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Prepare now to ensure success at OCS

Jul. 24, 2012 - 11:19AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 24, 2012 - 11:19AM  |  
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It took Coast Guardsman Paul Milliken eight years on the enlisted side before he was ready to make the jump to ensign — time he spent getting a college degree and the leadership credentials he would need to earn a place in Officer Candidate School.

Milliken, just out of OCS and on his way to a buoy tender in Kodiak, Alaska, said it was worth the wait. "This was absolutely my top choice coming out of OCS. It's the boat I wanted to be on, and it's the area of the world I wanted to go to," he said. "It's going to be a great stepping stone for whatever the next job is afterward."

For aspiring leaders across the services, Officer Candidate School offers a unique opportunity to move up the ranks. While the schools all have formal requirements, insiders know there are ways to gain an extra edge in getting in and getting ahead at OCS.

What to know

Anyone considering OCS as their next career jump first needs to answer some basic questions, and the answers aren't always obvious.

Should I do this? "Officer Candidate School is not necessarily right for [just] anyone," said Lt. Jim Bendle, assistant school chief of OCS at the Coast Guard Academy. "It's incredibly regimented. It's physically exhausting — literally 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every single day for 17 weeks — and every hour is pretty much accounted for."

Why do I want to lead? "For some people, they'll read a biography, they'll hear a story growing up, and they say, ‘Wow, that's something I want to do.' Or, for prior enlisted, maybe they see things they can do better," said Assistant Operations Officer Lt. Ralph Lufkin at Navy Officer Training Command, Newport, R.I.

Some find the drive for leadership grows with them during their enlisted tours.

"As I went along … I was hungry for more responsibility," said newly minted Navy Ensign Scott Hatzung, just out of OCS and now an aviation maintenance duty officer at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. "What an officer does is to push his people to be the best that they can be. I push myself that way, but I wanted to be able push other people to be the best that they could be."

What to do

It's one thing to come in talking about leadership and excellence, but OCS boards like to see some meat on those bones.

"One of the main things we are looking for is people who can express the interest and the desire to come here, and that means doing their homework," Lufkin said. "They need to talk to a recruiter, to learn about the program, to learn about particular military occupational specialties."

Hatzung used this exact strategy as he built his application. "I spoke with officers within the communities that I wanted to go into, to find out what they do on a daily basis. I wanted to know what kind of job I was getting into," he said.

Sometimes the best source will be close to home.

"The enlisted folks have an opportunity to speak to their commanders, many of whom may be lieutenant colonels, so they are not that far removed from when they were more junior officers," said Lt. Col. Robert Pohl, chief of the Air Force Officer Accessions Branch. "Just sharing with those officers can be very helpful. You can find out about the opportunities and about the challenges that come with being a leader and being responsible for your personnel."

To start the journey toward OCS today:

Start working out now. All the services' officer candidate programs include a rigorous fitness component. Many candidates will flunk out because of this. Many more will turn an already difficult program into a painful ordeal as they strive to keep up with those in better shape.

"This is incredibly academically challenging, and if you come in already in the hole in physical fitness, you are going to be stressed out," Bendle said. "While people are studying for tests, you are doing pushups in your room."

Balance your studies. Most OCS candidates will be putting the finishing touches on college degrees while still working full time. Officials raise a yellow flag: Work hard and get those grades, they say, but don't let your daily work slip. Sterling performance on the job is a key component of OCS acceptance.

Communicate your intentions up the chain. If your commanding officer knows you are aspiring toward OCS, he may increase your responsibilities and give you a chance to show your stuff. You'll also be laying the groundwork for positive recommendations.

Getting an early start can make a difference, since it shows the board that you are serious. "You've got to be thinking about it well ahead of time. Occasionally we see someone where it's clear OCS was a last-minute thought, and that will be inherent in their performance when they arrive here," said Army Capt. Simon Grimm, battalion operations officer at Fort Benning, Ga.

Insider knowledge

Ninety-five percent of the OCS admissions process is cut and dried: degree, grades, track record, recommendations. There is little wiggle room and not much place to gain an edge.

Still, a well-conceived approach may find advantages.

For those with the time and energy, involvement in outside activities can be a bright mark. Classes, activities, clubs, memberships, volunteer experiences: "It also shows selflessness, someone who is looking to better the community. It's a mark of being able to lead by example," Bendle said.

Grades aren't everything. Many people will be discouraged looking at the high averages among those accepted, "and some may self-eliminate, but the academic scores are really just one piece of the evaluations," Pohl said. If the grades are not absolutely stellar, it still may be worth hanging in there.

One final instance in which a candidate may rise (or fall) beyond what's in the application: The interview. As good as the package looks, sooner or later you'll have to defend it face to face. This is a prime moment for those hoping that a little subjective evaluation may tip the scales in their favor.

"People have very impressive resumes, but when it's an interview in front of a senior officer, that is really a job interview, and it's a hard one," Bendle said. To pass this test, "you can't just be smart. You have to be able to talk specifically about the service — to talk about the mission, what are you going to do as an officer. You need to speak the language."

OCS: What to expect

AIR FORCE: Seven classes per year, each 61 days.

* Basic requirements for acceptance: BA/BS degree or be within one year of graduation. Complete Air Force Officer Qualifying Test. Between 18 and 28 years of age for rated; between 18 and 34 years of age for nonrated.

* Major components of training: Air Force Combatives, culture and history, communication skills, drill and ceremonies, field leadership and physical training.

ARMY: Nine classes per year, each 12 weeks.

* Basic requirements for acceptance: Four-year degree. Staff sergeant (E-6) or below. Two fitness test scores 230 or higher. Applicant statement: "Why I want to be an Army officer." Board selection.

* Major components of training: Academic, physical and leadership. Candidates must demonstrate leadership, professionalism and officership in field, garrison and social environments. They receive advanced leadership studies and scenarios with an emphasis on officership and self-development, and they participate in senior leader seminars and social events.

COAST GUARD: Two classes per year, each 17 weeks.

* Basic requirements for acceptance: Four-year degree, interview, successful board review.

* Major components of training: Academics including Coast Guard history, military justice and law enforcement. Leadership training, military indoctrination and physical fitness.

MARINE CORPS: Three classes per year, each 10 weeks, plus six-week summer sessions for students from Virginia Military Institute, Navy ROTC, Citadel and other backgrounds.

* Basic requirements for acceptance: Four-year degree, physical performance, moral character and academic accomplishments.

* Major components of training: Leadership potential accounts for 50 percent of the candidate's grade and is based on practical application throughout the course of instruction, classroom instruction and staff observation. Academics account for 25 percent of an officer candidate's grade, with physical training accounting for the rest.

NAVY: Seventeen classes per year, each 12 weeks, maximum size of 100 students per class.

* Basic requirements for acceptance: Four-year degree, physical performance, moral character and academic accomplishments.

* Major components of training: "Militarization" through exacting personnel and room standards, drill training and rigorous physical training. Fundamental topics of instruction including naval history; naval orientation and warfare; weapons and engineering systems; navigation and leadership. Leadership training gives candidates the opportunity to interact with the staff and junior sailors and hone their personal leadership characteristics.

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