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Military Academies

U.s. Military Academy

The U.S. Military Academy, located in West Point, New York, is a postsecondary educational institution operated under the general direction and supervision of the U.S. Army. The academy, usually referred to as West Point, occupies a 2,500-acre campus, which is augmented by about 15,000 acres of adjacent government-owned land. The mission of the academy is to train selected young men and women for careers as officers in the regular army of the United States. Successful completion of the four-year course leads to a bachelor of science degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The academy has an enrollment of about 4,000 students; approximately 15 percent of whom are women.


The West Point curriculum includes a combination of academic, military, and physical training. The core academic curriculum, which focused largely on engineering in the past, now includes a balance of arts and sciences. Although most of the curriculum is prescribed, there is some flexibility that permits cadets to pursue particular interests and aptitudes. Class size is small, usually numbering between fourteen to eighteen student.

Every cadet must complete thirty-one courses that make up the academy's core curriculum. Cadets must also complete at least nine elective courses, chosen to support a major or a field of study. In 2001 the academy offered twenty-five fields of study and twenty-two majors, most of which were related to engineering, foreign area and foreign language studies, or modern history and political science. Cadets choose a major (which requires ten to thirteen elective courses) or field of study (which requires only nine electives) at the end of their second year.

The total curriculum is designed to develop the qualities of character, intellect, and physical competence needed by army officers, who at various stages of their careers must be prepared to lead the smallest combat unit or to advise the highest governmental official. In order to achieve this goal, the curriculum is rounded out by military and physical training, in addition to the academic stress on science and the humanities. The total program provides a sound foundation for both graduate education and professional development.

Military training at West Point is designed to provide a comprehensive knowledge of military fundamentals and doctrine, as well as proficiency in basic military skills. The student body is organized as a brigade under the command of a brigadier general known as the Commandant of Cadets. The brigade is lead by a professional officer and a cadet chain of command. By serving in various positions of responsibility within the corps of cadets, cadets are given opportunities to apply their knowledge and to improve their leadership abilities. This portion of a cadet's training, including both practical military training and military-science instruction, is the foundation for more specialized postgraduate training in armor, infantry, engineering, signal corps, field artillery, air defense artillery, military intelligence, or another of the various branches of military science.

Most of the academy's military training occurs during the summer months. New cadets (called plebes) undergo Cadet Basic Training during their first six weeks at the academy. Sophomores (yearlings) complete eight weeks of intensive field training at Camp Buckner, located near West Point. Juniors (cows) engage in specialized military training, such as airborne, air assault, northern warfare, or mountain warfare at various locations and military bases around the world. Seniors (firsties) learn military leadership skills by helping direct military training for plebes and yearlings.

The academy's rigorous physical training program continues throughout the entire year. Each cadet participates every season in either intramural or intercollegiate athletics. Formal instruction includes courses in coaching techniques, which provide the basis for another valuable dimension of leadership.

As part of their military and physical curriculum, cadets undergo training in ethics and morals. Such training supports the West Point Honor Code: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." Moral and ethical training is also buttressed by formal instruction in important military values, voluntary religious programs, and a guest speaker program.

Admission and Military Obligation

All men and women who meet academic and physical requirements may apply to West Point, but admission is extremely competitive. Above-average high school records, demonstrated leadership skills, strong performance on the ACT Assessment or SAT college entrance examinations, physical aptitude tests, and medical tests are prerequisites. In addition, an applicant must be between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, neither married nor pregnant nor carrying the legal obligation to support a child, and a citizen of the United States. Naturalized American citizens must provide proper documentation to be considered for admission. A small number of foreign students may be nominated by formal agreement between the U.S. government and another country.

Procedures for admission to the academy differ in several respects from those of civilian educational institutions. A prospective candidate cannot apply directly to the academy for admission, but must first secure a nomination from an authorized source, usually a United States representative or senator from the candidate's home state, or the secretary of the army. By law, these officials are authorized to nominate up to ten young people to compete for vacancies at the military academy each year. After nomination, candidates receive permission to undertake the examinations for appointment, which determine their academic, medical, and physical qualifications. Classes enter the academy in July of each year. Every cadet enters as a plebe. Transfer credit is not given for college work completed prior to entry into West Point.

Upon entering the academy, a cadet takes an oath committing to a military obligation of six years, the first five on active duty. Upon graduation and appointment as a second lieutenant in the regular army, the West Point graduate serves the five-year active-service commitment. If a cadet is separated after he or she has started the first academic term of the second class year (except for physical disqualification, unfitness, or unsuitability), he or she is subject to transfer to the reserve or ordered to active duty in an enlisted status.

Cadet Life

The daily life of a cadet, apart from academic instruction, is centered on the cadet's company in the corps of cadets. Cadets live in barracks, stand formation, and participate in intramural athletics as a member of this company. There are approximately 110 cadets in a company, with equal membership from all four classes. A cadet company commander, subordinate cadet officers, and noncommissioned officers are responsible for the military formations and many of the daily administrative matters. Every company is assigned a tactical officer who is specially selected on the basis of his or her commissioned service in the regular army and proven leadership ability to counsel and advise cadets.

An integral part of daily life within the corps of cadets is the honor system. The system and the honor code upon which it is based are fundamental to the stress placed upon personal integrity. Every day, cadets see their work or signature accepted as final proof for authorized absences, for compliance with instructions, and as certification of accuracy.

No tuition is charged for attendance at the academy. Cadets are considered members of the regular army and receive stipends of about $600 per month, enabling them to buy uniforms, books, and supplies. In effect, each cadet receives a full scholarship.


The U.S. Military Academy is the oldest service academy in the nation. Troops were first garrisoned at West Point during the Revolutionary War, and the military academy was established there in 1802. George Washington was among the revolutionary leaders who strongly felt that a national military academy was needed to eliminate reliance on foreigners for training Americans in artillery, engineering, and other military skills. Initially, the corps of engineers operated the academy and was responsible for training officers in all branches of the service. Because provisions were made for the study of many branches of science, the U.S. Military Academy became the first national center for scientific engineering.

After the War of 1812 came a period of academic pioneering that laid the foundation for the methods and standards that still exist at West Point. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent from 1817 to 1833, made courses in civil engineering the academic center of the curriculum. In his endeavor to produce trained leaders, Thayer strove for excellence in personal qualities that went beyond the sound practical knowledge his program of instruction imparted. The subsequent impact of the graduates he trained upon the internal communications of the fledgling nation was widely recognized. The construction of canals, railroads, and harbors under the leadership of men schooled at West Point greatly accelerated the emergence of the United States as a unified country.

Although the primary purpose of the academy was to provide professionally trained officers, its secondary role as a national school of civil engineering continued until after the Civil War, when academy graduates served in both the Union and Confederate armies. In 1877 Henry O. Flipper, a native of Georgia, becomes the first African American to graduate from the academy. During the post–Civil War period, the proliferation of civilian engineering and technical schools created alternate means of training the engineers needed throughout the United States. In response, West Point shifted its academic emphasis from civil engineering to a pattern of courses affording a broader education. In 1889 Antonio Barrios became the first Hispanic to graduate from West Point; Barrios later served in the Guatemalan army, where he rose to the rank of general.

The emphasis on a broad, general education was maintained in subsequent revisions of the curriculum after World War I, World War II, and the Korean conflict. The expansion of the army's role in international affairs provided additional reasons for increased attention to the academic disciplines of history, geography, economics, and the social sciences. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation permitting the academy to accept nearly 2,000 additional cadets each year, and a major project to expand facilities ensued. During the 1970s and 1980s the curriculum was revised to permit cadets more academic options, including the choice to major in a wide range of disciplines. Women cadets were first admitted to the academy in 1976. During the 1980s and 1990s an increasing number of woman and minorities were admitted.

Notable West Point graduates include Ulysses S. Grant (1843), Jefferson Davis (1828), Robert E. Lee (1829), George Meade (1835), William Tecumseh Sherman (1840), Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson (1846), John J. Pershing (1886), Douglas MacArthur (1903), George S. Patton (1909), Omar Bradley (1915), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1915), Brent Scowcroft (1947), Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin (1951), and H. Norman Schwarzkopf (1956).


AMBROSE, STEPHEN E. 1999. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

RUGGERO, ED. 2001. Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders. New York: Harper-Collins.

STEWART, ROBERT. 1996. The Corps of Cadets: A Year at West Point. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.


U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY. 2002. <www.usma.edu>.


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