The College Advisor - Military Academy Admissions: What Students Need To Know
Military Academy Admissions: What Students Need To Know
A Conversation with Lisa Hillhouse, Service Academy and ROTC Advising Expert
"Competitive candidates are well-rounded and have distinguished themselves in academics, leadership, and athletics."
I spoke with colleague and friend, Lisa Hillhouse, who specializes in military academy admissions. A retired Air Force officer, Lisa spent 20 years mentoring and recruiting officer candidates for the Air Force Academy and Air Force ROTC. Lisa has spoken at numerous congressional academy outreach events and has served on or chaired 20 congressional nomination boards.
Lisa’s passion is empowering young people to develop their leadership and challenge themselves to reach their dreams. We discussed the best ways to approach the military academy admissions process.
Tell me about yourself. What is your background? My background is a little different than many of my students. My freshman year of college I had a “big sister” mentor in my dorm who happened to be an Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) cadet. Cara told me she thought I had great leadership skills and would be good in AFROTC. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” and loved it! Eventually I earned an AFROTC scholarship and later was commissioned at the College of the Holy Cross Worcester, Massachusetts.
How have you continued to guide and mentor students who are interested in attending a military service academy? While on active duty, I served as an Air Force ROTC Instructor at UC Berkeley. There I was responsible for recruiting students, running the leadership development program, and instructing students in leadership and management principles and skills. My next assignment took me to the Air Force Academy where I helped lead outreach, mentor, and evaluate candidates for the Academy and ROTC. After leaving the Academy I began my own college advising practice where I work with a wide variety of students. My specialty is officer commissioning for all academies and ROTC scholarship programs. I’m passionate about developing leadership in all of my students. Connecting with students who dream of serving as officers is especially close to my heart. Educating them on the military and helping them prepare for this journey is very similar to what I did in the military.
What are you most proud of right now? I am so incredibly proud of my three children. Two have launched (and one is on their way soon) and it’s a delight to be a part of this exciting stage of their lives. While I’m extremely proud of my business, they are my biggest accomplishment.
What are you happiest about right now? I’m a goal-driven person and this year I’m focused on my work-life balance. As a business owner it’s difficult to walk away (and not work all the time). I’m getting better at that!
Let’s start with the basics. What is a military service academy? What are the differences between the academies? There are five military service academies; premier public institutions preparing young leaders of character for a lifetime of service. The “big three” are known for their size and D1 sports--West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), and Air Force. Lesser known but equally amazing are Kings Point (Merchant Marines) and the Coast Guard. All graduates earn a BS degree and a commission. With the exception of the Merchant Marine Academy, graduates enter and serve in the active duty military for at least five years.
What is the cost to attend a military service academy? While there are little out of pocket costs, students are giving up a traditional college experience and will work harder than they most likely have before.
What are service academies looking for in a candidate? Competitive candidates are well-rounded and have distinguished themselves in academics, leadership, and athletics.
What grades/test score ranges are they looking for? While each academy has different standards, averages are a 3.8/4.0 (unweighted) with a 30 ACT or close to a 1400 SAT. Most students I work with have higher academics than these.
What types of activities should students pursue? Like civilian colleges, the academies want you to focus on 2 or 3 interests and go deep. You cannot be “just an athlete” or “only a student.” Activities that build your knowledge and experience with the military are important. Leadership, community service, athletic competition, and employment are important.
What type of student succeeds at a military service academy? First and foremost, are they a selfless leader? Are they proactive and accountable? Do they give 110% to everything they do? Do they demand excellence of themselves? Are they flexible? Emotionally resilient?
What if I don’t meet academic standards? I don’t think that most people know that more appointees are re-applicants. The academies save spaces for students in their preparatory programs and also support ROTC and enlisted applicants. The local and regional academy admissions officers can give you feedback on where you can improve. Most students attend the strongest college they were admitted to, enroll in ROTC, and reapply that year.
What are some common reasons an applicant can be disqualified? The biggest reason is the medical exam. 25% of candidates aren’t medically qualified due to chronic conditions, medications, certain learning differences, and mental health issues. Some students come from very competitive congressional districts which makes earning a nomination difficult.
How can a student be sure she or he wants to make this type of commitment? One big way is research. As a retired officer, I share my career (the highs and the lows) and I encourage my students to speak with current cadets/midshipmen at the academies. Visit websites to learn about military opportunities and missions. Read books our military leaders are using to learn those leadership lessons. The academies offer campus visit programs and most have summer programs where students can test the waters. The student will get out of the process what they put into it.
For students who may not want the intensity of an academy experience there are Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force ROTC programs at four year colleges. Looking for something in the middle? Google Senior Military Colleges. These corps of cadets programs are another great way to learn and hone your leadership skills and earn a commission.
What are the steps to applying to a military service academy? There are several! Very briefly, they include
- nomination process - physical fitness exam - medical exams - essays, resume - academy interview (this varies) - transcripts, test scores, multiple letters of recommendation
When should students begin to apply? You can’t apply until the winter/spring of your junior year. For most academies, the process begins if you apply to their summer leadership programs. If you do not apply to this option, the applications open around July (after junior year). Being a competitive applicant is a long game. I have students that begin working with me at the end of middle school or the beginning of high school. Others start their junior year (or later) and are busy catching up.
How does the nomination process work? Applicants who are US citizens living in the United States typically apply to their congressman/woman and two senators. You can also apply to the Vice President. Military dependents, service members, JROTC cadets/ROTC and prep school cadets have additional options. Start by checking the academy and your congressional websites. Note that the Coast Guard Academy currently does not have a nomination requirement. The Merchant Marine Academy handles nominations slightly different than “the big three” so check their website as well.
What is the service commitment after graduation? A minimum of 5 years of active duty time and 3 additional years of inactive (or standby) time. Certain career fields, such as aviation, have longer service commitments. The Merchant Marine Academy commissions into any military branch or allows the option of serving in the Navy Reserves while working in the seafaring industry.
What is the best resource for students considering attending a military service academy? The academy websites are a great place to begin. Dig deep. It is important to find good mentors (which is one of my favorite roles!).
What three pieces of advice would you give to students who are considering attending a military service academy? Start early-I can’t emphasize that enough. Plan your deadlines and work diligently to meet them in the early fall of your senior year. Expect the unexpected-you will probably encounter problems along the way. Lastly, never give up-there are multiple ways to earn a commission-particularly ROTC!
Is there anything else you would like to add? Be open to the possibility of serving and the risks and rewards that come with that. Don’t be daunted by the odds or challenges of applying and attending. Practice teamwork. Great leaders are also team players and followers.
Thank you Lisa. This interview is so informative! Please visit Lisa Hillhouse’s website at https://www.hillhousecollegeadvising.com/ to learn more about her philosophy, experiences, as well as Lisa’s military academy and ROTC advising services.
About Liz Murphy College Advising Liz Murphy College Advising, based in Half Moon Bay CA, provides a relaxed, personalized approach to help students find success at a college that best fits their academic, social and financial goals. I meet one-on-one with students and offer workshops. Contact me and let's get started! lizmurphycollegeadvising.com
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Saying that working with Liz Murphy was an absolute pleasure would be an understatement. Before walking into her office I was discouraged about my essays and getting into the Doctor of Physical Therapy programs I was interested in. Sitting in her seaside office calmed my nerves and allowed me to focus on producing strong essays instead of my doubts. Liz was encouraging, patient, and someone I felt comfortable working with. She was able to help me formulate my thoughts into concise, well-written, and strong essays that accurately showed graduate programs my potential. Her support and insights guided my writing into essays I was proud of. When I received my acceptance letter from the highest-ranking program, Liz was one of the first people I excitedly contacted. After working with Liz I felt confident about my essays and I know that I was accepted into top programs because of her help. I would gladly recommend her to applicants searching for a counselor who can both strengthen their applications and their self-confidence throughout the process. - Brianna B.