Deciding to Affirm/Leave USMA Advice

I used to live on forums like this in high school. (Which I DO NOT recommend–enjoy high school and quit the extracurriculars you are only doing for resume points! Just work hard at the things you are genuinely passionate about, get good grades, and be kind and you will do great. But that’s not what this post is about…anyway) Now, three years after my R-day and a year since I decided to not Affirm, I want to give cadet candidates and current cadets my perspective on how to approach and ultimately make this decision. When I was deciding last fall, I scoured every corner of the internet (including this forum) for stories from former cadets and found very little. Hopefully my story can help others as they struggle through the decision for themselves.

My main points are:

  1. leaving is not failure
  2. treat your decision to Affirm as completely separate from deciding to show up on R-day
  3. DON’T let the effort you put into your application sway your decision (aka the sunk cost fallacy)
  4. DO take into consideration the practical difficulties of transferring/switching career paths

I plan on making a later post about the practical technicalities involved with the transfer application process. Let me know if you have further questions and I’d be happy to discuss further/elaborate on the nitty-gritties.

I also saw your post on Cadets/mids separate for all sorts of reasons, and I am happy that the academies allow them to do so with no financial or service obligation if they leave before affirmation. This path is not for everyone. Certainly no shame in that, and no harm done to any cadet’s or mid’s future.

The link to my full article was taken down so I copy and pasted most of it here:

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I reported to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point to begin my journey from civilian to Army officer. About 10 months ago, I decided against affirming and left USMA to complete my education at a civilian university. The purpose of this post is to give some insight into the factors I considered when making my decision to leave. When I was debating my decision I scoured the internet to find the stories of others who chose to leave. No two people have identical reasons for leaving or staying, but I hope my story can provide another perspective to those struggling with the decision.

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I reported to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point to begin my journey from civilian to Army officer. About 10 months ago, I decided against affirming and left USMA to complete my education at a civilian university. The purpose of this post is to give some insight into the factors I considered when making my decision to leave. When I was debating my decision I scoured the internet to find the stories of others who chose to leave. No two people have identical reasons for leaving or staying, but I hope my story can provide another perspective to those struggling with the decision.

My first piece of advice for is to think about your goals early and often. Keep a journal and write down your thoughts: the good and the bad. Looking back on your doubts, failures, insecurities, and fears is just as important as remembering the laughter, success, and camaraderie when evaluating the decision to stay or leave. Trying to remember past emotional states is difficult; having a physical record of your emotions and thoughts is extremely helpful when making any life decision. At a minimum, you should know (or be working to figure out) what ultimate goal you would like to achieve and how your current activities are helping you to get closer to that goal.

Ideally, when you entered West Point, you should have had a solid idea of why you want to be in the Army, what you want to do in the Army, and so on.The mistake I made in high school was confusing West Point with my end destination. In high school I was so focused on getting into West Point, so sure that it was what I wanted–no, needed to do–that I failed to realize West Point (and college in general) is just a stepping stone to a future career and life.

I wanted to go to West Point because it was the biggest/baddest/hardest thing high school me could imagine. I obsessed about West Point culture (so embarrassing), but didn’t even bother to learn all the Army branches till after arriving as a cadet. Some cadets come because their parents want them to. Some come because they want to play a sport. Some come because it is free. In the end it is not important why you come West Point. The reasons you stay or leave are a million times more important.

Treat deciding to affirm like an entirely separate decision from your initial decision to attend. The amount of time and effort you put into your application and your first two years at the academy should have absolutely no bearing on the decision to stay or leave. Deciding to stay and commit the next 7+ years of your life to the Army should not be based on how hard you worked in the past. That work is already sunk; you should not stay out of a desire to “justify” it.

Start fresh and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of both options. After two years at West Point, you have more knowledge about what it means to be an Army officer, what career paths are available to you, and who you are as a person.

As I mentioned before, in high school I was obsessed with West Point. Every activity and class I participated in was designed for maximum impact on my USMA application. I was so focused on getting in that my identity was already becoming intertwined with “cadet-hood.” I sacrificed time with my family, fun with my friends, and a lot of the typical high school experience to become the “perfect candidate.” No one could have talked me out of going to USMA. I didn’t even allow myself to consider leaving until the months immediately prior to Affirmation because I felt that after all the hard work I did to get in and how fiercely I had wanted to go, West Point had to be the right place for me.


…part 2

Coming from a non-military family, I had no clue what being an Army officer actually looked like. Like the majority of cadets, I had never qualified on a rifle, given an OPORD presentation, gone on a ruck, rendered a salute, observed an officer/NCO interaction, etc. I didn’t know how the branching/posting process worked. I didn’t know the difference between combat arms/non-combat arms. I didn’t know what ADSOs/PADSOs/BRADSOs were. I definitely did not understand the full meaning of the word bureaucracy.

I do not want to dwell into the specifics of everything I liked/disliked about the branches (mainly because I never actually experienced any of them and only have my own impressions). Suffice it to say, I was not interested in paper pushing/management or in field operations. My top branch preference (and the only one I really considered interesting) was Cyber. Ultimately, I think I could have had an interesting time in the branch, but I never got enough information to convince me that it was worth 5 years plus a 1 year ADSO. The information I did get indicated that the Cyber branch was running into bureaucratic red tape and struggling to actually make any significant contributions to the country.

Additionally, I realized if I regretted leaving at a later point, as long as I received my bachelor’s I could still become an officer through OCS. Not affirming did not eliminate my option to become an Army officer, it just freed me from committing years of my life to a career path I was not passionate about.

Deciding to not affirm also involves understanding the challenges and risks that come with transferring schools and career paths. I took my interests and financial situation into heavy consideration.

Honestly, I still don’t know precisely what I want to do, but at the time I made the decision I realized that I wanted a career that aligned better with my innate interests and talents. Luckily for me, I am most interested in Computer Science and Mathematics which are fields that have many available positions and good pay. I figured that if I finish my bachelor’s degree in CS I can certainly find an adequate job offer (even if I don’t find my “one true calling”).

In terms of getting to college itself, my future was much less certain. Particularly for me, because I decided to leave only weeks before Affirmation, I would have to take an entire year to apply to transfer to other colleges. IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING LEAVING, THEN APPLY TO OTHER SCHOOLS DURING YUK YEAR! I had to leave with no guarantee that I would get accepted to a good program, that my credits would transfer, or that it would be financially feasible for my family.

In the end, I was fortunate enough to be able to live at home for the year and found a good paying job to fill the time. The transfer application process was much more brutal than I expected, but I survived that as well and even got into my top choice (the reject pile was still high though…).

Some Outside Factors to Consider:

  1. where you will stay before you get back to college
  2. how many of your credits are transferable
  3. how you will pay for civilian college
  4. how much family support you have (emotional and financial)
  5. career prospects for your intended major
  6. civilian college options (selectivity, program availability, location, price, size, etc.)
  7. how you will keep yourself busy for a year

Deciding to leave West Point was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I still miss so many things about West Point and occasionally wonder about what would have happened if I chose to stay. Ultimately though, I know I made the best decision I could with the information I had available at the time and do not regret my choice at all. I also do not regret going to West Point in the first place because my time there taught me so much about myself, about teamwork, and about the world. Hopefully this long-winded post helps someone out there think about their decision a little more clearly! Feel free to reach out if you have other questions.

All good things to ponder, @wpnomore, but for others reading here, let me unpack this a bit:

Cyber is in start-up mode, for sure, but that provides endless opportunities for interesting work and personal distinction for talented and motivated officers who know how navigate in the gray areas. Our son is a newly-minted 2LT serving in the Cyber branch, and the work his unit is doing absolutely is making contributions to the country. At West Point, he, too, was warned about disorganization and typical start-up woes, but until you start working in your branch, you will not know the detail of what that branch is doing or what your role in it will be. After BOLC, unit assignment, and security clearances, our son assures us that what the Cyber branch is doing is pretty spectacular.

For the experience he is getting and the recognition he has already gotten, he is not sorry at all that he won’t be joining secular efforts for several years. If ever. One of the best paths out of the Army for those post-service highly-skilled Cyber officers is right across the street at the NSA or other government contract agencies that pay quite handsomely for those Army-curated skillsets. Also, the Army will have paid for his master’s degree, and his job and benefits are guaranteed for many years. The total value package is quite solid, but he did not go into West Point concerned about his career path, and he did not waver at affirmation. He’s where he belongs.

But the services understand that 18-23 year olds are not in the best position to know themselves and that is why they provide those first two years as trial without penalty. For those either thinking about a service academy or those who waver once there, @wpnomore’s journey can be informative. Thanks for posting here.

Also, for those reading here, be aware that although each cadet ranks the Army’s 17 branches in order of preference, there are no guarantees, so entering a service academy intent on only one or two branches is a mistake. The needs of the particular service will always take precedence over an individual’s desire. Each of the federal service academies is required, by law, to branch at least 69% of each class into combat arms as preparing and supplying officers for conflict is their business. For our son’s class of 2019, West Point branched 81% of the class into combat arms, and Cyber had only 25 slots for a class of nearly 1,000. Even with BRADSO, a cadet would not be guaranteed a slot in that branch as the selection rubric now includes a talent assessment. Service academies are not civilian colleges; you do not choose an SA for a particular type of work. You choose to serve as an officer wherever your country needs you.