backgrounds. Service academies offer some of the most outstanding scholarships available in the world, providing prestigious four-year educations, accredited degrees, extremely low student-to-teacher ratios, outstanding leadership experience, and exciting opportunities not typically provided to college students. Tuition, room, and board are free.

Life at an academy is academically challenging, with an emphasis on math, science, and engineering. Cadets and midshipman take part in extensive military training all four years, with a “boot camp” the first summer. Each academy is a “leadership laboratory” where cadets and midshipman lead the development and training of their own classmates, a unique aspect that sets them apart from civilian colleges and universities. Each academy demands the utmost honor, integrity, and professionalism, producing a strong sense of comradery and trust among all academy graduates. Physical fitness and sports competitions are also integral to the academy experience. Intercollegiate, intramural, and club sports participation are standard. Academies are nationally competitive in numerous sports. They are geographically and culturally diverse, composed of individuals from all 50 states and U.S. territories, along with international military students, making the four-year social experience especially fruitful.

The five academies are:

The Naval Academy offers the opportunity to commission into the Marine Corps as well as the Navy. The Air Force, Army, and Navy are part of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Merchant Marine is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each service has unique and time-honored traditions. Researching each service is important when considering which academy to attend.

Upon graduation, cadets and midshipmen are commissioned as officers into the various services and typically incur a five-year service commitment (the Merchant Marine Academy has unique service commitments—see website for details). The service commitment typically increases with optional graduate school and specialized training, such as pilot training. Each service provides opportunities for numerous career fields, graduate schools, specialized training, and interesting assignments within the United States and overseas. Officers can expect to be leaders within the services and most likely spend some time deployed to worldwide locations. Members are generally eligible for retirement after 20 years of service. Active duty retirement is considered one of the best retirement systems in the country.

Graduates from the academies have an impressive track record within each service as well as in civilian life. Generals and admirals, CEOs, U.S. representatives and senators, astronauts, senior executive service, service organization founders and leaders, explorers, notable scientists and engineers, and even presidents of the United States. Academies attract, train, and produce some of the most successful and influential men and women in the country.

Each academy is highly selective. The academies seek well-rounded individuals that exhibit the following:

  1. Desire to serve our country;
  2. Good character;
  3. Strong academics;
  4. Physically fit with competitive sports participation;
  5. Extracurricular activities; and
  6. Leadership experience.

Each applicant must be a U.S. citizen (with the exception of international students), unmarried and without any dependents, pass the U.S. Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board (DoDMERB) medical examination, complete a physical fitness assessment, meet the age requirements (minimum 17 years old; maximum varies from 22 to 25 years old—see academy websites), and be able to obtain a security clearance.

The application process and timelines for the academies are accelerated compared to typical college and university admissions. The terms “appointment” and “nomination” are important to understand. An appointment is a formal offer to attend an academy. A nomination is a formal recommendation to attend an academy from one of several sources. With the exception of the Coast Guard, academies require a nomination in addition to an appointment. A nomination typically comes from the candidate’s U.S. representative or U.S. senator, called a congressional nomination. There are also vice presidential and presidential nominations. The vice presidential nomination process is similar to the congressional nominations. Presidential nominations are for students with parents who are retired military, active duty, active reserve, and some other categories of military standing—please visit an academy website for details. Students are encouraged to initiate the service academy online application and the separate nomination applications as early as March of their high school junior year. Applications initiated early in the senior year school year can be completed with extreme diligence.

Individuals may apply multiple years, including while enrolled in college. Also, most of the academies provide scholarship opportunities to preparatory schools (“prep schools”) for highly qualified applicants that fall just short of receiving an appointment for various reasons. Prep school graduates have very high appointment rates into the academies.

When considering an academy, it is recommended to also consider applying for a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. These scholarships are another outstanding way to receive partial or complete college funding, while graduating and becoming members of the armed forces. Hundreds of colleges and universities around the country provide ROTC programs. ROTC students graduate and are commissioned as officers in the respective services, just as with the academies. A nomination is not required. Typically, scholarship requirements are not as stringent compared to the academies but are still highly competitive.

Visiting at least one academy is highly encouraged. All service academies provide opportunities to visit and experience academy life either with tours or weeklong programs. Air Force, Coast Guard, Military, and Naval academies provide weeklong programs held during the summer between the junior and senior years. Attending one of these programs is competitive. The Merchant Marine Academy provides daytime and overnight visit opportunities throughout much of the year. The student usually pays travel and other expenses. Applications for the weeklong programs are typically submitted between December and February of the junior year—check the websites, under admissions, for specific information and deadlines.

Student Preparation

Early preparation will naturally make a student more competitive. The following paragraphs offer suggestions and guidelines that should be helpful for students seeking admission to the academies.


An applicant’s academic background is the most important factor in being competitive for an academy. The quality and breadth of curriculum of all applicants are considered by the academies. Each academy may have a slightly different recommended curriculum, but the following provides some general guidelines:

  • Math: 4 years (college prep; strong foundation in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; calculus if possible)
  • English: 4 years (including study of effective writing, surveys of English and American literature)
  • Chemistry: 1 year (with lab if possible)
  • Physics: 1 year (with lab if possible)
  • History & Social Studies: 3 years (including 1 year of American history, 1 year of European or world history)
  • Foreign language: 2 years (typically a modern speaking language)
  • Computer science/Information Technology/Typing: Proficiency in typing and basic computer skills

Standardized Tests

Determining the student’s academic ability relies heavily on SAT or ACT results. For homeschooled students, more weight is typically placed on the SAT or ACT than on grades because of not having transcripts from a public or private school. It is imperative to practice taking the SAT or ACT to achieve the highest scores possible. The academies take the best individual score from each test, of all tests submitted, for either SAT or ACT.

College Experience

College students may apply to the academies. College experience is not required to attend an academy, but may provide a student the opportunity to strengthen weak academic areas. College students must still provide all high school information for academy applications.


Participation in competitive, organized athletics is a critical indicator for physical aptitude, leadership potential, and success at an academy. Joining and competing in a local club or league, with sanctioned events, for sports such as basketball, tennis, soccer, rowing, lacrosse, swimming, gymnastics, baseball, football, running (cross country or 5–10K races), rifle shooting, biking, etc., is a reasonable means of achieving this experience. Marching band is not considered a sport. If possible, hold some sort of leadership position such as team captain.

Extracurricular Activities

This is a broad category that includes activities such as employment, Scouting, church youth group, community service, civic clubs, Boys/Girls State, music, theater, etc. This category indicates leadership potential and success at an academy. The key is quality, not quantity, in your involvement. Holding a leadership position with an organization or activity is much more important than simply being a passive member of numerous organizations.

Homeschool Students

Several of the service academies provide detailed information for homeschool applicants. See these links for more info:

There are technically no additional requirements placed on homeschooled students to apply, but some areas need extra attention. Homeschooled students typically enjoy a tailored curriculum to best suit the needs of the individual, which is one of the significant homeschool strengths. Homeschooled students must be especially vigilant in documenting their academic experience from the 9th grade forward. Due to non-traditional academic records, students should contact the academy admissions counselors for specific guidelines and questions, as they may vary from one academy to another.

The homeschooled student must carefully document their coursework. For example, instead of simply documenting completion of Algebra I, also include a basic outline of material covered and the course publisher This extra information is helpful when attached to the transcript.

Transcripts must fully document the student’s achievement. Parent-generated transcripts or transcripts from an umbrella school are acceptable. If an umbrella school is not applicable to a student’s situation, then getting help from a local homeschool group, co-op, and organization such as the Home School Legal Defense Association is highly recommended. The transcript should include the following:

  • Course or class title;
  • Length of course and completion date;
  • Grade and grading scale;
  • Cumulative grade point average (GPA);
  • Curriculum and/or course description;
  • Text and materials used.

Clearly communicate to the academies whether or not the local public school board or state board of education, if applicable, recognizes your umbrella school.

If possible, attend a college or university for at least a semester to experience and demonstrate experience in a structured classroom environment. While college experience is not mandatory, this helps admissions and nomination panels feel more confident regarding a homeschooler’s ability to function and perform in an academic environment similar to an academy.


The academies offer outstanding college and career opportunities. The earlier the preparation begins, the easier it is to develop a strong resume. The academies are looking for the well-rounded individual that juggles a variety of activities. Make the effort to hold leadership positions, participate in extracurricular activities, compete in athletics, tailor the curriculum, consider full-time or dual-enrollment in a local college, apply for one of the academy summer programs, and begin taking multiple SAT and/or ACT tests in the sophomore and junior year.

If the first year of applying does not reap an appointment, students can continue applying for multiple years and potentially receive scholarships to prep schools. A significant percentage of academy graduates applied multiple years, attended prep school, or had previous college enrollment.

Where to start? Go to the academy websites, start an application, contact the admissions offices, and get in contact with your local or regional academy representative. Begin the process of building a strong resume as outlined above. Document all of your activities and achievements. Preparation and persistence are essential to being competitive.

Disclaimer: This document is not an official publication of any Service Academy, and consequently should not be cited as an official government source of information.