18 in Annapolis decide who will join Navy elite Academy: Board members evaluate 10,000 applicants for membership in the Class of 2002.

December 28, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Assembled at a long, paper-scattered and coffee cup-cluttered table, the Naval Academy's admissions board is deciding who's got the right stuff.

Their tea leaves are the 10,000 half-inch-thick application packages submitted to them from across the nation. On this Thursday morning, the board is sorting through dozens of those files to decide who is worthy of being in the Naval Academy's Class of 2002.

It's a process with no equal in higher education -- except, maybe, at West Point. And its results will be felt for many years.

Next year's 1,000 freshmen, or plebes, will step onto a path that has led some to the White House, to a Nobel Prize, to the nation's statehouses and to Congress. In choosing plebes, this 18-member board knows, it is paving the way for tomorrow's admirals and astronauts.

One such future leader could be the senior from Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif., with the 3.97 grade-point average who got all A's last year save one B. She is bilingual. Her sister is attending the Naval Academy, and her father was in the military.

That one is easy. Cmdr. Len R. Hering isn't even through telling his fellow board members this woman's story when they start plunking down their rectangular green-and-red blocks, with the green side facing up -- green is a "yes" vote; red means "no."

And, like that, a life is changed and a young woman 2,800 miles away is offered a free education (worth about $200,000) and a guaranteed job (with the Navy) upon graduation.

Next is a youth from Florida who has a great attitude, another board member explains, but has littered his personal essay with misspelled words and poor sentence structure.

"Let him go elsewhere," says one board member, plunking down his block red side up.

Other red votes follow. And, like that, another young life changes course.

Each year, more than 10,000 -- sometimes as many as 15,000 -- people apply to the Naval Academy. Most are high school seniors. Some are in prep schools or colleges. Many are in the Navy and looking for a higher challenge.

All those applications come to Leahy Hall, a three-story gray-stone rectangle where applicants' high school grades, standardized test scores and other factors are entered into a computer program that spits back a number, called a "multiple," in the 50,000-to-70,000 range.

But because the Navy wants more than good grades, those numbers serve as a guidepost. The real dirty work is done around this cluttered table, where the admissions board meets every Thursday from October through April.

'A way of life'

"It's important that we find people who want to come here for the right reason," said retired Marine Col. David A. Vetter, who became dean of admissions this year. "You hear people say, 'It's a guaranteed job.' And it's true, we do hire all our graduates. But this isn't just a job; it's a way of life. It's a calling. You're a Navy officer 24 hours a day."

The academy's tough selection process prompted the Princeton Review last year to rate it as the nation's third-most-competitive school. The University of Maryland admits about one in four of its 16,000 applicants; the Naval Academy admits about one in 10.

In years past, midshipmen -- all recipients of those green blocks -- have been involved in cheating scandals and been arrested on sexual assault and murder charges. There are some things even a board of eagle-eyed admissions officials can't foresee.

In recent years, however, the board has paid more attention to character. Application forms now ask for information about arrests and police records. Teachers submitting personal references are asked to assess the applicant's "character and integrity."

"The character-development issue, we want to address this right up front," Vetter said.

"Do we weed a lot of people out? Probably not a whole lot. But more importantly, we're putting a marker on the table that character is something we care about a lot, and we want you to know that before you get here. We want you to know this is more than just a college."

Few ordinary colleges consider the number of pullups a candidate can do in determining whether to accept him. Similarly, not many schools will reject asthmatics or the disabled anyone with severe psoriasis.

At the University of Maryland, for example, extracurricular activities and varsity athletics improve an applicant's chance of admission, but grades come first and are most important.

"Our basic premise is that the person has to be academically qualified," said Ronne Patrick, associate marketing director in the university's admissions office.

Academy students are academic standouts, too. Their average SAT score is 1,250. About 93 percent of this year's freshmen were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, compared with 90 percent at Harvard University and 26 percent at the University of Maryland.

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