The Fiske guide for applying to ROTC


Vivien Sweet , Staff Writer

For some students, “Senior Fall” is more than just stressing over the Common App and college supplements. Every year, fewer than a handful of students opt to apply to a Federal Service Academy or a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, beginning a temporary career of service to the country.
In order to apply to a military leadership program such as the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which trains high school graduates to become officers in the U.S. military in over 1,700 colleges across America, applicants must go through a rigorous process involving completion of a Physical Fitness Test (PFT), a psychological evaluation, and an interview with a recruiting military officer, according to the U.S. Army’s ROTC website.
Typically, the interviewers ask about the applicant’s extracurriculars and activities to gauge whether or not the interviewee has leadership potential, a key component forROTC programs. “They evaluate your answers: how morally, mentally, and even physically fit you are to be a future officer in the Marine Corps,” Eddie Jin (12), who applied to an ROTC program, said.
Students can apply for either two, three, or four-year scholarships, all of which pay for either university courses at a college ROTC is offered at or room and board at that college, according to the U.S. Army’s ROTC website. Students who attend an ROTC program must take classes at the university the program is hosted at.
Since attention to detail is one of the defining characteristics of any military program, completing the essay portion was the most difficult part of the ROTC application for Jin. “If you have just one typo, that’s definitely going to be a mark on your file,” Jin said. “It’s just making sure that everything is meticulously clean and correct.”
Although Christian Hernandez ‘16 did not receive the ROTC scholarship when he first applied during senior year, he still chose to join the Armed Forces by taking a gap year to enlist in the military. Compared to applying to ROTC, enlisting in the army is a much simpler process: one must have a high school diploma and pass both the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and a Military Entrance Processing Station medical exam.
However, the path to ROTC was “very foreign to pretty much everybody” at the school, leaving Henrandez to depend on military recruiters to help submit his application, he said. “[Recruiters] will guide you along the way because that’s their job: to recruit and retain.”
For NROTC – Marine Corps option, every school is in a military recruiting district, and each district is assigned to a recruiter in addition to an officer selection officer, both of whom help with the application process to NROTC, Jin said. In addition, a recruiter visits the school every year between September to November to inform students about various ROTC programs, Executive Director of College Counseling Canh Oxelson said.
Although Jin’s college counselor, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling Chris Farmer, has been in contact with the district’s recruiter over email in order to send Jin’s high school transcript and letters of recommendation, an applicant to an ROTC program’s relationship with a recruiter is typically independent of his or her school’s college counseling services, Farmer said.
“We’re not really holding their hand through the process, through the different steps that you would for someone applying to a four-year private [college],” he said. Farmer believes that the amount of responsibility placed upon both service academy and ROTC applicants is a deliberate choice to determine which applicants are truly invested in attending.
During Hernandez’s gap year in the military, he worked to save some money since he knew he would have to pay for college without the financial support of his parents, he said. Hernandez was then shipped to Fort Gordon, Georgia, to complete Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for six and a half months, after which he became a deployable soldier.
Despite already working as the rank of Specialist in the Army Reserves, Hernandez decided to apply for the ROTC scholarship again in 2019, this time receiving it for Fordham University’s ROTC program. Since he had finished AIT, Hernandez was more experienced than his entry-level peers, he said. “I was already proficient in handling firearms, doing my soldier duties, knowing the jargon, and knowing the rank structure and how everything worked in the military environment.”
Currently, Hernandez hopes to commission in combat arms, such as infantry or cavalry officer, then join the National Guard Special Forces after he completes ROTC and four years of required military service, Hernandez said. He cited his drive to stand out among his peers during his time at Horace Mann as the main factor for pursuing a career in service. “I don’t necessarily have to be better than anybody else, but be the best I can be in my role that I choose for myself in the future,” Hernandez said.
Jin, who is interested in serving the nation, believes that military service not only serves as a great career option, but also builds leadership skills, he said. However, unlike Hernandez, Jin is unsure of whether he would want to spend the rest of his career in the military.
“You don’t have to be in the military for your entire life,” Jin said. “A lot of people serve for five to ten years. They come out as people with a lot more leadership potential, and it does a lot for you and the country that you continue to serve in the civilian world.”
However, Oxelson believes that the four years of service after graduation required of all ROTC participants makes applying to the program a less popular option for the school’s students. “You have to decide that you’re okay putting off whatever career plans you have down the line to actually serve in the military, and I think that’s hard for a lot of families.”
According to Farmer, only around two students per year apply to a service academy or an ROTC program. The type of students that typically apply, he believes, is very niche: they are typically interested in leadership development and thrive in a structured and rigorous environment, both inside and outside of the classroom.
“For a person that’s like, ‘I think I want that environment, then it’s not the right place for that student,’” Farmer said. “But for the right student, what an amazing opportunity. Both on the intellectual, traditional side of college, and in every other way possible outside of the classroom.”
The application processes to a service academy—including the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA), United States Naval Academy (USNA), and United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)— are drastically different than that of ROTC. The academic application is very similar to the Common App, requiring an essay, letters of recommendation, a high school transcript, and ACT or SAT scores, 2017 USNA graduate Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Matthew Meltzer ‘13 said.
“As a Horace Mann student, the academic part is very easy. That usually is not the problem for HM students,” Giramnah Peña-Alcántara ‘17, who applied to both West Point and USNA, said.
In general, the standards that applicants have to meet when applying to a service academy are much more straightforward and public, Oxelson said. “If you’re applying to a host of other graduate colleges, it can be a little complicated and harder to see if you actually measure up and will be competitive for admission, whereas it’s pretty easy to tell from a service academy standpoint.”
However, applicants must also complete the Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA) and receive a congressional nomination, which is earned by sending an application to their senator, congressman, or the Vice President, Meltzer said.
When history teacher and West Point graduate John McNally was seeking a nomination, he went before a panel of representatives and wrote essays for them, which was “a little intimidating,” he said. “The process is a really good way to weed out candidates who aren’t serious.”
Although applicants to service academies don’t often come into close contact with those who they are seeking a nomination from, McNally ended up teaching Jesse Lowey at Horace Mann, the grandson of New York congresswoman Nita Lowey, the representative he sought nomination from.
For Meltzer, Peña-Alcántara, and McNally, the CFA—which consisted of pull-ups, push-ups, crunches, a timed shuttle run, and a timed one-mile run—was the most difficult part of the application to complete. During the summer before Meltzer’s senior year, Meltzer went to a one-week summer program at the Naval Academy called Summer Seminar and took the test there, but he continued to train to increase his sprint time during the school year. He eventually retook the test at school with Varsity Football coach Matthew Russo administering the exam.
According to Jin, for the Navy ROTC – Marine Corps Option program, most competitive male applicants complete 15 or more pull-ups, 90-100 crunches, and a three-mile run in 20 minutes, and the maximum scores are 20 pull-ups, 105 crunches, and 18 minutes on the three-mile run. Although he didn’t struggle with the running and pull-ups portion of the test—earning a 17:20 3-mile run time and completing 21 pull-ups—Jin suffered during the crunches section, finishing with only 88 crunches.
Despite the fact that McNally played soccer and ice hockey for his high school teams, he struggled with the chin-ups and standing broad jump portions of the physical fitness test, so McNally’s high school athletic director prepared a regimen for him, McNally said. The pair trained three times a week for two months to improve McNally’s form in the various physical challenges. “Having an expert who was willing to dedicate so much time to me and really help me through the physical process was really great,” he said.
Similarly, even though Peña-Alcántara played volleyball on both the school’s varsity team and club teams outside of school, she had to set aside time to condition and build endurance, which was challenging for her, she said. “With the amount of work that HM has, it’s much easier to be like, ‘No, I have a [problem] set, or homework, or I’m tired.’”
Peña-Alcántara first became interested in applying to service academies during the summer before her senior year, during which she spent two weeks at “Week in the Life” service academy program: one week at West Point, and the other at USNA. Immediately, she “fell in love” with West Point, she said.
“At HM, there’s not the biggest school spirit; everyone’s kind of doing their own thing. [At West Point] everybody was like, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is our purpose,’” Peña-Alcántara said. In addition, West Point’s curriculum, which involves courses such as organismal biology, aligned perfectly with her interest in becoming an emergency room doctor at the time.
On the other hand, Peña-Alcántara was not a huge fan of USNA, noting that the students there “were not the people [she] vibed with,” she said. Moreover, even though USNA had a better academic record than West Point, she knew that she did not want to serve in the Navy. “I did not want to be in a submarine; I’m a fan of water, but not for long periods of time.”
However, although Peña-Alcántara was accepted to both West Point and USNA, she eventually chose to enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in part due to MIT’s “eclectic” courses and activities as opposed to West Point’s “regimented” schedule, she said. “[At West Point], you wake up at this time, you eat at this time, you have class at this time, you work out at this time, [and] you go to sleep at this time.”
During the application process to West Point, Peña-Alcántara spoke to current West Point student Jenny Wang ‘16, who informed Peña-Alcántara that she was cruising through her classes at West Point. For Peña-Alcántara, who said she likes to be challenged by hard courses, Wang’s academic experiences in part discouraged her from enrolling at West Point.
Peña-Alcántara’s reservations about attending a service academy were only amplified by her visit to Yale, at which she also was granted admission, where she attended a presentation hosted by Yale’s Air Force ROTC program.
“[The presenter] goes, ‘There is a reason why these military academies are pushing their ROTC programs so hard into Ivy League schools. The Ivy Leagues give you critical thinking that no other place gives you, and the military is now realizing that they need that,’” she said.
Since Peña-Alcántara didn’t really like the atmosphere of USNA in the first place and she knew her coursework at West Point would not be as academically rigorous as a higher-ranking college, she decided to attend MIT, she said.
“I’m not going to a school that is going to challenge me mentally and physically but not academically,” Peña-Alcántara said. “If those two are hard for me, I need my brain to be stimulated so I can deal with it.”
Meltzer, who was the only member of his class to join the Armed Forces, felt that the “traditional college experience” wasn’t right for him and instead wanted to directly give back to his country, which encouraged him to apply to USNA.
“The Naval Academy presented a great option to exist in a high discipline environment, which I thought I would do well in, and it [gave] me the opportunity to serve my country after graduation,” Meltzer said.
McNally, on the other hand, was inspired to apply to a service academy after visiting West Point several times in middle and high school and learning about the academy’s physical and academic challenges, he said. After graduating from West Point, McNally ended up flying helicopters as an aviator for the U.S. Military for eight years before becoming a history teacher at Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy in 2009. He entered Horace Mann as a Middle Division history teacher in 2011.
Currently, Meltzer is a Surface Warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, responsible for his own division aboard a destroyer. He is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the engines, as well as a group of about 30 sailors, ranging from 18 years old to 52 years old. Meltzer’s time at the Naval Academy helped shape his management abilities because “while it’s an academic institution, it’s largely a leadership development institution,” he said.
However, Meltzer also attributes some of his leadership skills to his high school years.“My job is 95 percent leadership and management,” Meltzer said. “My introduction to leadership happened at Horace Mann, specifically on the football team and on the Model UN team, where I was a vice president.”