Army National Guard Officer Candidate School: Tips for Success

Last year I had the opportunity to attend an eight-week accelerated Army Officer Candidate School (OCS) program held at Fort McClellan, Alabama. It was tough, but I wanted to breakdown my experiences and offer some advice to any current or prospective officer candidates.

The Program

There are several avenues to become an Army officer for those interested, but at the state level you’ll most likely have two options. The first is the traditional path, the length of which can vary by state but is typically an 18-month program attended on a one weekend per month, two weeks per year schedule. While giving officer candidates more breathing room, in my opinion this is arguably the tougher path because you can only miss 8 total hours of training. Injured, or have a family emergency? Too bad, you’re getting recycled. One of our cadre in the OCS-prep phase had been on the traditional path for three years after getting recycled twice. Not ideal.

The other option, and the one I was selected to attend, is an eight-week accelerated program held either in South Dakota or Alabama. The advantage is obvious- you’re in and you’re out in one straight shot over eight weeks. No playing around. You’ll make Second Lieutenant in the shortest possible time, which limits your risk and jumpstarts your career in the Army. You can block off that time, tell your family you’ll see them in two months, and be back before you know it. The flip side is that you’ll be drinking from a firehose 24/7. And don’t expect to sleep more than four hours a night; honestly, you’ll be lucky to get even that.

Graded events are published once you’re in the OCS pipeline, but they include a four-mile run, Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), a 6-, 9-, and 12-mile ruck, graded exams, peer reviews, and leadership evaluations, which I found the most stressful. While at OCS, company level leadership positions will rotate every 24 hours, meaning you could have any job from squad leader all the way up to company commander. The toughest are the big three- Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and First Sergeant. Everyone will get assigned to one of the big three positions at least once, I had First Sergeant in phase one and then probably seven or eight additional platoon level positions throughout the course.

Tips for Success

The first piece of advice I would give to any Officer Candidate is to treat the course as an assessment, not a school. You shouldn’t go there expecting to learn all the things you’re going to be tested on. Take landnav for example. They gave us a couple hour refresher class and then kicked us out to the field. Some kids really struggled with this. You’ll also be given an Officer Candidate Standard Operating Procedure (OCSOP) book prior to shipping. You should have as much of it memorized as possible. You’re going to memorize it all verbatim anyway- everything from the eight troop leading procedures to how to properly knock on a door. The faster you do this, the easier time you’ll have.

Speaking of landnav, I would recommend pushing your command to help you prep as much as possible. Besides a 6-mile ruck, it’s the only other graded event in phase one. You should know your pace count, and be comfortable adjusting uphill or down, moving through brush, as well as executing 90-degree offsets. Overall, one of the biggest things I can say is that I strongly advise against shooting azimuths to points over 300m. I had one on the first practice day that I shot for like 1180m, which was honestly ridiculous. At that distance, there’s pretty much zero chance that you’ll find your point. Use attack points– try to get to a bend in a road, an intersection, a stream, or something and shoot from there. Be confident with terrain association and using your compass to hit points.

They also make a big deal about not doing the points out of order. Not only does that literally not matter, you practically have to do them out of order if you want to finish on time. When you get dropped off, take your time plotting your points. Build out a strategy for how you’re going to hit them and in what order. Better to go slow and double check everything before stepping off. I always took my time getting started, and I think that helped.

Finally, don’t worry if you blow a course. Some are harder than others. I had scores of 1/5 and 3/5 on my first two runs. Just keep your confidence up and focus on getting the basics right. I brought ranger beads with me and they were helpful. It’s not super necessary but one thing that would have been really nice is a legit military compass. You’ll know whether or not it’s a military compass or a cheap civilian copy by looking for the NSN and radioactive warning on the back. The real deal uses radioactive tritium to glow on its own at night, while the shitty civilian one I had required a white light to charge every few minutes- just like those adhesive stars you could put on your bedroom wall as a kid. If you can, try to get the real thing.

Here’s another golden tidbit of knowledge, something you wouldn’t normally find out until it’s too late. The packing list is only a minimum packing list. You can absolutely bring more than what is on the list in the OCSOP. I brought exactly what was listed, no more, no less. As an example, you’re going to want to have at least double the amount of PT shirts/shorts, and it’s even better to bring enough so you won’t need to touch your drawer displays (if you don’t know what that is, read the OCSOP). Worst case, you’ll have an opportunity to call home between phases and ask a loved one to send you what you need, but it’s always better to come prepared.

On the topic of hiking, I’ve written some articles here and here that are hopefully helpful. Beyond that, I would say make sure you have a pretty good ruck time. Prior to OCS, my mile time was around 12:30, and while I was hiking with weight, I wasn’t training with a rifle. Believe me, not being able to swing your arms makes a difference- my time jumped up to around 15:00, so I’d recommend planning for this or even training with a rifle-like object, dumbbells, etc. You’ll also be suffering from poor nutrition and sleep deprivation. So don’t be the person showing up and thinking your 17:00 minute/mile ruck time at home is going to get you through because it probably won’t.

Finally, you’re going to be stressed out. This course is more frustrating than it is hard, so try not to take it too seriously. The ones that do have a harder time. But in the same sense, you should also play the game. When you know the cadre are looking for something, give it to them. When it’s your turn to lead, work hard; and when you’re not in a leadership position, be a good teammate to those who are. While this course doesn’t offer much in the way of esprit de corps from the point of view of future Army officers (which is a real shame), you will end up building cohesiveness and morale organically as a class. During my experience at OCS, you’ll have many and frequent ups and downs. You’ll need to rely on your friends during the tough times, so I recommend building those relationships early and often.

Finally, Friedrich Nietzsche told us, “If you have the why, you can bear almost any how.” The fact is, it’s no small feat to become an officer. While I would characterize OCS as more frustrating than hard, there will be times when you are pushed near your limits. The best thing you can do going in is to arm yourself with righteous purpose. This will mean different things to different people, but I knew going in that I was either going to pass or literally die trying; that was the strength of my purpose, and I wasn’t playing around. So, when things get tough, having the right “why” will become your refuge. Take some time, do some reflecting if you need to, but make the necessary mental preparations and you will be successful.

If you or someone you know is considering the OCS path, I’d be more than happy to answer any questions and offer additional advice. Please leave a comment or use the Contact Us form to reach out and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. 

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