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What My First Month of ROTC Was Really Like

A row of legs in camo pants and black combat boots standing in brown grass.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

I had no idea what lay ahead of me when I signed the enrollment papers to join the Air Force ROTC program in June 2021.

I had just come out of two semesters of online college and was looking to be more active on campus. I felt lost in my career and aspirations and I didn’t know how to continue.

When I first heard of the ROTC program, I imagined the movies about people attending basic training and going to war. I imagined gruesome physical training and having no time to myself.

Most of all, I couldn’t imagine how joining the ROTC program would work if I was already a busy college student. I was worried this was a huge commitment that would compromise my education. 

I could not have been further from the truth. 

My experience in the ROTC program so far has been life changing, and even within the first month, I have already gotten back so much from what I have given to the program.

I have made many significant connections and have learned many skills that have helped me in my life. Here is what I learned during my first month of ROTC. 

First of all, what is ROTC?

ROTC is the Reserve Officers Training Corps, a college program that prepares students to become officers in the US military.

The branches you can join are the United States Army Air Force and Navy, and within the Navy branch, you can join through the marine route.

This program is offered at more than 1700 colleges and universities across the United States. The ROTC program covers a number of topics in physical fitness, academics, and drill and ceremonies.

Courses needed to complete the ROTC program are a mix of normal college classes and your specific branch’s ROTC curriculum. ROTC provides leadership development, military skills, and career training needed for your time in the program and out of it.

While many people join the ROTC program for scholarship benefits, others join to gain skills needed to become a good leader and to be guaranteed a job post college.

The Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps is one of the three primary commissioning sources for officers in the United States Air Force and United States Space Force, the other two being the United States Air Force Academy and Air Force Officer Training School.

AFROTC emphasizes “developing leaders of character” through activities that emphasize lessons on effective elocution, authority, and critical thinking. AFROTC also supports the responsibilities of a student and recognizes the importance of being a student first, Cadet second.

Regardless of a student’s future course of action when participating in the AFROTC program, they carry lessons that help them become better people for the rest of their lives.

Early involvement is key

During my first month of AFROTC, my intuition told me I had to get involved early and I was right.

Since there is so much to learn from the program, I told myself that the earlier I started to learn what I needed, the better off I will be.

After my enrollment, I contacted a few cadets of the Air Force ROTC program who had gotten me interested in the first place and asked them where I could start on improving my skills. They invited me to attend drill and ceremony sessions to learn the basics of marching and gave me a handbook full of information.

During the summer, I attended the session and studied this handbook so that by the time I started in the ROTC program in September, I was ready to go.

Before your first month of ROTC, make sure you get ahead on information you can easily acquire by asking others. If you found out about the program through someone else, ask them for any information they think you might need.

If you found the program through a website designed for your specific branch’s ROTC program, look up anything you can in regards to draw and ceremonies, academics, or physical fitness. Oftentimes you can find visual instructional videos on YouTube or other video sharing sites.

ROTC is not what I thought it was

During my first month, I came to learn that it is not the military program I thought it was. I had a very skewed notion of what ROTC was.

While there is drill marching and physical training involved, it is not nearly as much as basic training would be if you were to be an enlisted member. The ROTC program emphasizes that you are a college student and you should concentrate on your studies just as much if not even more than the ROTC program.

During my first month, I noticed I was doing poorly in physical training. However, I was uplifted by my peers around me and trained to have a higher stamina cadet.

While many of our military leadership laboratories (our main ROTC training classes) involve a lot of drill and ceremonies practice, they also involve other things that help each cadet become a good leader. These things include brief expression delegation and commanding that are taught through simulations.

This is not a program where you’ll be drained and exhausted. Instead of negative critique, you will receive positive criticism to help you become an overall better cadet and person. 

How To Find A Job As A Student

Get fit early

Physical fitness is extremely important when participating in the ROTC program. Before your first month, make sure your physical fitness standards are up to par with what is required.

Look up your specific branch requirements for fitness. I was required to take a physical fitness diagnostic or PFD, which is a trial of the physical fitness assessment or PFA, in which the score is important and included in your overall ranking as a Cadet in the program.

The PFD tests upper body strength, core strength, and cardiovascular endurance, which can take the form of push-ups, sit ups, and mile runs. Make sure that you are working out regularly and eating a balanced diet before you start the program. 

Academics are important

During my first month of ROTC, I also learned that academics are extremely important.

For the ROTC program, I had to learn basic military knowledge specific to my branch through a handbook offered by my detachment. From my specific branch, I had to marry the Air Force honor code, the Air Force mission, the space force mission etc. 

In your ROTC program, you will not only learn about your branch but you will also learn about the other branches so as to notify them under the same United States.

Make sure you are constantly reviewing this information in regards to your regular school work. During my first month, I learned that I had to space it out and learn a bit at a time rather than everything last minute. Much of it needs to be recited or rewritten verbatim which means nothing can differ from the original context. 

Your school academics are also important. Most times, the ROTC program requires a certain minimum GPA to continue the program and one even higher if you are a cadet on scholarship. I learned that keeping your GPA high is included in your overall ranking as an ROTC cadet. 

Lessons taught are applicable to life

Many of the lessons that were taught during the program can be used in everyday life.

Growing up, I struggled with public speaking and organizing my thoughts into words. I grew up very passive and did not have a commander’s voice.

I wanted to improve this and be a better leader for myself and for my peers. Joining the ROTC program has significantly boosted my confidence.

Now, I am speaking out and volunteering to be involved more often. This has shown in my performance as an ROTC cadet and as a student. I am now involved in extracurricular organizations outside of ROTC that help me practice these leadership styles.

During school, I ask more questions and I present more often to my peers. When publicly performing, I have less stage fright, and I am more excited to get my point across.

During my first month, I did not think that I could make great strides with my confidence, but I was proven wrong. The ROTC program has significantly helped me with my leadership skills and overall self-esteem.

Take advantage of every opportunity

I learned that involvement is everything. During my first month, I took advantage of leadership opportunities that were offered to me.

At first, I did not know what to do, but I learned quickly and adjusted to my environment. You will be given constructive criticism instead of negative critique when learning something you volunteer to try.

A good leader is always willing to learn first and make mistakes as part of the learning process. Hop into as many opportunities as you can to be involved and set an example!

Volunteering during learning events is not the only way you can stay involved. There are plenty of opportunities for you to be involved with your ROTC program outside of the learning environment.

Many ROTC programs offer extra academic sessions as well as extra drill and ceremony sessions, which is basically ROTC tutoring to help you become a better cadet.

Take advantage of these opportunities offered by your program and attend as many as you can. Not only will it be a review aside from your normal ROTC classes in a lower pressure environment, but you will also be able to get ahead on material you may not have covered yet.

With extra academic sessions, you can make connections with other cadets who are majoring in the same subject. You can also help build your ROTC program by volunteering at recruiting events.

These events are amazing because you get to connect with students who were in your position before you decided to join the ROTC program. Not only is this a great opportunity to meet new people but you will also improve your public speaking skills and get to know even more about your program.

Outside ROTC, there are a number of morale events you can attend to make new connections. During my first month, I attended quite a few with my fellow cadets, and to this day these are the friends I have within the ROTC program.

These events are designed to bring cadets closer together, and with everything moving so quickly during learning events, it is often hard to get to know people you are working with.

I found that this program gave me a lot of hard-working and respectful peers to spend time with. During my first month, I was humbled to find this. Getting to know your fellow ROTC cadets better through attending morale events is the best thing you can do to make friends in college. 

I found it difficult to manage school in the ROTC program. Majoring in music and psychology as well as being a part of the ROTC program made it hard for me to find time to dedicate to all three.

I was compromising study time from one major to practice extra drone ceremonies and I was compromising leadership opportunities for my schoolwork.

However, I learned a number of organization and time management skills that I would not have gotten with another program. Even though the ROTC program can be quite demanding, they understand that you are studying full-time and you need time to dedicate to your major.

Do not be afraid to reach out to your fellow cadets on how to manage school and ROTC. Oftentimes, they have created solutions to helping organize their time and have plenty of experience doing so. 


During my first month, I realized that a military career was for me. Regardless of being lost my freshman year of college, joining the ROTC program was the best thing that could’ve happened for my career aspirations.

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