Ok, so you weren't one of those guys who finished high school and immediately knew that you were going to head down the road to becoming an Army Officer. You weren't one of the chosen few who went to West Point, and you didn't join ROTC in college.
But now that you have your degree (and maybe some life experience), you’ve begun thinking seriously about crossing over to the dark side and becoming an Officer in the Army. All that stands between you and that butter bar at this point are 12 weeks of Officer Candidate School.
However, what you don’t know is the path is not as simple as it seems. Whether you already have orders to go to OCS or you’re just thinking about it, there are a few things you should know before going to the course that most people will not tell you.
1. If you have an Active Duty contract, you better have a 300 APFT score, or be pretty close to it.
You may think that just because you have orders to go to OCS that you’ll be fine with a decent PT score (i.e. 250-270 range). In the past decade, when the wars were raging and the Army needed bodies, that was true. But these days, with the drawdown, even when you have orders to go to OCS, you still may have to compete to get a slot in a class once you’re at Fort Benning.
When I arrived at OCS in 2011, it was normal for HHC (the headquarters company) to have over 200 Soldiers each cycle trying to get into classes with slots for only around 90. What no one tells you until you get to HHC is that in order to get into a class, you have to take a PT test the first day of a cycle and only those with top scores (i.e. the number they have slots for) will be let into the class. If you miss the cutoff, you have to wait around in HHC for anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks for the next cycle to start up. At that point, you’ll compete again for a slot.
Just to illustrate how competitive the APFT cutoffs are, consider that my class had a PT score cutoff of 278. This means that the Soldier who was the worst at PT in our company had a 278. Our class average at the mid-cycle PT test was a 301.
Of course, this doesn’t really apply if you’re an Army Reserve and National Guard candidate. These Soldiers are guaranteed slots in each class just as long as they pass the PT test, meaning that Active Duty guys compete for the remaining slots.
2. 80% of the class will want to Branch either Infantry or Intelligence
OCS classes tend to have a strange dynamic because they’re a mix of candidates from all sorts of backgrounds. I met a female in my class who had been a physicist before joining the Army. But, even with these differences, candidates will fall into two camps: the College Option candidates and the Prior Enlisted Candidates. College Option Soldiers are those who have never served in the military (though some may have been in ROTC). Before getting to OCS, their only experience with the military will have been going to Basic Training.
Maybe it’s because they don’t know much about the military yet, but most of these Soldiers tend to be idealistic. They either will romanticize crawling around in the mud all day and have dreams of charging up hills with bayonets (those that want Infantry), or they imagine that their brainpower is the Army’s best new asset so the only Branch that makes sense for them is Military Intelligence.
The good news about this is that if you end up in the middle of the OML (Order of Merit List), you still should have a lot of good options to choose from like Armor for Combat Arms or Transportation if you want a more admin based job.
3. Reserve and National Guard candidates have to pretty much commit murder to get dropped, while Active Duty guys can get recycled at the drop of a dime.
If you get into an OCS class, you might end up wondering why some guys will get peered at the bottom week after week and never get dropped. Well, this is not a favoritism thing with the cadre. It’s a money thing.
Simply put, the money used to send Reserve and National Guard candidates to OCS comes from different places than the money used to send Active Duty candidates through the course. With Active Duty candidates, they’re going to get paid a full-time salary regardless of whether they’re in the course or not, but Reserve and National Guard units cannot afford to keep paying candidates at full-time status indefinitely.
This is why these candidates only need to pass a PT test to get into a class. It could also be the reason why cadre might hesitate to recycle these candidates. Because to do so would force the candidates to call their units back home to get extended orders, which means the unit will end up shelling out more money. What happens then is that pissed off leadership in that unit will probably contact the cadre and make their lives hell. And no one wants that.
4. Being a good leader doesn’t matter when it comes to getting the Branch that you want
You may be the best leader since Patton to come along in the Army, but getting those coveted Infantry rifles will depend on skills other than your ability to lead men. Yes, in theory, OCS is all about leadership. The reality, however, is that doing well in the first six weeks prior to branching depends almost entirely on how fast you can run and your grades on weekly tests.
Again, this only really applies if you’re an active duty candidate since most Reserve and National Guard candidates will already have their Branch prior to arriving at OCS.
5. If you have one Branch that you’re dying to get, you may not even have to compete to get it
There's one simple step you can take to avoid competing with the rest of the class for the job you want. You can submit a DA 4187 packet requesting a branch at the beginning of the cycle.
The packet basically is like a resume that makes the case for why you should be given that Branch. You should use it to highlight things like good grades, relevant majors (like a major in Arabic or International Affairs if you’re applying for Military Intelligence), and any prior work experience in that field (e.g. if you are Prior Enlisted and your MOS was within that Branch). You can even include letters of recommendation.
Prior to the branching ceremony, you will be informed whether the packet was approved or not. If it isn’t, you’ll proceed to choose your Branch based on your OML rank like everyone else. So, it certainly doesn’t hurt to submit a packet.
6. If you get dropped from OCS, you still have to serve out the remainder of your contract as an Enlisted Soldier
This applies more to College Option guys or those who had a break in service and then reenlisted with orders to go to OCS. If you got a new active duty contract in order to go to OCS, getting dropped from the course will not void out your contract with the Army. Instead, you will have to serve for the length of time specified on the contract as an Enlisted Soldier.
7. You should arrive at OCS with at least $1,000 to spend for necessary fees and items
When you’re an Enlisted Soldier, especially between E1 to E4, the Army goes out of its way to make sure you don’t have to spend any more money than you absolutely have to on gear. As a leader, however, you always need to be prepared to spend a couple of hundred dollars at a moment’s notice to get something that suddenly became “mandatory”. And at OCS, the second most important part of getting into a class is having every item on the packing list.
Once you take the PT test and are let into a cycle, you will need to go through a packing list inspection. Prior enlisted NCOs usually have this part down but I came into OCS not knowing that I absolutely had to have every item on the packing list (yes, you really do need to have 3 polo shirts and 3 pairs of khakis for your civilian attire).
The problem is that the total cost of getting all the items on the packing list can easily come out to $800 or more. I had a lot of items but I still had to spend over $500 to get the remaining things I needed before the cycle started. And once the cycle started, I still had to spend a few hundred more dollars to go towards class fees for the Formal, the Social, and the class shirts. Being an Officer, or even an Officer Candidate, isn’t cheap.
8. As long as you’re in HHC, you will only have the privileges of a Soldier in Basic Training
It doesn’t matter if you were an E-8 or a former Special Forces Soldier before becoming an Officer Candidate. Once you sign in to HHC at the OCS course, you will be put into lockdown. This means that if you fail to get into a class or you get recycled, you can count on spending a few weeks doing nothing but cutting grass, making ice sheets, and/or moving rocks all day until the next time you can try to get into a class. You’ll have to ask for permission to go to the PX on the weekend, where you’ll still not be allowed to get treats like Burger King or Starbucks.
This lockdown mode has the surprising effect of weeding out a number of candidates over time. Having just come from 10 weeks of being beat down in Basic Training, many of them will get tired of being in lockdown and missing PT cutoffs, and they’ll quit. Overall, this is better for those of you that really want it since you’ll have less competition.
Edgar Pabon is the Founder of Generation POG. Having been both a POG and a Combat Arms Soldier, he appreciates both the art of the sham and the art of making do with nothing.