Academics at USMA

I have read various comments about the academics at WP the first 2 years. I am aware the curriculum includes may core courses and is math-science heavy. Is there anyone or resource that will give an indication of how intense these courses are ? I can see a candidate who may have certain strengths struggle with some courses where they may not be as …prepared or comfortable.

For those wishing to understand the core curriculum at USMA, see pages 13-20 of the most recent Red Book:

As for intensity, that depends on how well-prepared each cadet is for actual college-level work in each required course area, and that differs from student to student based on the high school experience. Because USMA understands that GPAs and standardized test scores are not always indicative of subject mastery, the academy administers its own assessments prior to the start of the Plebe academic year to ensure proper placement in the curriculum streams. Where a student is strong and shows mastery, s/he may validate corresponding courses and begin with more advanced work. Conversely, where mastery is not indicated, the student will be placed appropriately as well.

The academy is vested in the academic success of each student with a student-faculty ratio of 8 to 1. You not only know your professors and instructors, but also have the opportunity to request additional instruction when needed. Classes are small, typically 12 to 18 cadets, and are taught using the Thayer Method in which students are responsible for their own learning. They study material prior to attending class and classroom time is spent reinforcing/clarifying lesson material.

I would say that getting used to the Thayer Method along with balancing all of the military responsibilities, sports, physical fitness, and field work is what causes Plebe year to be viewed as incredibly “intense.” There is very, very little downtime; every part of the day is regimented. It’s a tough way to get through college and requires a lot of adjustment. Each incoming class will see roughly 200-300 cadets separate for various reasons before graduation day. (277 separated from the class of 2019.) It’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. For those who do stay the course, the resources are there to enable each cadet to successfully reach graduation and commission into one of the Army’s 17 branches.

A good resource for any and all of your questions is (CC for military applicants) where, right now, a Plebe and a Firstie are taking questions:

Go ask the source! Good luck to you.

I understand that the Thayer Method is used at some top prep school, works well with small classes, and involves interactive discussion. Do the other service academies use it? At most major universities it is pretty much all lecture, so that might be a big advantage.

My mother worked with several West Point graduates, and was of the opinion they didn’t learn anything. That was a long time ago and her impression. Don’t they spend a lot of time marching around and so on, and not have so much time to study for classes?

Assuming this is a serious question, the post-graduate scholarship record of USMA (and the other academies) should put to rest any concern about the quality of education available at the academy. For example, USMA ranks fifth among the nation’s colleges and universities in number of Rhodes Scholars with 94, surpassed only by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford:

Since first competing in 1992, West Point cadets have earned 38 Truman Scholarships. Since 1983, 36 have been awarded Marshall Scholarships. Since 1973, 40 cadets have earned Hertz Foundation fellowships in Applied Physical Science disciplines. For a list of other scholarship numbers over recent years, take a look here:

It is true that the strength of the academic programs at the academies today bears little resemblance to “a long time ago” when the academies were not known as academic institutions, although I doubt it was ever the case that cadets and mids "didn’t learn anything." Today’s cadets and mids have acquired the time management skills necessary to be academically successful while also excelling at their military responsibilities which include drill, formation, physical fitness, sports, and leadership duties. All of these skills, academic and military, are important to producing competent and capable officers which is the mission of the service academies. You can be assured that any cadet or mid who graduates and commissions from any of our five federal service academies is well-equipped academically and militarily to meet the demands of the leadership positions they assume.

Is the Thayer Method like the Harkness Method used at fancy prep school? I would suppose that an interactive approach would be good for teaching officers to think on their feet and express themselves well. In addition, lectures don’t accomplish much.

I took Constitutional Law at a top university. The professor acted just like the professor in “Paper Chase”, questioning students and showing up bad responses. I assume that is the approach often used at law schools. I don’t know if that is similar.

My mother knew retired officers who went to West Point 1930-1960. I guess it has improved since them. She went of a top Ivy graduate school in humanities and probably has standards.

You may find that the service academies are more focused on content and a practical outcome (because this is professional training and they actually know what that professional needs to know) than a regular university, which is geared toward a life of the mind. If you are interested in an environment that is purely intellectual, the service academies will probably not be your best choice.

You should certainly do your due diligence up front on everything from academics to day to day living to post grad life. Most of the cadets who separate before graduation thought this was a good path for them. Some cadets thrive. Some merely endure it. This is a very serious commitment.

Our’s son’s boarding school used the Harkness method for most classes so he was well prepared for the Thayer method which is very similar but doesn’t begin to work well until the Plebes figure out how to prepare and participate which doesn’t really happen until the middle of the second semester or so. Our son was a bit frustrated enduring this process a second time but, eventually, they all figure it out and classes begin to get very interactive, quick, and never dull. Class sizes vary from 12 to 20, and the student/faculty ratio is 8:1, so no hiding lack of preparation or falling through the cracks. All cadets know their professors and instructors and have ample opportunity for personal, additional instruction. By graduation, all of these future officers are well-spoken, quick on their feet, and confident in presentation. Even at 22, these “kids” are poised and command respect. And they rock those uniforms. :wink:

I would concur with @gardenstategal’s general comment that the service academies are focused on a practical, professional outcome (leading soldiers/sailors in wartime), but part of that preparation is quite cerebral with classes dedicated to ethical issues like the morality of war and what it means to take a life and how to make those decisions and deal with the aftermath. There was never a semester where our son was not deeply engaged in issues like these so while he was not studying a lot of poetry, he certainly was reading both broadly and deeply on issues exploring the current state and future of mankind. He also studied military literature and art which is part of the core curriculum.

The main reason for all the Rhodes Scholars from service academies is the similarity in the nonacademic requirements for athletics and leadership. That is unlike regular admissions to Oxford, which is almost all on academics.

The class discussion format sounds good, as compared to my experience in college. You can watch a video on youtube, so what is the point of a lecture. The curriculum seems pretty conservative also.

I know it isn’t an easy experience and I wouldn’t go there unless you are sure you can handle it. I know of several people who went there and did not enjoy the experience. Some had fathers and other relatives who went there whom they did not want to disappoint. The goal is to train commanders who will be respected and effective in combat. My impression us that West Point was more difficult in terms of the military environment etc. than the other service academies.

Stonewall Jackson was appointed to West Point (then Congressmen appointed rather than nominated) after the original nominee took a look at what it was like and went home after a day or two. Edgar Allen Poe attended for less than a year.

There are other difficult academic environments, like medical school, including premed and residency, and top engineering schools. Some top prep schools and PhD programs can be difficult or traumatic. I have trauma from an intense top university. I would be careful that you know what you are getting into with service academies or other intense academic environments.

(continued/hit Post accidentally)

The academies know that exceptional officers are both thinkers and fighters. USMA has inscribed this in stone for cadets to see every day:

The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools. -Thucydides-

I have posted many times that the service academies are looking to produce capable officers for each branch of our armed services. It takes a certain kind of kid to go this route, and those kids don’t always look like the applicants to the usual civilian suspects. If academics rather than service is the main concern of any applicant’s college evaluation, then the SAs probably aren’t for them, not because that applicant can’t be academically satisfied (s/he can) but because getting through a service academy and the years of service that follow takes a gut commitment to something else.

@sattut: Are you interested in applying to USMA or were you just wondering in general about the current state of academics there based on your mom’s experience?

(oops, we were cross posting sattut)

Not sure anyone enjoys the experience. Cadets refer to West Point as the gray prison. Alums like to say it’s a great place to be from but a hell of a place to be. No one chooses a service academy for enjoyment. That is not its mission. Candidates apply because they desire to become officers in one of our armed services. If that is not the main objective, stop, no reason to continue. If a candidate does have a deep desire to serve and receives an appointment, that person will have two years to experience academy life before making a final commitment and can walk away anytime before that oath junior year with no financial or service repercussions. This path is not for everyone, and the academies understand that and give cadets/mids ample opportunity to make informed decisions.

I should hope everyone does. :wink:

If you’re considering one of the academies please ask why. If you want to serve your country and be an officer and get a solid education then apply. I wavered between the USMA and ROTC. I chose ROTC because I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to make the military my career choice. It was the correct decision.

Do some/many kids go to the academies that have no intention of being career military? Yes, and that’s Ok I suppose but my belief is that the academies should be reserved for people who want to be career military officers. I would’ve felt guilty taking a slot from a kid who knew they wanted to make the military their career. JMHO.

I like the spirit of your post, @chmcnm, but want to clarify for readers who lurk here that the goal of attending a service academy (or ROTC) is to serve as an officer in one of our armed forces for at least the minimum time required by the service, but the military does not have room for every officer to make the military a long-term career. Many hope to reach the 20-year mark for that pension, but not all are able to reach it due to the needs of their particular branch. Each service counts on a (rather significant) number of officers leaving after their initial service commitment or somewhere along the way as more officers are needed in the lower ranks than in the upper, just as in business not every employee will reach management and fewer will reach upper management, that’s just the way pyramids work.

In the case of USMA, the Army has determined that five service years (or more, depending on the branch) is adequate repayment for the education and training received at the academy. There is no shame in the five-and-dive; in fact, the Army counts on it. Our son is currently enjoying the first few months of his nine-year commitment, but he does not have plans to make the military his long-term career, and that’s OK. He is a fine officer and will serve the Army and his country well during those years.

Yes, not everyone gets to make a career in the military which can be a good or bad thing. A certain amount of weeding is necessary but it also works that way in the civilian world.

The main point is to ask why you want to attend one of the academies. If the answer revolves around being an officer and serving your country then please apply. If not, I would look elsewhere.

I’ve had family who’ve done both. Some made the military their careers and others served their time and left. Either way is OK. Whatever works best. In my case, I would’ve felt guilty taking a slot at one of the academies from someone who was passionate about making the military a career. That’s just me.

Fortunately, that’s not the way it works. The academies select those candidates whose profiles best meet their institutional needs that year; wanting or not wanting a long-term military career is not part of the admissions rubric. Also, many who start this process intending to make the military a career change their minds (as our son did) and many who plan to five-and-dive end up staying. There is no way at the start of this process to determine who will stay and who will leave, so no one is taking anyone’s slot based on that criteria.

@ChoatieMom I can tell you first hand, that few schools carry the long term respect in the workplace than Annapolis and West Point. It’s mentioned as precursor to any interaction or introduction, especially when describing them in absentia to others. It’s a big deal.

Much less about the military experience, (with the exception of meritorious combat courage of course) that follows graduation. Although all service is respected in general of course.

It’s more about the selectivity, dedication, discipline and grit to be accepted to an academy and successfully navigate to graduation. There is also an understanding of the high standards of personal behavior, honor code and ethics underpinning it all , that’s unique too.