naval academy graduation

by Lisa Albro, former admissions officer at Goucher College

While it isn’t unheard of to attain an officer’s rank without a college degree, two highly sought-after paths involve earning both the title and a bachelor’s degree concurrently: military academies and ROTC programs. But which one is the best fit for you?

Military Academies

One of the first things I try to ascertain from students who are interested in pursuing military service through higher education is whether they wish to have a traditional college experience. If what they envision for themselves involves mostly “typical” college life—classes, socializing in the quad, enjoying amenities off campus, internships, maybe a part-time job, leisure time, wearing mostly civilian clothes—it’s not likely that life at a military academy would suit them.

Attendance at a military (or, service) academy carries with it certain demands that set it apart from the college life that most students know. For starters, everything is regimented. Students follow strict schedules from early in the morning through evening, that include academics, athletics, and company training/group commitments. Uniforms are required. Even meals are scheduled and specific regimens and protocols must be followed at mealtime. Academic demands are high, as are expectations of faculty and upperclass student leadership. Students must participate in varsity or intramural sports, and it is mandatory to attend home football games. Off-campus privileges are limited, and are granted in small increments as students progress through years of attendance. Summers vacations may last only a few weeks, as students must report for summer duty assignments.

In spite of all the demands of attendance at service academies, thousands of students compete each year to gain admission to these highly selective programs. Tuition, room, and board are provided to attendees. In exchange, however, graduates are expected to commit to five years (or more, if trained in certain specialty areas) of active duty service to their branch of the military.

Even the application process includes added layers of responsibility for prospective students. They must secure a nomination from an elected official (their congressional representative, senator, or vice president), pass a physical fitness test and a medical examination. Upon graduation, they earn a bachelor’s degree and are commissioned as officers for service in the United States military with the rank of Second Lieutenant.

ROTC Programs

For students who wish to serve as officers in the military, but still want to enjoy most elements of a traditional college experience, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) could be the way to go. Students attending ROTC programs for Army, Navy, and Air Force service generally enroll in military training courses that take place at different times during the week. Additionally, they usually meet several mornings a week with their fellow cadets for physical training, and participate in leadership training. While uniforms are required when attending ROTC classes and participating in drills, civilian clothing can be worn at other times. The time commitment for ROTC instruction and training may only amount to several hours per week during the semester. Some summer commitments will become necessary, as well.

Upon successful completion of their studies and the ROTC program, students will earn a bachelor’s degree and be commissioned as officers in the United States military with the rank of Second Lieutenant—the same rank military academy graduates earn.

The application process for ROTC programs takes place alongside students’ application to colleges that offer ROTC (or colleges whose students are allowed to participate in other schools’ ROTC programs, if they don’t offer their own). This application process does not involve as many layers as the military academy application processes do, but applicants still must pass a physical fitness test.

Applicants to the service academies are encouraged to also apply to ROTC programs in their chosen branches of the military, to give themselves the option to participate in training for service if not admitted to the academies.

Both ROTC training and service academy training yield the same commissioned officer’s rank and bachelor’s degrees, but students need to consider how much of a military experience they desire during their four years of college.

Stay tuned for more posts on this topic. In April, we’ll discuss how ROTC programs can affect the college experience; in May, we’ll cover the ins and outs of applying to military academies.

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Written by Lisa Albro
Lisa Albro is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Lisa previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Goucher College and as the director of college counseling at Solomon Schechter Day School and Xavier High School. Visit our website to learn more about Lisa Albro.