How to Become a Commissioned Officer in the Military
Updated August 26, 2022 • 4 min read
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The military is always seeking out educated and qualified candidates to serve in leadership roles. If you wish to rise to the rank of an administrative officer or serve in a specialized role like law, medicine, or the ministry, a bachelor’s or graduate degree in your field can qualify you for some great career opportunities.
If you’re a military veteran making the transition from service to college, visit our Complete Guide On Using Your GI Bill and check out our Tips for easing the transition process.
If, however, you plan to gain an education first and then springboard into a military career, read on to learn more about your options. There are several paths to becoming a Commissioned Officer, most of which involve a formal higher education and the acquisition of a pertinent degree. There are some paths to becoming an officer within the context of the military itself, which we’ll outline below. However, a college and/or graduate education is among the most effective ways to initiate a long-term military career with prospects for continuing advancement.
Becoming a Commissioned Officer — Is It Right For You?
Commissioned Officers cover a wide breadth of roles and responsibilities from leading and training enlisted soldiers to planning missions and managing broad administrative duties. Commissioned Officers also include those in various specialized roles, which might include army medics, chaplains, pilots, and legal counsel. In fact, management and leadership positions are available in nearly every area where enlisted positions exist. This means that you can actually apply a fairly wide range of degrees and educational paths to leadership in the military.
A degree also gives you a strong starting point for moving up the chain of command. Your career advancement as a Commissioned Officer is generally marked by the size of your command responsibility, from oversight of platoons, companies, and battalions, to jurisdiction over entire bases and theaters of operation. Depending on your focus and level of education, this path could ultimately lead to a position working in the Pentagon or for the Department of Defense.
Once you’ve completed your commitments to the military, your record of leadership and advancement within the service can also provide a good stepping stone to a leadership career in another aspect of government or in the private sector.
If you think you’d be interested in becoming a Commissioned Officer, take a look at Go Army’s Interactive Tool and find out if this career path makes sense for you.
Becoming a Commissioned Officer
There are five ways to Become an Officer:
Military Academies and Colleges
Military academies and colleges are among the most direct routes to becoming an officer. These highly selective schools offer free tuition and rigorous training in exchange for a commitment — typically of five years — to serve as an officer. Bear in mind though: admission to many of these academies is highly competitive. You’ll need to meet a high academic threshold to gain entrance. Check out our Military Academies to learn more.
If you plan on attending a college or university that is not directly affiliated with the military, you’ll want to seek one of the United States' 1,700 schools offering a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Founded in 1916, the ROTC prepares students to become military officers. As with attendance at a military academy, when you join the ROTC program, the cost of your college education is covered, including housing and books. You’ll have a guaranteed job the day you graduate college. In exchange, you will be required to commit to a certain period of service in the military. You can make this commitment either upon high school graduation or at any time during your first two years of college. Each branch of the military administrates its own ROTC program. If you do not already have a four-year degree and wish to become an officer, this is the most accessible path to doing so. Follow the links below to find the program that best suits you:
You can also check out The Best Colleges for Military and their Families to learn more about ROTC programs at some of the best schools in the U.S.
The Coast Guard does not offer an ROTC program but does offer a Coast Guard Split Training Program. If you’re interested in officer training for the Coast Guard and fall between the ages of 17 and 31, click here to learn more about Coast Guard Split Training and other education or training programs.
Officer Candidate School
If you already have a four-year degree, or are making plans to transition from a four-year degree program, and you would like to become an officer, you’ll want to look into Officer Candidate School (OCS). An OCS program will provide you with the knowledge and skills required to serve as an officer in the armed forces. Your education will combine classroom instruction and training exercises designed to arm you with critical leadership skills. Each branch administrates its own OCS program:
If you already have your degree in a particular area of interest to the military, you could become an officer by way of Direct Commission. Direct Commission Officers are those with a background and education in certain areas, particularly in law, medicine, religion, and cyber technology. To become a DCO, you’ll need to hold a degree in your area of specialization and complete the officer training program specific to this area. If you’ve already earned the relevant undergraduate and graduate degrees, you can proceed by clicking on the link that applies to your area of specialization:
- The JAG Corps (Law)
- Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) (Medicine)
- Chaplain Corps (Religious officers)
- Military Cyber (Cyber crime defense and protection)
Transitioning From Enlisted to Officer
If you’re already serving and you’re interested in pursuing officer training within the context of the military, the following paths offer you opportunities for branch-specific leadership development and career advancement:
- Army Warrant Officers
- Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP)
- Navy Seaman-to-Admiral (STA-21) Program
- Air Force Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP)
- Coast Guard Pre-Commissioning Program for Enlisted Personnel (PPEP)
If you’re uncertain of which path is right for you, or you have any unanswered questions about the process, the benefits, or the opportunities ahead of you, reach out and find a recruiter near you. Use the Army’s Locate a Recruiter and get started.
You can also start your search by checking out The Best Colleges for Military and their Families to learn more about the schools that are best suited to your education, service and career goals.
For more information and resources on getting a quality education, earning a degree, or getting a great job, return to the Military Education Headquarters.
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