**Updated 3/13/22 with more detail and clarity regarding the nomination / attendance authorization relationship and National Waiting list process based on feedback from a reader. Thanks for your help! As always, we want to be accurate and clear and welcome factual corrections.
When you look at the National Waiting List (NWL) of 359 appointments, 150 of those are “Qualified Alternates” or QAs–the top WCS scorers who were not selected to fill the Congressional vacancy. The remaining 209 appointments are “Additional Appointees” or AAs. According to West Point, AAs can be selected without regard to WCS, meaning they can be recruited athletes or others that allow West Point to reach their “class composition goals.”
So if a candidate is an average to above average non-athlete who is not a QA, his/her chances of appointment are likely slim given the need fill Division I athletic teams and meet diversity goals. These candidates take up the vast majority of the AA slots.
I think this is often lost on non-athlete applicants who believe they have a chance of admission when they really don’t. These applicants chalk up their declinations to West Point’s falsely advertised low admit rate (below 10%) when in fact they were not admitted because they were not athletes or did not fit into a diversity category.Read an in-depth analysis of WCS and admissions impacts at commenter’s book <here>
**record scratch, freeze frame**
Wait, candidates can be admitted without consideration of the Whole Candidate Score, in order to get “varsity athletes” and “conform the demographic mix”? This is worth exploring further. Let’s see what opportunity exists to admit candidates without regard to WCS.
A good recap of the process and math involved is here at west-point.org, source is Joe Brillante writing in 2003. Joe notes that:
Title X, U.S. Code specifies that West Point must admitted 150 from the National Waiting List as “Qualified Alternates” – those candidates who have Congressional nominations – and these appointments must in the order of their Whole Candidate Scores (strictly objective). That makes the running total 991.
West Point may select a number of candidates not based on the WCS to fill the class with “additional appointees” and these appointments must be in a 3:1 ratio of Congressional to service connected nominations. With 89 remaining slots, that means that 67 slots that may be filled without regard to the WCS will be from Congressional nominees, and 23 from service connected nominations.Joe Brillante
So we have a couple sources which put the range at non-OML slots at between 89 and 209, or between 8% and 18% of a typical incoming class.
We also went to some of the primary documentation to confirm or update assumptions. And with some more research and guidance from a reader, we’ve dug more into this process. Here’s what we learned.
Nominations & Authorizations
The authorized strength of the Academy is 4400. (Source) Note that this isn’t a cap on the number of cadets who can attend. Rather, it’s a funding limit. West Point can have more than 4400 cadets attend, it just has to pay for them some way other than the authorized strength budget.
Second, relevant law on nominations is here ( 10 USC 7442: Cadets: appointment; numbers, territorial distribution ). It’s a bit convoluted but some notable points are below.
- Added up, nomination sources total up to 5,872 possible nominations annually.
- Congressional primary nominations must be accepted by West Point if the candidates are qualified. This is *not* order-of-merit required.
- If a primary congressional nomination is not selected and the qualified alternates are ranked in preference order, they must be selected by USMA in the congressman’s preference order. Alternates get put onto the National Waiting List (NWL)
- If the congressman or senator submits an *unranked* nomination list, the West Point gets to select who attends out of the qualified candidates (assuming candidates are qualified*), presumably in order-of-merit.
- If the alternates are unranked, unselected, and qualified, they go into the NWL.
- USMA (Secretary of the Army) may select unranked qualified alternates from the NWL in WCS order-of-merit for up to 150 candidates.
- Superintendent nominations of up to 50 candidates annually do not require order-of-merit and may be from the “country at large”
- The president may *appoint* up to 100 cadets each year from service-connected reasons. No order-of-merit specified in the code.
- If there are remaining slots to fill to get to authorized strength, the SecArmy (really USMA) may “fill the vacancies by nominating additional cadets from qualified candidates designated as alternates and from other qualified candidates who competed for nomination and are recommended and found qualified by the Academic Board. At least three-fourths of those nominated under this section shall be selected from qualified alternates nominated by the [Vice President, Congressmen, Senators, Guam Rep, etc], and the remainder from qualified candidates holding competitive nominations under any other provision of law. An appointment under this section is an additional appointment and is not in place of an appointment otherwise authorized by law.” [Emphasis added][Source]. It looks to us like the bolded section does not require order-of-merit selection. This is also where the language “additional appointment” used by the first commenter comes from.
- Further, each congressman & senator can have up to 5 cadets at the academy at a time, totaling 535 * 5 = 2675 congressionally appointed attendees at any time, but this doesn’t mean that they always fill their authorizations. It can get tricky to keep track of the floating 5th slot as the 4 classes cycle every year. So any slots that aren’t filled go to the Secretary of the Army to nominate and fill.
Let’s take a moment and examine what “qualified” actually means.
This is a critical question because nominations and admissions opportunities depend on qualification. We saw above that the SecArmy must nominate *qualified* candidates. If the bar to qualification is subjective or variable, then USMA has more opportunity to shape the incoming classes on discretion.
West point class profiles show the funnel of “qualified” candidates:
But it is not clear what “qualified” means exactly and we haven’t seen a definition. Does it mean candidate eligibility and passing the medical exam and Candidate Fitness Assessment (CF)? Or does it refer to meeting a set of athletic, academic and leadership criteria as well? If so, what are those criteria? Is there a minimum WCS cutoff for “qualified”? Do different standards for “qualified” exist for recruited athletes or other demographic goals?
If there are minimum qualifying standards then we would expect to see such things as a WCS score or percentile cutoff, or lower bounds of test scores, or similar measurements. We are not aware of such criteria and welcome any readers to share them if they or guidance defining “qualified” exists.
But if there is no minimum in any particular category, or the standards are very low to allow flexibility to the admissions office, then the criterion of “qualified” is subjective.
Order of Merit Nominations
Which nominating sources are based on order of merit, and which are not?
We present a table showing the academy’s authorized strength of 4400, nominations sources, and a min/max estimate of how many discretionary (non-order-of-merit) slots are available based on whether each congressperson fills 4 or 5 slots his or her authorization.
Congressional nominations may or not be in order-of-merit (OOM) because each congressional office makes its own decisions on whether to use designated primaries, ranked alternates, or unranked slates. We don’t know and don’t have a quick way of finding out.
Presidential appointments, up to 100 annually from service-connected candidates, are not OOM required.
Service-connected nominations are not OOM required.
SecArmy nominations are OOM-required if they are the first 150 on the NWL. If the SecArmy has to nominate more candidates to bring the Corps to strength, three-quarters must be from the NWL and one-quarter from “qualified candidates holding competitive nominations under any other provision of law.” [Source]
The code here does not specify “order-of-merit” as it pointedly does elsewhere. Instead it says “may fill the vacancies by nominating additional cadets from qualified candidates designated as alternates and from other qualified candidates who competed for nomination and are recommended and found qualified by the Academic Board.” So it’s unclear if these are “order of merit” or if Admissions holds full discretion.
So we see at a low estimate (“Max case” in the table above), if every nominating source filled its annual authorizations, there would be no “non-OOM” slots available. At a high end (“Min case”), with congressional sources having 4/5 authorized cadets at the Academy annually, and excluding military-connected nominations (Presidential and SecArmy), we would have roughly 400 non-OOM slots in the Corps.
We also note that the 1,160 available service-connected attendance authorizations (presidential & SecArmy) are not merit-specified in the code and could therefore be an opportunity for USMA to fill diversity goals.
The actual state probably lies between the min and max cases. Joe B estimated 89 non-OOM slots and our commenter reported 209 non-OOM slots for the class he wrote about. This corroborates our estimated range. And of course this will vary year-to-year based on nominating sources performance and interactions with the Academy and nominating sources.
This lines up with the magnitude of the actual-vs-rank ordered difference we found in our post “A Class Admitted on Merit“. Checking the percentages again, we rough-estimate 200 slots per class are out of OOM. With service-connected nominations plus the non-OOM nominations, these slots are available and certainly help the academy achieve its racial composition goals and athletic goals.
Admitting in non-OOM becomes more likely as the definition of “qualified” becomes flexible or minimal.
Well this answers the question about where the mystery cadetships come from.
Answer: Their nominations are not Congressional primary selections, they’re through SecArmy and Superintendent authorizations. Then they’re hand-selected for sportsball and photo-ops. While we feel somewhat foolish for not knowing about these, we were spot on in the numbers.
(As an aside, everything about West Point admissions should be completely open. We shouldn’t have to request and analyze this data. As a taxpayer-funded, public institution that–incidentally–is a main feeder to our armed forces senior leadership, everything about the admissions & selection process should be totally transparent and accessible to the public. If West Point were serious about excellence and accountability, its website would have a section dedicated to this type of analysis. This type of analysis, which the leadership undoubtedly does but keeps to itself since it would upset grads & donors, is critical to understanding the institution and how it is performing its mission.)
Second, with the available non-OOM mechanisms, the range of 89-209 non-OOM annual slots presented earlier is realistic if not conservative. This 10-20% percentage of a class plus service-connected nominations can bypass the admissions selection mechanism–the Whole Candidate Score–used for the rest of the corps. This may vary from year to year depending on how the congressional members do their nomination slates.
Think we’re exaggerating? Point out on West Point’s “how to get into West Point” glossy blog where “backdoor admissions standards so we can play football or meet social engineering goals” is identified. It doesn’t exactly advertise the way to get around West Point’s vaunted “10% admission rate.”
Of course this is grossly unfair to everyone who is admitted through the advertised nominations process, and not to mention misleading to the public who thinks that the Academy is all about producing quality officers.
Since this category of admission isn’t included in our data, we’ll include nominations data in the next FOIA ignored by West Point. In the meantime we can guess how a lot of the USMA Affirmative Action policies and sports recruiting are executed.
Never again do we want to hear the hackneyed cliche (heh) that West Point selects “for the whole person” and that low-scoring athletes “are admitted because of leadership potential” or blanket statements implying that all candidates are selected objectively. West Point doesn’t do this but it pretends to for “the brand”. West Point would rather select a cadet class to make political and ideological points rather than create the best possible class of officers. And its leadership isn’t honest about that.
As always, factual corrections and thoughtful criticism are welcome.