In the early 20th century, the United States military discovered that if they helped capable and willing young people pay for college, they were happy to return the favor through service. The program, called ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), continues to benefit the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as thousands of students with scholarship and career opportunities each year.
Choosing ROTC is different from enlisting in the service. Participants must attend a four-year university and complete a bachelor’s degree before being commissioned as an entry-level officer. An ROTC student’s schedule mirrors that of a regular student, but includes ROTC leadership courses in addition to standard major studies.
The Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps each offer ROTC programs. Applications are separate and each will have slightly unique requirements. “I’d advise applicants to apply for all the branches,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Jordan Orr. “I get the affinity for one branch, but if you are going through the process and you’ve committed to serving the country anyway, it’s better to have many choices than just one.”
How much are the scholarship awards?
Each service branch awards different levels of financial assistance, but most cover significant portions of tuition, books and lab fees and offer a monthly stipend for living expenses.
Can I attend any university?
The university you select needs to be an approved ROTC campus for your intended major, but there are many to choose from across the nation. For instance, the NROTC Marine Corps Option includes 155 universities and colleges. Check the appropriate ROTC website for a list of qualified colleges.
Can I choose my own major?
Yes. You choose your major, though your choice may affect your selection for a scholarship. The military looks for students who can fill career positions. Technical fields will be in higher demand, but it does not mean a liberal arts student won’t earn a scholarship.
Will the military own me?
Of course not! But a university education is no small investment and there is a trade-off. Once you complete your four-year degree and ROTC Leadership program, you’ll be required to serve from three to eight years depending on your scholarship terms.
What if I don’t earn the scholarship? Can I still pursue ROTC training and a military career?
Some students know they want to be an officer whether or not they receive scholarship money. These students are encouraged to apply for the ROTC training directly through their university’s ROTC unit. In fact, there are additional scholarships meant for cadets who enroll in the ROTC in this manner.
So what’s it really like?
Charlie Bierwirth, a junior attending Montana State University on an Army ROTC scholarship says he admits it surprised him to discover his fellow cadets were regular kids. “I was half expecting them to be, for lack of a better term, ‘High-speed gung-ho hoo-ah cadets,’” he says. “That was not the case.”
He says he and his fellow cadets encounter typical school stress and participate in many non-ROTC activities, but often become close friends. “When I first arrived [at college], I had a social network to instantly plug into. We had a common bond so it was easy to make friends.”
With his program, Charlie is required to report for physical training in the “wee hours of the morning.” The early hours aren’t his favorite, but Charlie says the accountability “really makes you get into a routine.” Also, knowing his scholarship hinges on keeping a clean record makes him think about “smart and safe living” while his non-ROTC peers might make different choices.
Charlie’s biggest ROTC challenge so far was when he had to pass a standard Army Fitness Test. Charlie lived in Redding, Calif. during the summer before the test and says he maybe lounged a bit more than he should have. When he had to run two miles within a set time limit at Montana State, he knew his tuition was on the line. “It kind of had some pressure on it.”
Who can apply for ROTC?
Anyone can apply, though ROTC looks for top candidates. Your grade point average (GPA) and test scores will be scrutinized along with your resumé of extracurricular activities and athletic involvement. Orr says that being a 4.0 GPA track star might not be enough. He suggests looking for community service opportunities — “Go see if the fire department will let you help them wash their trucks.” The military is interested in well-rounded individuals who can exhibit quality character attributes. During the application process you’ll also need to pass a physical exam and attend a personal interview.
When should I start?
Most branches of the ROTC program have final deadlines in January of your senior year. However, if you are interested in applying, you’ll want to start now. Orr says that 75 percent of the applicants wait and submit their packages in December and January. “[Because there are so many all at once], those applications are, frankly, not going to be reviewed as closely as the ones submitted in August. A great applicant might get passed over.”
You can apply as early as April of your junior year. Visit each branch’s website to apply. Once you’ve submitted and been approved from your first level of information, an ROTC coordinator will be assigned to you to help you stay on schedule throughout the application process.
Carrie Schmeck is a special features and business copywriter from northern California.