- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Emerson Brooking
Best Defense guest columnist
Although the drawdown has left scars across every level of the armed services, it poses some of its biggest challenges for those at the start of the commissioning pipeline. Rapidly decreasing numbers of slots, a surplus of qualified candidates, and a universal lack of information have combined to make today’s application process deeply uncertain. Many strong applicants — shoo-ins just a few years ago — must now try repeatedly for a ticket to OCS, effectively putting their lives on hold. Many still will not make it. The situation raises tough questions without good answers.
I’ve watched this process unfold as both a Marine Corps applicant and an active observer to discussions surrounding defense budget reductions. Officer wannabes struggle to stay free of doubt as they put their spirits into commissioning programs that could abruptly cease to exist. Meanwhile, grim numbers thrown around by policymakers suggest that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better. While my experience is specific to the Marine Corps, I suspect the story is similar for folks on the Army side.
Anonymous forum boards like Marine Corps OCS provide a window into the mindset of today’s aspiring candidates. Amid standard topics like pull up techniques and essay tips can be found a growing number of discussion threads that reflect more fundamental concerns: Could my application ever make it? Will there even be slots available? At what point should I stop trying — and what could I possibly do instead?
When applicants’ final packets have been submitted for consideration, they often post their "stats": their school of graduation, their PFT, their GPA, number of waivers, and status of their recommenders. This is done both for the benefit of the community and for the aspiring candidate’s own peace of mind. It’s difficult to read these posts and not think immediately of sites like College Confidential, where stat-filled "chances" threads provide elite college applicants an opportunity to measure themselves against the competition. Between each of these worlds, the same earnest motivation bleeds through. So does the same numb despair when word of rejection arrives.
While the college analogy provides a good fit for today’s officer selection process, there’s a crucial difference. This is an admissions process in which even basic information like average scores and acceptance rates remain hidden from view, and where the number (and even existence) of some commissioning program slots can change overnight. Only the broad trend is clear: steeply rising standards and rapidly shrinking odds.
There are numbers of truly qualified candidates — exemplary leaders, fitness gods — who have now thrown themselves several times through the application cycle without success. In the interim, many effectively put their lives on pause, drifting from one job to the next while reserving the start of their real career for the Corps. With the defense budget continuing to deflate, they may never get a shot. It’s an open question what these "could-have-beens" will pursue in place of service. In any case, one suspects the really serious ones won’t talk about it much.
Emerson Brooking has worked as a journalist and is currently a DC-based defense researcher. He’s just signed up for his first marathon and would welcome training tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.