Naval Academy service assignments: What does it take for midshipmen to get their first choice?
By SELENE SAN FELICE | The Capital | Published: November 27, 2019
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Capt. William Switzer still remembers how he felt on service assignment day.
His heart was set on being a submariner, but medical disqualification put him in Surface Warfare. But 27 years as a Surface Warfare Officer have been “pretty darn good,” he said.
As the Naval Academy’s director of professional development, he watches midshipmen just like him go through the same emotional roller coaster. He wants them to know things will be OK.
No matter what the odds are of getting their first choice, Switzer and the Service Assignment Board want to guarantee every midshipman a successful Navy career.
“I would stress that every community is a good community. Mids have their own preconceived notions of what’s good and what’s bad. They often find that what they get is a blessing in disguise.” Switzer said.
“I would know. I was one of them."
Midshipmen have from the end of their first year until August of their fourth year to put in their service preferences. They can list up to six preferences out of the 24 career choices in the Navy and Marine Corps.
At service assignment day last week, 81.7% of midshipmen got their first choice, according to data provided by the Naval Academy. That’s below the about 88% average over the last five years and the lowest percentage in the last five years. The Navy Pilot assignment was the most sought after community this year — 257 mids put it as their first choice — and the most assigned with 228 midshipmen given the assignment.
When you factor in midshipmen who get their second choice, the number goes up to 95%. That leaves about 5% of midshipmen getting their third to fourth choice, and those students are generally toward the bottom of the class, Switzer said.
To protect some of the midshipmen in that 5%, Switzer kept live streams and reporters out of the room this year.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger every year. It was turning into ship selection. But everybody’s happy there,” Switzer said.
Assignments are made based on three factors: the desires of mids, their aptitude and the goals “Big Navy” gives the academy to meet, Switzer said.
“We are very upfront about this process,” Switzer said. “It’s service assignment. Not service selection. The needs of the Navy are going to win out in that process.”
But students’ desires and their aptitude are important for their success and the Navy’s, Switzer said.
When he was a midshipman, Switzer said service assignments were entirely merit-based. So students at the top of their class could pick just about any career they wanted, even if they didn’t have the skills for that job.
In 1995, the process became less focused on grade point average and more focused on demonstrated leadership when a panel created a new system, changing from service selection to service assignment.
“We’re much more scientific about the aptitude piece of it," Switzer said.
The most sought-after of those spots are Navy Special Warfare (SEALs), then Marines and aviation. More people want to go into those communities than they can take, Switzer said, so only the hardest working and most dedicated of the class get spots.
To be a SEAL, midshipmen have to make Navy Special Warfare their first choice. About 50-60 people vie for SEALs each year — this year 48 put it as their first choice — taking a screening test and spending three weeks being evaluated by SEALs at the Naval Special Warfare Command, in Coronado, California. But only about 30 midshipmen make the cut.
Up to 25% of the class go into the Marines. This year, 258 midshipmen got Marines of the 295 who wanted it, according to data provided by the academy. Potential Marines go to Leatherneck, a four-week training program in Quantico, Virginia, where they’re evaluated on leadership, physical training and military skills.
Whether they want to go into aviation, every midshipman takes the Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) to find potential pilots and flight officers, Switzer said.
Then there are the communities midshipmen aren’t eager to go into. The hardest of those to fill is nuclear, Switzer said.
“That is probably the least-liked part of the process. It’s a very small number of people but we have to do it,” Switzer said.
Lt. Tony Testino, a 12th company officer at the Naval Academy, was one of those midshipmen who got put into nuclear. Testino had his heart set on being a pilot and was disappointed when he called his father to give him the news.
“He told me, ‘Hey, jump in. Nothing’s going to change from here on out. Blossom where you’re planted,’ ” Testino said. " Honestly, it’s been no looking back ever since."
Now, he’s back at the academy trying to help students who don’t know what they want to do.
“I tell mids all the time, jokingly, but I mean it: the Navy made a great decision for me, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Testino said.
But one of those nuclear communities, submarines, is actually a competitive assignment for academically successful female mids. Submarines became open to women in 2010 with limited slots, meaning only top academically performing women make the cut — 30 female midshipmen this year.
Lt. Julian Abellar, a 2nd company officer at the academy, was one of the rare midshipmen to get their last choice, but not because of bad grades. Abellar learned in his second year that he was medically disqualified from most communities except Surface Warfare.
“It was a big shock to me,” he said.
“I thought, should I just get out after five years of doing this job, or should I turn it around and try to make the best of the hand I was dealt?”
Abellar chose the latter. Eight years later, he plans to stay in Surface Warfare for the rest of his career.
“Just because you get your first choice doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy," Abellar said. "I was fortunate enough to love my community and I think that goes back to being open-minded and resilient.”
Breakdown of Class of 2020 service assignments
Surface Warfare Officers: 259
Explosive Ordnance Disposal: 16
Navy Pilot: 228
Naval Flight Officer: 46
Cyber Warfare Engineer: 1
Civil Engineering Corps: 4
Cryptologic Warfare: 16
Information Professional: 4
USMC Ground: 161
USMC Pilot: 91
USMC Cyber: 6