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The Differences Between a USNA Midshipman and a West Point Cadet

Dec 19, 2022 10:00:00 AM

They are two of the most competitive colleges in the nation, especially when they go head-to-head on the football field. They both train civilians for the incredible pressures of leadership at the highest levels of the military. And they both have been doing so for more than 176 years. Yet despite these commonalities, the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) and the U.S. Military Academy (USMA or West Point), have their own unique attributes too. Let’s explore what makes the Naval Academy midshipman different from the West Point cadet.

Midshipman Versus Cadet: The Basics

First it’s important to know from whence the names Navy midshipman and West Point cadet first came, since each is a direct reflection on the history of its respective school. 

Why are Navy cadets called mishipmen? At the U.S. Naval Academy, the students have been known as midshipmen since the school first started, which was on October 10, 1845. However, this tradition began much earlier in the 1600s, when the Royal Navy dubbed one of their ranks “midshipmen.” These were the experienced deckhands who worked the space between the main and mizzen masts, or the “middle” of the ship. The term “midshipmen'' described their position, and as the Royal Navy evolved, this name was bestowed on those who would be officer candidates. The U.S. Navy adopted this term just prior to when they instituted the Naval Academy in Annapolis. First known as “cadet midshipmen,” the term “cadet” was ultimately dropped and they became simply, “midshipmen.”

Related: What is a Midshipman?

At Army West Point, students are called cadets. This French term was first used to identify the sons of nobility who served without pay in the army and were then elevated to commissioned rank. At West Point, it refers to officers in training for the United States Army. West Point is the oldest military institution in the country; it was established by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 as an Army training facility. Annapolis is the second oldest.

The locations of the two schools are also very different. The Naval Academy makes its home in the historic town of Annapolis, Maryland, on the Severn River and Spa Creek leading out to Chesapeake Bay. West Point is in West Point, New York, on the western bank of the Hudson River, in a secluded suburban area about 50 miles from New York City. USNA has 338 acres of campus, known as the Yard, and USMA has 16,080 acres of land. The entire Brigade of Midshipmen live in Bancroft Hall, one of the largest college dorms in the world. At West Point, cadets live in barracks throughout their time at the academy. 

Academic-Minded Academies 

Both institutions boast extremely highly rated academics. U.S. News & World Report ranks USNA as #1 in Top Public Schools and USMA as #2 in Top Public Schools. Their acceptance rates are 7% and 11%, respectively. To attend the Naval Academy, midshipmen hopefuls must receive a nomination, usually from a member of Congress, and apply directly to the Academy. Midshipmen earn a Bachelor of Science degree and will be commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy or a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, where they must serve for a minimum of five years.

Cadets must also get a nomination from a congressional representative and successfully apply to the Academy. Upon graduation, they will receive a Bachelor of Science degree as well. They’re commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army and will serve on active duty for five years minimum.

In the latest statistics (fall 2021), there were 4,528 midshipmen at the Naval Academy and 4,594 at West Point. The USNA student-faculty ratio is 8:1, and approximately 74% of classes have less than 20 students. The West Point student-faculty ratio is 7:1, and about 98% of classes have less than 20 students. West Point provides 37 majors, and the Naval Academy offers 26 majors. In this respect the schools are comparably competitive.

Activities Abound

The academies both also offer a wealth of activities for their students. At the Naval Academy, the Naval Academy Business Services Division (NABSD) helps over 140 clubs and activities, from the rock climbing team to the Glee Club, through profits raised from the sale of goods and services on the Yard. West Point also provides numerous extracurricular activities, from the ski club to the gospel club. They both also have a number of club and intramural sports available. In fact, midshipmen and cadets are required to be part of an intercollegiate, club or intramural sport each semester. Intercollegiate sports, both Navy and Army play at the NCAA Division I level and are primarily part of the Patriot League; Navy participates in 35 intercollegiate varsity sports and Army in 28.

Football Fanatics

When they meet head-to-head the results are mixed. One of the most watched games of the year is “America’s Game,” the long-time football rivalry that pits the West Point Black Knights versus the Navy Midshipmen. Right now, Navy leads the cumulative 132-year match-up with an overall record of 62 wins versus Army’s 54 wins, and they share seven ties. Though other sports aren’t as high profile, the Army-Navy rivalry extends well beyond the gridiron. In other varsity sports, Navy takes the lead too, with a 1,141-858-45 record.  

Tough Training Regimens

The physical challenges don’t stop there. Both schools have rigorous training programs for the entering class, which are known as the plebes. At West Point, new cadets start in the summer on Reception Day, which kicks off a ten-week Cadet Basic Training (CBT) program. They make a twelve mile “March Back” to West Point from Camp Buckner, “ring the bell” and then are accepted into the Corps of Cadets. To celebrate, they stage a massive pillow fight. The USNA has a similar regimen, known as “Plebe Summer,” lasting seven weeks. There is no bell ringing or pillow fighting at the end.

Related: Behind the Scenes of Plebe Summer: How to Pass the Physical Readiness Test (PRT).

However, the midshipmen have another test at the end of their plebe year: a grueling fourteen-hour physical and mental challenge known as “Sea Trials.” The cadets do not have an equivalent to this regimen. After their sea trials, during Commissioning Week, the plebes participate in another ritual where they work together in the Herndon Climb to remove the cap atop a 21-foot monument that’s slathered in grease by the upperclassmen . When they replace it with an upperclassman’s cover, they’ve officially transitioned to midshipmen, 4th class, and are “plebes no more.”

Related: Shows of Strength: The USNA Sea Trials.

Bright and United Futures

After their time at the academies, newly graduated officers from both academies become a part of the larger Navy, Marine Corps and Army. About 1,000 Navy and Marine officers “join the fleet” when they graduate from USNA , taking on positions in Surface Warfare, Submarine Warfare, Aviation, Marine Corps, Medical Corps, Special Warfare (SEAL), Special Operations and Navy Restricted Line and Staff Corps. The USMA graduates approximately 1,000 cadets into one of more than 17 Army branches, where they’ll have responsibilities ranging from engineering to artillery to intelligence to infantry.

Ultimately, though, in addition to their valued differences, most midshipmen and cadets are working toward the unified goal of protecting the freedom of our nation. We are grateful for their continued hard work and sacrifice, and are honored to play a small role by supporting the midshipmen here as NABSD. You also support the midshipmen whenever you visit the Yard, take our tours, eat in our restaurants and shop in our shops. We all thank you, and we encourage you to visit the Yard and get a feel for the difference between a midshipman and a cadet.

Visit the Yard

Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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