My son is in the process of applying to the United States Air Force Academy. I will spend much of my time on this blog talking about that process as I know that I appreciate every little bit of help I can get. There are a ton of forums out there, and everyone has their opinions, so sometimes weeding out what’s helpful is a long process. But here are a few things I’ve learned so far.
1. Being smart is important, but it’s not everything.
And standardized tests are a poor indicator of how truly smart someone is. My son has done very well in school. He’s 8th in his class of 733. He has a weighted GPA of more than 4.7 and is taking honors, AP and dual enrollment classes. But he’s not shown himself to excel on standardized tests. Unfortunately, the Academy has standards and if you do not meet those standards, you are disqualified. So far, DS (military academy speak for “dear son,” which, along with DD, is how all posters on military forums refer to their children) is considered competitive by the Academy.
2. Being athletic is important, but it’s not everything (do you sense a pattern here?)
Ever since DS decided he wanted to apply to the Academy, we’ve been talking about his participation in a team sport. He played Little League Baseball for many years, but hasn’t since before middle school. He earned his blue belt in Tae Kwon Do instead. Once he reached high school, he got deeply involved with his AFJROTC unit, participated in the drill team and commanded the armed drill team, which knocked him out of sports because the drill teams practice every day. Each Academy candidate has to pass the Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA), which includes several components. If you fail even one component, you fail the whole CFA. If you fail the CFA, you’re out. So, being physically fit is necessary (obviously, since we’re talking about military service here), but that can be accomplished in ways other than participating in team sports.
Unfortunately, the Academy ranks their candidates by said participation. I did have one forum poster tell me that DS needs to be doing what he has a passion for. If JROTC is it, then that’s what he needs to do. The Academy is looking for opportunities for leadership. My DS has that within his JROTC unit by being named the Vice Wing Commander of his unit next year. His unit is more than 500 strong. That’s leadership. I hope the Academy sees it that way.
3. The Nomination from a member of Congress is everything (it really is).
No nomination, no appointment, no matter how great you are. So right now, DS has been collecting letters of recommendation to send to our senators (2) and congressman (1) and the Vice President of the United States (a long shot, but they say to apply everywhere you qualify) to send in with his application for nomination. A nomination committee will review his application and either call him for an interview, or disqualify him. If he gets the nomination, he still has to pass the CFA and his medical evaluation. If he does all that, he still needs to receive an appointment from the Academy. It’s a long, long process.
4. There is seemingly no end to the details that have to be covered.
DS has taken both the SAT and the ACT twice; now those scores have to be sent to our MOCs (Members of Congress). Essays have to be written. That’s the tough part because your essay really needs to stand out. Every list the MOCs have needs to be checked and rechecked to make sure everything that is required is enclosed. If not, your application will be turned down flat. Letters of recommendation, along with an academic recommendation from his principal, have to be sealed and then signed across the seal so the committee knows it hasn’t been tampered with. They need a photo with his name on the back. They need a checklist of items in the file. It’s enough to make an administratively minded person like myself pull out my hair. My 17-year-old son is barely surviving.
5. Discouragement is always close at hand.
You have to be on a sports team. Your ACT score is just adequate. You don’t stand out. How discouraging is that to hear for a kid entering his senior year, working a part-time job, being 2nd in command of a huge JROTC unit, volunteering with the middle school youth at his church? It’s summer and I can’t seem to motivate him to get up early to go run, to practice for the CFA, to study harder for the ACT. Especially when I’m trying to back off and let him have more control of his life. I’m determined not to nag.
After the last SAT scores came out he said to me, “I’m not going to make it.” That made me sad because I feel that he’s losing hope. We don’t know what the candidate pool looks like this year. All we know is that he can only do his best and the rest is up to God. Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do. That’s the Air Force motto. Those are intangibles. He has control over his academics and his physical fitness. He can study more for the standardized tests. But his integrity, his character, who he is when no one’s looking, are what will stand out in the end.
Hopefully, the MOCs will notice.