Service Academy admissions are similar to college admissions in some ways, and completely different in other ways.

During the Spring, many students and parents start wondering what the National Waiting List, or NWL, is.

The National Waiting List

Of the three big Service Academies: West Point, Naval Academy, and Air Force Academy, West Point is the only academy that discusses the NWL with candidates.

If you applied to West Point, there’s a chance you received a letter that you were placed on the National Waiting List.

Many students what to know, what does this mean?

We’ve seen a lot of information circling forums about what the NWL is. A lot of this information is incorrect.

The academies fall under the Department of Defense, and operate under Congressional authority.

This means you can actually go read the Title 10 laws that establish how academies must select candidates to offer appointments to.

We don’t expect you to do that, which is why we break this down for you in this post.

Here’s the law, taken directly from

10 U.S. Code § 7442 – Cadets: appointment; numbers, territorial distribution

Each Senator, Representative, and Delegate in Congress, including the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, is entitled to nominate 10 persons for each vacancy that is available to him under this section. Nominees may be submitted without ranking or with a principal candidate and 9 ranked or unranked alternates. Qualified nominees not selected for appointment under this subsection shall be considered qualified alternates for the purposes of selection under other provisions of this chapter.

To simplify: each Member of Congress can nominate up to 10 candidates per academy, per vacancy. (Every year, each MoC has at least one vacancy per academy)

So nominations look like:

  • Up to 10 to West Point
  • Up to 10 to the Naval Academy
  • Up to 10 to the Air Force Academy
  • Up to 10 to the Merchant Marine Academy

Theoretically, a Representative or Senator could nominate 40 different students in one year!

To learn more about the Congressional nomination process (including the interview – one of the most critical parts), read our article that breaks down the Congressional nomination cycle.

This rarely happens, but it does happen in extremely competitive districts where there are many students who want to attend an academy.

Note: For students competing for an appointment for the Class of 2029, the limit of 10 is changing to 15. Meaning, your Senators and Representative can now nominate up to 15 students per vacancy. The academies will potentially have more qualified applicants to sort through.

Qualified Alternates

Note the use of the term qualified alternates.

What is a qualified alternate (QA)?

A QA is someone who was nominated, but didn’t win the vacancy from the Congressional nomination.

This means, if you have a service-connected nomination or an ROTC/JROTC nomination, you aren’t eligible to be a QA unless you also have a Congressional nomination.

So, let’s continue looking at the law:

10 U.S. Code § 7442 – Cadets: appointment; numbers, territorial distribution

(b) In addition, there may be appointed each year at the Academy cadets as follows:

(5) 200 selected by the Secretary of the Army in order of merit from qualified alternates nominated by [Senators, Congressional Representatives, DC/Virgin Islands/Puerto Rico/Guam/American Samoa Representatives]

The National Waiting List is all of the Qualified Alternates, ranked by order of merit.

So, if you received a nomination from your Representative but you weren’t the most competitive candidate in your district (competitive nomination) or you weren’t ranked #1 by your Representative (principal nomination), you likely won’t get the appointment from the nomination.

Since there are potentially 15 candidates competing for one Congressional appointment vacancy, that means up to 14 candidates who got nominated, but still won’t get the appointment.

At least, not right away.

Those 14 candidates are then placed in order of merit as Qualified Alternates (along with the rest of the QAs from across the nation). This is what’s called the National Waiting List.

In the past, this list is usually about 3,000 candidates.

However, that was with a limit of 10 nominations per academy vacancy.

With Members of Congress nominating 50% more candidates from now on, we could expect to see this list grow in the future.

What does all this mean for you?

There are some key takeaways from the list of Qualified Alternates.

Aim to raise your Scholar, Athlete, Leader “score” as much as possible.

Each Academy has a different way of scoring candidates. Some are more open than others about how they score them.

Learn more about:

  • West Point’s Whole Candidate Score
  • Naval Academy’s Whole Person Multiple
  • Air Force Academy’s Selection Composite Score

    You may be waiting a while, be patient.

    The academies are notoriously poor at communicating with candidates. Many candidates don’t hear anything for many months, and start to question whether or not their application is complete, or if there is some other issue.

    If admissions tells you your application is complete, you need to practice patience.

    A majority of candidates will hear by late March through Mid-April, but some won’t hear until May.

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    LTC Kirkland and Captain Dach

    Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kirkland (USA, Ret.) is an expert on military admissions and leadership. He served for over 25 years in the United States Army, including stints as an instructor at West Point and as a commander of two Army ROTC programs. Former Air Force Captain Trisha Dach served as an Intelligence Officer from 2011-2018. A graduate of the Air Force Academy. They have helped hundreds of candidates secure appointments and ROTC scholarships. Together, they help educate parents and students on military propensity, leadership, and Academy admissions.

    Want to maximize your potential of earning a Service Academy appointment?