Getting an appointment to the Air Force Academy involves hard work, connections and luck.
High school seniors or enlisted personnel who are already in the Air Force fill out an application as early as a year before their class would enter the academy in June. Those applications trigger a deep inspection of who they are and what they've accomplished in their short lives.
First of all, they must be at least 17, but not past their 23rd birthday at the start of the academic year. They must be unmarried with no dependents, and must be a United States citizen. (Approximately 15 international students are admitted annually via a separate process.) From there, a file gets assembled with information related to each applicant's grade point average, SAT or ACT test scores, teachers' evaluations, classes taken in high school, community involvement, extracurricular activities, athletic prowess and physical fitness.
About 8,000 such files each year are divvied up among four panels, each made up of 10 academy officials, who include department chairs and deputy chairs, faculty and staff from the athletic department.
"They're looking in-depth and doing a holistic review of the candidate's file," says Col. Carolyn Benyshek, the academy's director of admissions.
Those panels tag each file with a recommendation for or against admission. Some get earmarked for consideration for the Preparatory School, the one-year program designed to bring promising candidates up to speed academically to enter the academy.
Of the 8,000 files, roughly 2,600 (which include those tagged as prep-school candidates) are sent on to be screened by a separate batch of admissions personnel; only 1,190 are chosen for academy admission. That number used to be a couple hundred larger, until the Air Force reduced the cadet wing's size from 4,500 to 4,000, or an average of 1,000 per class year.
But there's been no corresponding reduction at the prep school, which admits about 240 annually. Most of those who graduate the prep school will get an academy appointment, even if their academic performance remains below the academy's minimum standards.
Benyshek knows firsthand about the prep school.
"I'm a prep school graduate and an Air Force Academy graduate," she says. "I would say the reason why I had an opportunity to go to the prep school was, I was captain of the basketball, track and volleyball teams in high school, had a 3.9 GPA in high school. But I couldn't take a standardized test to save my life. What the prep school did for me is bridge some of the gaps, and gave me a foundation for me to be successful."
Benyshek emphasizes that academics isn't the end-all. "We don't only look at academics, and I don't think anyone would want us to," she says. "We're looking for leaders of character to lead our Air Force and nation, when it's all said and done. Let me be clear: Academic success at the academy is very important, but again, because of the holistic review process, it is one factor."
Besides meeting the academy's requirements, applicants must secure an outside "nomination" by Jan. 31 of their year of entry. A November 2012 Congressional Research Service report on nominations states that each U.S. senator and representative can nominate five candidates. U.S. territorities, such as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, also can nominate, as can the president, vice president, service secretaries and service academy superintendents.
And that's where it gets dicey. Some geographic areas are extremely competitive, such as Colorado, where dozens of kids might compete for just a few slots. Typically, the Congressional Research Service says, each senator and representative gets one appointment annually per service academy.
Benyshek says direct appointees can be matched up with nominations in congressional districts that don't draw any applicants. (Prep school students who don't have nominations, she adds, seek congressional or service appointments during their prep year.) But she notes that some qualified candidates don't get nominated; they make up some of the 33 percent of applicants who wind up applying to the academy multiple times.
An academy education is cherished, in part because it's a free ride worth roughly $400,000. It leads to commissioning as a second lieutenant, the first step in officer ascension, but requires as little as five years of active-duty service.