What's it like studying at a US Service Academy (Westpoint, etc)?

The short scifi novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo begins with the protagonist entering his first year in a military academy that is a pretty obvious redressing of the military service academies currently operating in the US.

Now, as I have absolutely no military experience myself I acknowledge that my depiction is likely to be utter, pure BS, but I was hoping to get a basic idea of what cadet life was like, particularly during the first year, so that I could detail the protagonist’s experience beyond “Get yelled at a lot, lose sleep, work really hard”.

So, what kind of experience would an intelligent, undisciplined, and understandably self-centered young man likely have during his first year?

From my sister’s experience (so take it with a significant heap of salt) at the Air Force Academy:
It’s very much joining the military. In June, a week or so after she graduated high school, we dropped her off at the airport. She had a backpack with, if I recall correctly, some paperwork, some underwear, and nothing else. She spent that first night in Colorado at a stranger’s house - there are volunteers within the community who let incoming cadets crash the night before “in-processing”.

Over the summer, it’s basically typical military basic training. The first half of the summer they’re on-campus, getting an introduction to All Things Military. I know my sister went through some drill where they were all in their dorm, one of the upperclassmen in charge called out a uniform, and they had <some tiny amount of time> to change into that uniform and get back into the hallway. Of course, as with everything, even if you did it right you were still wrong.

For the second half of the summer, they march out to a camp in the woods, learn how to shoot, do obstacle courses, etc. There’s still lots of yelling and pushups and such, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the summer they officially take the oath and become “real” cadets.

During the school year, in addition to a heavy courseload (the service academies lean very heavily towards applied sciences, by the way), they’re still limited in where they can go (including what parts of the walkways on campus they can use, just because), whether they can leave campus (not often), and what they can do on-campus (not too terribly much in terms of fun). They’re allowed only a few (5?) personal items visible in their room. It’s a very controlled environment - plenty of stereotypical college actions (drinking, sexing, making a 2 AM Taco Bell run) can get you in big trouble. I can ask about what happens when you do get in trouble, because I don’t think my sister did (she was too busy learning how to be a rocket scientist, and taking Russian at 7 AM). Overall, it’s an incredibly rigorous year, and I imagine your fictional young man can find himself struggling - almost all the cadets are used to being fairly large fish in a small pond, and now the pool is huge and full of sharks. He’ll likely work harder than he ever has (assuming he doesn’t flunk out).

At the end of their first year, at least at USAFA, they have a “recognition” ceremony. Basically, the upperclassmen put the freshman through hell for I think a full weekend, both physically and mentally (screaming, running them ragged, right back to everything you do being wrong, for two? full days). At the end of it, the freshmen get some bit of uniform insignia and are officially “recognized”.

Wikipedia has some pretty good stuff, and I know there are plenty of websites for concerned parents, which may be more helpful. If you want any specifics, I can ask my sister, but I can’t guarantee a prompt reply, as she’s now crazy busy learning how to be a test pilot. (Note: military academies seem to attract an interesting combination of ‘people who are there because Daddy is a general’, and ‘people who are there because they are absolutely compulsive hard workers and always need to be the absolute best’.)

The biggest thing he would learn would be to change fast or he would not complete his 1st year.

NinjaChick, thank you very much for your detailed post! :slight_smile: This helps tremendously… I really appreciate the effort. ^^

If you (and she!) get time to ask, one thing I would be interested to know is how students/staff dealt with academically talented cadets who had discipline or attitude problems: one of the (lagely) villainous characters I’m writing basically wavers between an unrepentant jackass and an outright sociopath: he’s self-centered, extremely egotistical, and tends to outwardly or inwardly regard most of his classmates with a mixture of loathing and condescension.

Now, I understand that teamwork tends to be heavily emphasized in the military, especially among officers, so I’m wondering how your sister thinks upperclassmen and instructors would handle that kind of case: could they rely on the intense academic pressure to force him into buckling down and/or accepting help from his classmates, or would there likely be hazing/special instructor attention until he either dropped out or shaped up? Or would he just be ignored and lost among the press over overachievers and testosterone-junkies? I imagine that a lot of “cocky” personality types are attracted to military careers, so I would’ve guessed that they would be pretty used to handling this sort of thing.

Oh, I certainly figured that- I find characters who don’t change to be kind of boring, so I was planning on having fun watching him (more or less) shape up, and his evil roommate/classmate basically burn out by refusing to do the same.

My Dad is a graduate of one of the U.S. service academies. When he talks about his experiences there, these are the things that stand out:

  • Physically rigourous. They’re preparing students for the military, so your hypothetical young man could expect to work at least as hard, physically, as anyone else entering the services. In addition, he’d be expected to participate in physically demanding team sports.

  • Academically rigorous. If your young man is accustomed to doing well in school with little effort, he’d probably be in for a shock. They’re training officers, not ditch-diggers (not to disparage the ditch-diggers of the world), and students are expected to exercise their intelligence.

  • An extraordinary concern with rules, minutiae and trivia. Not the kind of rules that make sense in a well-ordered military organization, but the kind of thing that guarantees you’ll screw up. Trivia about the USNA, ritualized questions and responses, that sort of thing. When he talks about it, it’s sounds like an atmosphere of constant low- (and not so low) grade hazing. Your confident young man would either have his ego readjusted to a more realistic level, or he’d bail. **Snnipe 70E **is absolutely correct.

Are we talking about interschool competition, intraschool competition, for fun? How expected/unofficially required would that be?

I know it’s possible to get a double major, at least from some of the US military schools; considering the “purely military” subjects, plus the physical training, plus the language requirements, plus competitive sports sounds like you’d need to be a triple-A type to get a double major, specially if the two disciplines aren’t “almost twins”.

If you want more specifics, there’s a recent book called “The Unforgiving Minute” which details the life of a plebe at the Military Academy through his command of a platoon in Afghanistan. It is very well written.

Don’t forget you can’t just waltz in to West Point &cetera – you must be nominated by your Representative or Senator. Just getting the nomination is a competitive process (because there is a limit to the number of nominations per Congressperson), and being nominated does not guarantee admission to the Military Academies.

It is hard for me to believe that an individual who was obviously undisciplined would even achieve nomination. The process is lengthy and in most districts, begins in your Junior Year of high school.

OTOH, the Coast Guard Academy does not require Congressional nomination.

I sent her an email asking, but haven’t gotten a reply - I’ll let you know.

I think you’re very much right about the academies attracting cocky types, and I think that, unless he was a VIP’s son (my sister went to school with various spawn of generals/admirals/fairly high-ranking political folk), it would be a shape up or drop out type of situation. It seems to me - and certainly don’t take this as gospel - that the academies are very much concerned with turning stupid kids into an elite corps of officers. It’s not a reform school and they have no interest in reshaping someone who doesn’t want to be reshaped. You play by the rules, or you get booted.

This is also true, and you need to really want it in order to get accepted - I think my sister first wrote to her congresscritters towards the end of her junior year. She met with both of them, spent all summer getting herself in good shape (of course her grades were already excellent, otherwise she wouldn’t have had a chance), got excellent recommendations from her teachers and other leaders in the community, etc. It’s a long process.

Thanks, again, for asking her! :slight_smile:

I definitely underestimated how much personal motivation played into people getting in (and as a result, people’s presumable motivation to play by the rules). I had originally been imagining the admissions process for the fictional variant as something more akin to a tier 1 research university, where potential undergraduates could probably ride extremely high grades to get a spot in spite of potential eccentricities or outright pathological issues.

I’ll have to keep thinking about what will work in the context of the story, but at present I’m planning on keeping the main character a cocky, soon-to-change-his-ways type, and making his antagonist more of a covert dickhead: kiss-ass and obedient to upperclassman and instructors/officers, and reserving his assholeish tendencies for people from his year, when he doesn’t think he’ll get caught.

I might suggest placing your story not at a US Service Academy but at one of the military colleges, such as The Citadel or The Virginia Military Institute.

That’s probably a good idea, considering my lack of detailed understanding. I never intended to literally place it at a real service academy, in any event: the story is set some 500 odd years in the future on an unnamed planet, so it’s more a “generic military/technical academy” feel. I was just hoping to get enough of an idea of the general atmosphere as to have it not come out completely hackneyed. ^^

Also, if you’re using “a military school that’s loosely based on the US schools,” remember that you can define anything you want.

In most countries, there’s no need for a recomendation from a politician to get into an army academy. Getting into the Spanish Academies is very hard, partly because they use their own exams instead of the “generic entrance into college exam” (and you pretty much need to have been Pure Sciences Track in high school), partly because of the physical. But no politicians or other recomendation letters are involved (you need a “certificado de penales” which certifies that you do not have a criminal history).

I was a USAF officer but did not attend any of the Academies. Many of my co-workers were, unsurprisingly, Academy grads; mostly from USAFA.

The best description I ever heard of attending USAFA for 4 years was “A half-million dollar education stuffed up your ass one nickel at a time.”

Keep that thought in mind as you build your vignettes & supply your story details.

That is a great description. :smiley: I’m certainly having a lot of fun inventing and describing the insane bureaucracy, the silly and PITA rules, the hazing, and the general lack of fun surrounding studying for what has the theoretical potential to be an interesting career.

I read something somewhere once that called the service academies “engineering schools” plain and simple. I’ll leave it to the actual engineers here to say if that’s accurate. Somehow I can’t think they’d get quite as much engineering as a civilian engineering student would get, what with all the military related coursework they must also take.

They do, from what I saw when poking around their webpages years ago. And the course descriptions were detailed enough to tell that there wasn’t any “lite” courses.

You don’t get to have kickass engineer corps with “lite” courses.

I remember that one friend of mine at the Air Force Academy was taught to survive in the mountains on his own. He ate grasshoppers. (This was before reality TV got us used to seeing even worse.)

I believe I also remember that at first at mealtime, they had to sit just on the edge of their seats and they had to sit very erect and to face forward. Each arm movement had to be straight up and then at a forty-five degree angle to the mouth and then back again.

Some of your high school teachers get to weed out the obviously illiterate and depraved. But there are intelligent, ambitious, and pleasant enough people who keep their pathological sides hidden well enough to gain entrance to the service academies. The chances of their lasting aren’t very good, but who knows?

As I understand it from my Dad, “yes.” Interschool competition, at least the Army/Navy football rivalry, is a Big Deal.