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One cadet’s story: Reservist offers Air Force Academy advice

Cadet First Class Sarah Farmer was an enlisted Air Force Reservist when she decided to apply for admission to the Air Force Academy.

Cadet First Class Sarah Farmer was an enlisted Air Force Reservist when she decided to apply for admission to the Air Force Academy.

Citizen Airman/Feb. 2015 -- (Editor's note: Cadet First Class Sarah Farmer is on track to graduate from the Air Force Academy in May with a dual major in biology and behavioral science. Upon graduation, she plans to serve her country as an Air Force intelligence officer. This is the story of how the former Air Force Reserve enlisted member made it to where she is today.)

When Sarah Farmer was wrapping up her senior year at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2009, she thought about applying to the Air Force Academy just a few miles from her house, but she didn't think she had the grades or the SAT scores to get in.

"I was a pretty good student, but I wasn't at the top of my class, so I didn't think I had a chance of being accepted," Farmer said.

Looking for a way to help pay for college and satisfy the desire she had to serve her country, Farmer enlisted in the Air Force Reserve soon after graduation. Following basic military training, she went to tech school to train to be a dental technician.

"I did really well at tech school," Farmer said. "I was No. 1 in my class, and I had an instructor who told me I ought to think about applying to the Academy."

That was the push she needed.

"I thought, 'What the heck. Let's give it a shot.'"

Home on leave from tech school in December 2009, Farmer started the lengthy and sometimes confusing process of applying for admission to the Academy.

"I definitely got a late start," she said. "The whole application package was due Feb. 15, so I really had to hustle to get it done and turned in on time."

The first step in the process is to complete the initial application survey, called the pre-candidate questionnaire.

"That was the easy part," Farmer said. "It simply asks for your grade point average, community service hours, extracurricular activities, SAT/ACT scores, etc. ...

"I had to wait for that stage to be screened and accepted before moving on to the next stage, which involved writing three essays on topics such as leadership, role models and military service."

After making it through the second stage, Farmer was told she needed to get an endorsement letter from her commander, and she was given information on the Candidate Fitness Assessment.

"Asking for my commander's endorsement was nerve-wracking simply because I had only recently arrived at the unit before asking to leave to attend the Academy," she said. "The interview with my commander was the toughest interview I've ever been through, but I guess he liked what he heard because he gave me the endorsement.

"The only obstacle left after that was the CFA, which I thought was going to be easy, but it turned out to be the most difficult part because no one I talked to thought they were allowed to administer the test.

"I read the regulation, and it said any coach or physical training leader could administer the test. But the people I asked did not seem to think they were fit to oversee it. The frustrating part of the process was that I was at Peterson Air Force Base, which is only right across town from the Academy. I could not imagine the difficulty other Airmen from bases even further away were going through."

Finally, while Farmer was performing on-the-job training at the Academy Dental Clinic, the enlisted physical training leader there offered to proctor the test.

"I performed the test and turned the paperwork in to the Academy on Feb. 15, the last day to turn it in."

Farmer said she then waited and watched to see if her status changed from "candidate" to "appointee," but nothing happened. At the end of April, she called her Academy counselor to check on the status.

"First, he said he couldn't find my package," she said. "Then, he said the only thing holding up my status was that they had no contact information on my commander.

"I called my commander that night. He lived in Montana even though he was assigned to Peterson. I told him the situation and he said, 'What? I'll handle it' and he hung up. The next UTA (unit training assembly), I received my appointment to the Air Force Academy Preparatory School."

Most prior-enlisted Airmen attend the Prep School before entering the Academy, and Farmer said she was glad she did.

"After Prep School, I knew what to expect from the Academy more than my direct-entry counterparts, and I also entered the Academy with about 200 friends, while the direct-entry cadets entered mostly on their own."

Farmer said the application process can be frustrating, but it is definitely manageable.

"I think they make the process difficult and confusing to make sure the people who are applying really want the appointment," she said. "It's a way of weeding out people who don't really want to be here."

Farmer has a few tips for Reservists who are interested in applying for an Academy appointment:

* Make sure this is what you want. "The Academy is hard -- academically, physically and mentally," she said. "You have to really want it if you are going to make it through."

* Don't sell yourself short. "I made the mistake of thinking my grades weren't good enough to get me in, but it turns out they were. The Academy looks at the whole person: their grades, leadership abilities, extracurricular activities and physical fitness. You'll never know if you can get in unless you try."

* Take control of the process. "You can't rely on anybody else to do the work for you. You have to be the one in charge. Constantly check on the progress of your package, and if things hit a snag, work hard to get them moving again."

* Start early. "I didn't start early enough, and I was barely able to meet the deadline. Know when the deadlines are and make sure you have enough time to get everything done. There is also an age cutoff (candidates must be less than 23 years of age by July 1 of the year of entry) that you have to be aware of."

* Know where to go for advice. "Academy liaison officers are a great resource. Mine was always available to offer help and encouragement. I would also recommend talking to other prior-enlisted Airmen who have made it through the Academy."

Farmer said she thinks it's important for commanders and first sergeants to know how the admissions process works and to encourage outstanding young Airmen who might want to go the Academy.

"I am so thankful I had an instructor in tech school who saw something in me and encouraged me to apply for admission to the Academy," she said. "It's one of the best decisions I've ever made."