CHOOSING A SOLDIER SCHOOL

It's called the "slide for life"--a plunge from a 75-foot tower down a wire, feet-first into a lake--and Liz Michaelson is crying as if she's been born again. The second-year cadet had always dreamed of enrolling in the U.S. Military Academy. But she feared that "heights issues" and West Point's intense competition might be too much. Now, exhilarated and shivering in her wet camouflage, she's happy she took the risk. "You get over fear," Michaelson, 19, says, "but regret stays with you your whole life."

A whole lot of high schoolers are apparently getting over any concerns about the Big Three military academies--Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, West Point. A boost of patriotism fueled by 9-11 and two quick wars, as well as a slow job market and a teenager boom, have driven up applications by 17 percent since pre-9-11 days. There's even a hot Academy book, David Lipsky's "Absolutely American," perhaps the best portrayal of life at West Point.

Do you have what it takes to get in? For starters, you need an official nomination from the president or a member of Congress. All three Department of Defense-funded (read: free) academies are coed; about 15 percent of the respective classes are women. All say they have similar diversity goals, and have minority representation of between 15 percent and 24 percent. All espouse moral, mental and physical devel-opment--especially leadership--and teach higher-education foundations like science and history. But each has its own personality:

U.S. Naval Academy
Annapolis, Md.
A visit to picturesque Annapolis, 30 miles east of Washington on the Chesapeake, may explain why it's the hardest to get into among the military academies. Annapolis accepted a scant 9 percent of the 14,101 applicants for the 1,224-cadet class entering in fall 2003--the largest pool in a generation. To increase your odds, consider a post-high-school year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School, in Newport, R.I.; the application process is easier and less competitive. Annapolis's 2003 freshman class has an SAT average of 1315, and the Academy's largest minority representation ever. Cadets graduate into either the Navy (84 percent) or the Marine Corps (16 percent).

U.S. Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Tucked into the Rocky Mountain foothills, the Academy's isolation causes it to lag behind the other Big Three schools in applications. But that hasn't stopped it from being able to admit more women than any of the other academies--as both a percentage and a raw number--to its class of '07 of 1,292 cadets. Allegations of sexual assault on campus haven't seemed to hurt recruiting. "It's put into the perspective that 99.99 percent of our cadets are good, solid people," says Col. Trapper Carpenter, head of admissions.

U.S. Military Academy
West Point, N.Y.
The oldest of the academies, the Hudson River Valley school's 22 percent increase in applications tops the rest. West Point emphasizes its demand for a student who's both scholastically and physically strong. The 1,320 incoming freshmen had an SAT average of 1280, and 60 percent were varsity team captains. "We value participation in contact sports that cause you to collide into other people and sweat and work as part of a team," says Col. Michael Jones, head of admissions.

Then there are the smaller, less prominent military schools: the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. The latter is the only Academy that sends graduates into all military branches (most go Navy); it issues ship-operating licenses that earn graduates a lot more than their fellow servicemen. Other schools to consider include the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, and The Citadel, in Charleston, S.C., as well as military-influenced schools like Texas A&M and Norwich University in Vermont.

Remember, not everyone can be all they can be. Up to 28 percent of the academies' students quit. Author Lipsky offers a cautionary tale. A cadet who threw in the towel recalled why he enrolled at West Point: to impress his friends. "The hardest stuff," the cadet said, was " 'Are you ready to come be Army professionals?' " Facing five postgraduate years of service was too daunting. Like those of most washouts, his resignation form was check-marked "Life Not Compatible With Military."