A day in the life of a West Point cadet
By Abby Sophir
The sun is still hidden behind the rolling hills of West Point, N.Y. when sophomore Cadet Patrick Collins’ alarm sounds.
His room is simple and standard. Uniform furniture—beds, desks and a washstand—sit on a cold, tile floor. Two closets built into white walls display identical wardrobes. Personal possessions are, for the most part, stored under the beds, hidden from sight.
Without having to think, he pulls on a pair of thick, grey pants. He buttons a black, short-sleeved shirt and neatly tucks it in—the uniform of the day.
Freshmen, known as “Plebes” at the military academy, line the barrack hallways. They come to attention in unison to inform the sophomores (“Yuks”), juniors (“Cows”) and seniors (“Firsties”), still in their rooms, that breakfast formation will take place in precisely 10 minutes. They return to standing quietly along the wall.
Before breakfast formation, Patrick makes his bed, clears the clutter from his desk and arranges his books into height-descending order from left to right on the shelf. Room inspections occur daily.
The Plebes are back at attention. They count down the minutes—five, four, three, two—until formation. The Corps of Cadets, or student body, runs on Plebe minutes.
An orderly ocean of cadets covers the concrete quad that is overlooked by the barracks.
“We have formations before breakfast and lunch five days a week,” Patrick says. “Basically, they are to take accountability. It’s to make sure everyone is going to the meals, everyone’s showing up, people aren’t skipping out.”
He lines up in his 10-person squad. Four squads make up a platoon, and four platoons form a company.
“There’s eight companies in a regiment. Once everyone is standing there, the regiment gets called to attention,” Patrick says.
From there, all regiments, approximately 4,550 cadets, file into one titanic, Hogwarts-like mess hall. He sits down at an assigned table of 10.
“You’re put at your meal table within your company, and typically you’re going to sit at that table for at least half a semester to a full semester,” Patrick says. “It encourages you to really get to know the people you live and go to school with. You get to meet new cadets by sitting down with them twice a day and sharing a meal.”
The meal is served family-style. Plebes at the table are responsible for pouring drinks, announcing the menu for the meal and cutting the dessert into the correct number of slices. A large tray of food brought to the table by waiters and waitresses is passed around from youngest to oldest. Nobody eats until everyone has been served.
“Some tables choose to be hot, and some choose to be more relaxed, but there’s always entertainment, whether it’s people giving off movie quotes or telling jokes,” Patrick says. “When you do it twice a day, every day, it’s easy to get used to the family-style meal. But meals in the mess hall are definitely a special experience.”
He takes a seat in Advanced International Relations, his first class of the day. The morning schedule is made up of four 55-minute blocks. He, like all other cadets, will graduate with a Bachelors of Science in a major of his choice and will have a required, extensive core curriculum under his belt.
Patrick is back in formation, ready for lunch. After another family-style meal, he has an hour break before heading to afternoon classes.
“Although the curriculum is really challenging and it requires a lot of credit hours, there’s nothing like the classroom experience at the Academy,” Patrick says.
In a normal semester, cadets take around 20 credit hours. This semester he is taking a “light load,” with only 17.5.
“In terms of the workload here at school, they definitely do a great job of giving you more work than you have time to do,” Patrick says. “A big thing here is time management and having the ability to prioritize. You can’t get everything done that they ask of you on a daily basis.”
He heads to the locker room for rugby practice. Daily practices last three to four hours.
Although rugby is a club sport, not a varsity sport, the team is highly competitive and is currently ranked fourth in the nation. Unlike at most colleges, the lasting ramifications of athletics are significant.
“Coaches of intramural and competitive-level teams assign physical grades for the semester,” Patrick says. “Those physical scores go into your physical grade that’s part of your class rank.”
His tone becomes solemn as he discusses class rank, a constant stressor for cadets. It is made up of three categories: academic, military and physical, weighted in that order.
Upon graduation from West Point, all cadets are commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army and must serve a five-year active duty commitment.
“First semester of senior year, you pick your branch—what kind of service you’re going to be doing when you graduate,” he says. “Second semester you pick your post—where you’re going to be serving. Both branch choices and post choices are selected in order of class rank.”
“So yes, class rank is very important here,” he reiterates for emphasis.
After an exhausting practice, he picks up dinner from the mess hall before heading back to his room. Back in the company area, where all cadets from his company reside, he changes out of a worn-in uniform into other issued clothing. After a full day of classes and athletics, he sits down at his tidy desk to begin doing homework.
Life at West Point is tedious. Of his original class of around 1,300 cadets, between 20 and 25 percent will drop out before their four years are over.
Weekends offer a break from the hectic workweek but are far from the typical college experience.
“Plebes don’t really get out that much. They get one to three passes per semester when they get to leave campus after class on Friday and come back Sunday night. Basically, Plebe year sucks. And every year after that sucks a little bit less,” he says, laughing.
Each year at the Academy, cadets get more passes and privileges. By senior year, he will be allowed to have a car and leave any weekend.
On campus, alcohol is strongly prohibited in the barracks. Juniors and seniors who are 21 or older are allowed to drink in designated areas on campus and anywhere off campus. Freshmen and sophomores, no matter their age, may not drink within several miles.
“Weekends when you’re not on pass, they’re fairly quiet. People go work out, go hang out and watch movies with their buddies, stuff like that,” Collins says. “I know at normal colleges people make lifelong friends, but I don’t think you get nearly the same intimacy or closeness at other schools that you get here—the struggles that you go through together academically and physically, the challenges that you have to meet.”
Not only are most cadets forced to spend most weekends at the Academy, but they are required to attend military training in the summers as well. All incoming cadets attend Cadet Basic Training, nicknamed “Beast” for the physical and mental toughness it demands. Their second summer at the Academy, everyone goes to Cadet Field Training at Camp Buckner. This summer, Patrick will spend time shadowing a second lieutenant at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“People typically get one and a half to two weeks minimum of vacation, but nobody’s gonna get more than three weeks,” Patrick says. “Even when it’s summertime, there’s a lot of training to be done.”
He crashes in bed. His room might be simple and standard, but a day in the life of a West Point cadet is anything but.
Abby Sophir is a freshman television-radio major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.