More than 80% of the U.S. military is made up of enlisted members, with officers making up the rest of the military population of the armed forces. Officers are trained to be managers and leaders. They plan missions, provide orders and assign tasks, while enlisted members are technical experts and leaders that hold the specific skills necessary to complete the mission.
Both of these roles are essential to the military and offer rewarding careers. A first step toward becoming an enlisted service member or an officer is to work with a military recruiter. Your recruiter will help you determine which path is best given your level of education, goals and qualifications.
Joining the military as an enlisted member
To enlist in the armed forces, you must:
- Have a high school diploma. In some cases, a general equivalency diploma will be accepted.
- Be at least 17 years old. The maximum age to enlist in the military varies according to branch of service, from 28 years old for the Marine Corps, to 39 for the Navy and the Air Force. The maximum age to enlist in the Army is 34. But these are subject to change so check with your recruiter.
- Be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.
- Speak, read and write English fluently.
- Achieve the minimum score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test for your branch of service.
- Pass a physical and meet weight requirements. Fitness standards vary by service.
After meeting with a recruiter, you will report to a Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS. There you will:
- Take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Your overall score on the ASVAB’s 10 subtests will help determine what jobs you are qualified for in the armed forces. You may be required to take additional special purpose tests to help determine the best career for you.
- Undergo a complete physical exam, which includes hearing and vision tests as well as drug and alcohol testing.
- Meet with a service liaison to learn about available jobs in your service. Some services assign a job at this time while others wait until after basic training or later. Your job will depend on your preferences and where your skills are most needed at the time of your enlistment.
- Be fingerprinted for background checks and security clearances.
- Take the Oath of Enlistment in which you vow to defend the U.S. Constitution and obey the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Serving as an enlisted member
As a recruit, you will attend basic training to prepare physically and mentally to become a member of your branch of service. Basic training typically spans seven to 12 weeks depending on your branch of service. After graduation from basic training, you will attend advanced training and in some cases, additional training to learn your job.
Enlisted members start their careers as junior enlisted personnel, called privates in the Army and Marine Corps, airman basic in the Air Force and seaman recruit in the Navy. Though military titles and rank can differ by service, pay grade rankings are standardized across the military. These are designated as E-1 through E-9. Pay and responsibilities increase as you rise through the enlisted ranks. An enlistee may rise through the lower ranks fairly quickly, although promotions tend to happen less frequently after the rank of E-4 because the number of these positions are limited by Congress.
Becoming a noncommissioned officer
A service member reaches the rank of noncommissioned officer at the rank of E-4 or E-5, depending on their branch of service and military title. Noncommissioned officers are high-ranking enlisted members who have been given leadership authority.
Becoming a commissioned officer in the military
A commissioned military officer holds a four-year college degree or higher and has undergone officer training. There are several paths to earning an officer commission in the armed forces.
Reserve Officers’ Training Corps
Some 1,700 colleges and universities nationwide offer ROTC. This military training program grants scholarships to help pay for college in exchange for military service after graduation. Students enrolled in ROTC attend training and take specialized classes alongside their regular academic classes.
Learn more about the ROTC program at each service branch:
Military service academies
Each service branch has its own undergraduate institution that educates and trains its future leaders. Admission to military academies is highly competitive. Students should begin preparing during high school to ensure they meet the high standards and strict requirements for acceptance. Military academies offer free tuition and room and board in exchange for a commitment to serve as an active- duty officer for a period of time after graduation, usually at least five years.
Learn more about each military academy:
- The United States Military Academy in West Point, New York (Army)
- The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland (Navy and Marine Corps)
- The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado
College graduates who want to serve as military officers can apply to Officer Candidate School (called Officer Training School in the Air Force). This intensive program spans between 9 1/2 to 12 weeks, depending on the service, and prepares candidates to become officers.
Learn more about Officer Training School and Officer Candidate School by service branch.
- Army Officer Candidate School
- Marine Corps Officer Candidates School
- Navy Officer Candidate School
- Air Force Officer Training School
Direct commissions may be available to civilians with certain highly-specialized professional degrees that are in demand in the services. Doctors, lawyers, clergy and engineers are among the professionals who are most in demand and therefore most likely to receive a direct commission. Professionals who receive a direct commission receive officer training to help them transition from civilian to military life and learn leadership skills.
Transitioning from enlisted to commissioned officer
Though less common, enlisted members may apply to become a commissioned officer. If you are well-qualified and hold a bachelor’s degree, you may be nominated by a commanding officer to attend officer candidate or officer training school. Some branches of service offer programs in which an enlistee earns a college degree and attends officer school while serving in the military.
It is also possible to become a warrant officer — a technical and tactical leader — without holding a four-year college degree. Warrant officer pay grades are designated W-1 through W-5 (W-2 through W-4 in the Navy). The Air Force is the only service that does not have the rank of warrant officer.
Serving as a commissioned officer in the military
Officers have significant responsibility as managers and leaders. A newly minted officer typically starts their career as a second lieutenant (ensign in the Navy). Officer grades are designated O-1 through O-10. Promotions bring an increase in pay and responsibility, but happen only if there is a requirement. That’s because, as with enlisted ranks E-5 and above, the number of officer positions is limited by Congress. Officers may spend several years at each rank before rising to the next, though promotions tends to happen faster in the lower ranks.
Whichever path you choose, a career in the military as either an enlisted service member or as an officer offers both tangible benefits, such as a steady income, paid leave and health care benefits; and intangible benefits, such as the pride of service, being part of a community like no other and knowing that you are serving a vital role in protecting your country.
To learn more about being a part of the military, contact your service branch recruiter or call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647.