Enlisting in the Military


There are two main ways to join today’s volunteer Military: enlisting directly after high school or finishing college and joining as a commissioned officer. Enlistment is the most common way to join. Familiarizing yourself with the enlistment process can be helpful, as there are a few things that you’ll likely go through no matter which course you choose.

Enlisted vs. Officer?

In all military branches, servicemembers are divided into two categories: enlisted or officer. Both types of servicemembers are crucial to successful missions.

Enlisted members are employed in almost every type of military career, often in hands-on roles. They make up approximately 83 percent of the overall active-duty military workforce (This figure includes noncommissioned officers (NCOs), who, despite the title, are higher-ranking enlisted personnel).

Officers are generally employed in management roles or highly specialized fields that require more training (e.g., doctors, lawyers and chaplains). Commissioned officers account for approximately 18 percent of all active-duty servicemembers.

Doing the Research

Before you do anything else, do a little research. If you know a friend or family member who has spent time in the Military, now is the time to sit down and hear what he or she has to say. The Internet is also a good place to conduct research, but take what you read with a grain of salt. It is sometimes hard to tell which sources are official. These sites below are good starting points.

Visiting a Recruiter

Once you’ve done your research and have a sense of which Service branches and opportunities are right for you, it’s time to talk to a recruiter. A recruiter can give you detailed information about the Service he or she represents (such as enlistment bonuses, service lifestyle and potential careers) and can answer any questions about your specific situation (for example, if you need a waiver, have dependent children or a physical condition that may or may not affect your eligibility). Recruiters serve for one specific branch; however, there are joint recruiting centers that have multiple branches and corresponding recruiters represented. While no single recruiter can answer every question off the top of his or her head, recruiters will know where to find the answers.

It’s fine to bring a friend or parent to the recruiter with you for support. It’s also a good idea to make a list of questions beforehand so you don’t forget anything. You’ll probably talk to your recruiter multiple times before making a decision, so don’t worry if you do forget something.

Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS)

Once you make the decision to enlist, the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) is the place where recruits go to finish the enlistment process. There are MEPS locations all over the country. Candidates officially complete the process of joining the Military once they meet all of the requirements at the MEPS. This process may take a few days.

Potential recruits must do the following at the MEPS:

Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB)

The ASVAB is a multiple-choice exam that helps determine which kinds of careers an individual is best suited for. There are questions about math, language, science, mechanical and electronic knowledge and more. The test lasts about three hours and is one of the factors used to determine which military specialties you’d be good at.

Pass the Physical Examination

Your recruiter will discuss physical requirements with you beforehand. While the physical examination varies from branch to branch, it typically includes completing a medical history questionnaire, taking basic blood, urine and flexibility tests, as well as hearing and vision exams.

Meet With a MEPS Career Counselor and Determine a Career

Along with your ASVAB results, a MEPS career counselor will take Service needs, any prior experience and your wishes into account when helping you find a career.

Take the Oath of Enlistment (swearing in)

Led by a commissioned officer and always performed in front of a United States flag, the Oath of Enlistment is when you raise your right hand, repeat the oath and become a full-fledged member of the U.S. Military. During the Oath every servicemember vows to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

What Happens After the MEPS

After finishing at the MEPS, candidates follow one of two options:

  • “Direct Ship” – This means that a candidate will leave for Basic Training in a matter of days versus months.
  • Delayed Entry Program (DEP) – This means that a recruit is committing to Basic Training at a time in the future, generally within one year. Candidates entering the DEP will be given further instruction, to be followed at a later time.

It’s important to note that, depending on which option you choose, the time between being “sworn in” and Basic Training could be as short as two days or as long as a year. It also varies based on job assignment and branch of Service.

Learn more about MEPS and DEP

Basic Training (Boot Camp)

Advanced preparation is the foundation for a successful Basic Training experience. Recruits should do everything they can to make the transition from civilian life to military life as seamless as possible. Starting or increasing the intensity of an exercise regimen will get your body in shape. Reading about your chosen Service is also helpful and can help you know what to expect in the weeks ahead. This checklist can help you prepare what you’ll need to bring.

Checklist: Basic Training

The first few days at Basic Training are known as orientation (also referred to as “Processing Week,” “Reception” or “00 Week”). This is where new recruits adjust to their new surroundings and learn the dos and don’ts of their respective branches. Also during orientation, new recruits might:

  • Turn in enlistment packages (paperwork from the MEPS)
  • Receive dental and medical exams
  • Get immunizations
  • Receive uniforms and training gear (shorts/sweats, t-shirts, etc.)
  • Receive required haircuts (women can keep their hair long provided it can be worn within regulation and put up in a timely manner; it must be neatly tied back and be kept above the collar)
  • Create direct-deposit accounts for paychecks

Starting at orientation, the actual training begins. This varies from Service to Service and lasts between eight and 12 weeks. When recruits successfully complete Basic Training, they are prepared for all elements of service: physical, mental and emotional. As military personnel, they will go on to receive additional training, such as Advanced Individual Training or Technical Training, to develop the skills needed to do their specific jobs. Once finished, they transfer to their next duty stations. This is where members of the Services put all their training to use by carrying out their assignments, performing their jobs and serving our country.

More on Boot Camp

Advancement Opportunities for Enlisted Personnel

There are several ways an enlisted servicemember can advance up the ranks. Two possible routes are becoming a noncommissioned officer or transitioning from enlisted to commissioned officer:

Becoming a Noncommissioned Officer

Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) are higher-ranking enlisted personnel who play a crucial role in day-to-day military operations and are often referred to as the “backbone” of the Armed Forces. Serving as the liaison between commissioned officers and lower-ranking enlisted personnel, they are responsible for providing advice and guidance to officers as well as leadership and training to lower-ranking enlisted personnel. To become a noncommissioned officer a servicemember must rise up through the enlisted ranks. A servicemember can only be appointed to noncommissioned officer if he or she is promoted by a higher-ranking officer.

Transitioning from Enlisted to Officer

Some enlisted service members make the transition into officer roles. Enlisted service members with the right qualifications may be recommended by their commanding officers for OCS/OTS or ROTC (if they plan to go back to school). Most Services also have transitional programs that help service members make the leap.

Learn more about becoming a commissioned officer