So you want to join the United States military. Maybe you’re just curious at this point. Or maybe you’ve thought about walking into the recruiter’s office. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that joining is a fairly easy process for such a big life decision. It’s a transformational experience — but it is also a bureaucratic process — whether you’re 18 and fresh out of high school or you’ve been around the block for a few years.

You need to realize this from the get-go.

If you’re somewhere between picking up a brochure and being ready to take the Oath of Enlistment, there are a lot of things you need to know and prepare yourself for, so get comfortable and prepare to hit the books. Yeah, there might be studying involved. The process is easy, actually joining is not. Your recruiter will guide you through the paperwork. But you still need to qualify to be in our military. This series will help you be prepared for everything you need to know before you visit a recruiter’s office.

For most civilians, U.S. military life is a kind of black hole of information. Yeah, Marines look cool in those uniforms but how they go about getting them is something else altogether. The life of a U.S. troop is more than running through the woods with 90-pound packs all day or barking orders at subordinates. When you learn the truth about what your daily life could be like, you may not be all that keen on joining. And if you’re not 100 percent dedicated to it, recruiters have some surprising information for you — Uncle Sam may not actually want you.

This series is about giving honest, unfiltered commentary and insight from real military recruiters. They genuinely want you to ask them all the hard questions burning in your hearts and minds because they want to give the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard the brightest, most dedicated troops who genuinely want to be there. So ask them anything and everything. This is what recruiters talk about amongst themselves.

We also want to give you a way to protect yourself from any bad info floating around. Civilians can spread myths and veterans can talk trash, but you need to know which questions to ask to make sure this decision is good for you and not just for the military. Make sure you know what’s buried in the fine print of that contract, because everyone’s contract is different. It’s time to sort facts from fiction.

The bare minimum you need to know is that enlisting is a process that can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more. So don’t be afraid to go knock on a recruiter’s door, because you won’t be learning about what happened to the little yellow bird any time soon.

But you should question whether this is the right decision for you.

The decision: To enlist or not to enlist

This may or may not come as a shock to you, but the military isn’t just taking anyone they can get. As a matter of fact, there are many, many people who should not join the military. While you’re trying to figure out if military service is right for you, your recruiter is making the same determination about you.

And they are really, really good at it. Recruiters are some of the military’s sharpest troops.

If you don’t make the recruiter’s cut, that’s probably the first sign you should reconsider a career in the military. Or at least your first choice of branch. If you don’t make the cut in the Coast Guard office, there’s always the Navy, after all. If your recruiter thinks you have what it takes but you’re still not sure if it’s for you, read on.

Getting into the military means going through the hoops required to enlist, meeting the minimum requirements, having a high school education and a clean record, among other things. The military really, really cares about your unpaid parking tickets and your full tattoo sleeves. The recruiter is going to ask you many very personal questions. (Have you ever used drugs? Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever had surgery?) Answer honestly for both the recruiter and yourself, no matter how ashamed you may or may not be. It’s probably better not to be proud of your rap sheet, though.

If you don’t have the patience for the process, that’s the first sign it’s not for you. Military life is full of these processes and procedures, and you need to be prepared for it.

Recruiters say the first step is thinking about what you want to do and if serving is a step in that direction. If you just need a job, remember that the military is waaaaaaay more than a job, it’s an entirely different way of life. The benefits of service are so many that bases have entire courses dedicated to making the most of them. If all you’re looking for is a paycheck or you don’t need those benefits, you’re going to get much more than what you bargained for.

In the military, you can be jailed for showing up late to work. However unlikely that is, it’s still possible. Nowhere else in the country can you get bread and water jail time for sleeping in. If you get in and make it all the way through basic and technical training and decide it’s not for you, you can’t just quit, either. You signed a contract with the government and breaking it can affect the rest of your life.

If there’s a veteran in your life, ask them to come with you to your early meetings with the recruiter. At the very least take someone who knows you well enough to help answer the recruiter’s toughest personal questions. You might be surprised that some of their answers are different from yours.

The least you can do for your recruiter, your country, and yourself is not waste the taxpayer dollars it takes to process you for a job.

You may not be 100 percent certain, but if you back out, do it as early as possible. You’re going to go to the Military Entrance Processing Station nearest you for at least one night. Your chosen branch of service will be footing the bill for the food and hotel. The night before you ship out, you’ll likely end up in the same hotel. Recruiters only get so many job slots to fill every month and if you get a guaranteed job but back out at the last second you’re denying that job to someone who might have wanted it. Be kind to your fellow recruits.

The most important thing recruiters want you to know is they are ideally looking for someone who thinks of the military as their chosen career. And why not? At the very least, be able to visualize the goals you have for your future and see how the military might help you get there. If four to eight years spent learning, listening, following orders, and sacrificing your time isn’t a means to that end, student loans might save you and your recruiter a lot of time and headache.

Choosing a branch

There’s an old joke that says the reason the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines bicker among themselves is because they don’t speak the same language. If you tell them to “secure the building,” the Army will set up a perimeter and post guards around the place. The Navy will turn out the lights and lock the doors. The Marines will kill everybody inside and then set up a headquarters. The Air Force will take out a five-year lease on the building with an option to buy at the end.

And the recruiters for each service have their own pitch. It’s often said that the Army will promise you money to pay for school, the Navy will promise you can travel around the world. The Air Force will train you to get a good job and the Marine Corps offers a rite of passage, a grueling series of hardships that will build character like nothing else can.

If you ask a veteran of any branch, you’ll get an honest — and often funny — opinion of the other branches. Interservice rivalry runs deep and the jokes are so old they would have been forced into retirement decades ago. Jokes are good fun for vets, but new recruits need more substantial information.

Recruiters have to bridge the gap between these very real military and civilian worlds and there are real consequences for those choosing their new careers.

While recruiters for one branch of service don’t often talk about the other branches, they’re still out to sell you on their branch. They are competing over the best prospective recruits. If you want to know something about the Air Force, go see the Air Force recruiter. Don’t ask the Marine Corps, they don’t have time to badmouth the Air Force any more than they already do. The truth is, as far as tangible benefits are concerned, you’re going to get the same from every branch of service. An E-1 in the Air Force gets the same pay and benefits as an E-1 in the Navy. Housing allowances are the same. You all earn the same GI Bill.

Opportunity is something else altogether.

Maybe you’re looking for a medical career. If so, the Marine Corps isn’t your branch. Want to be in the infantry? Think about the Army or Marines and not the Navy. If you want to work in space one day and can’t wait for the Space Force, maybe look into Air Force careers. Those are a few examples, but career opportunity should be the first consideration, not whether you like to swim. It also affects how you get promoted, because every branch of the military gives out promotions in a different way.

The Air Force takes a less personal look at enlisted airmen, relying more on test scores and line numbers. Meanwhile, enlisted soldiers in the Army will face a promotion board at higher levels, boards who look at a soldier’s attitude, appearance, fitness scores and other factors. In the Marines, promotions come slow, as there will need to be a vacancy in one rank and career for a Marine to get promoted. As Marines gain more and more rank, promotion gets more and more difficult. As for the Navy, they have ratings, using a formula that rewards time in service, time in grade. The Navy has career-specific qualifications that you’ll need to earn. And in the Navy there’s a big difference in how fast sailors move up the ranks — some career fields are easier to soar through the ranks than others.

Confused? So are we. Only the Navy knows how the Navy works. They literally speak a different language sometimes.

Keep in mind that many military jobs may not seem so military. For example, the Defense Department has about 6,000 musicians on active duty. One Air Force recruiter remarked that the Air Force’s chief job is maintaining planes. If an airman has to defend a base on the flight line, the stuff has hit the fan for the U.S. forces in that area. But if you’re looking to feel like the soldiers you watch in movies, then Army combat arms might be the place for you.

When making the military your career, you may want to consider going over to the other side: the officer’s side. Hopefully your recruiter has explained the two-tier ranks structure, as well as the differences between officer and enlisted ranks, especially when it comes to pay and opportunities. Going to the O-side once you’re already enlisted can be restrictive depending on which branch of service you’re trying to get through. Just considering sheer numbers, going officer in the Navy and Air Force would be much tougher than going in through big Army.

Be sure to ask a recruiter about that route. The person who wants to make a career in the military is their ideal recruit, after all.

Preparing for the ASVAB

Believe it or not, joining the military is not just something you can do on a whim anymore. Though men still have to register for Selective Service, the days of the draft are long gone. A judge can’t give you a choice between the military or jail time, and walking into a recruiter’s office to hop on a bus to boot camp is impossible. These days, you have to actually qualify for the job you want in the military and you may not even be able to choose your branch of service. It all starts with the ASVAB.

The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is both similar to and different from other standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Unlike its civilian counterparts, the ASVAB isn’t a test you can just ace. And no college cares about your ASVAB score. Your score determines what branches and jobs you have access to. No one cares about your ASVAB score beyond your recruiting office.

Remember that when you graduate from basic training.

It’s really important to understand just what the test is trying to measure. First of all, it’s going to determine if a recruit is even eligible to enlist and there’s a firm cutoff for every branch. This part is known as the Armed Forces Qualification Test (or AFQT — get used to acronyms). It starts with two tiers based on your education. It’s gonna be a lot easier to achieve a minimum score if you graduated from high school versus having a GED, but if you have at least 15 college credits, you’re considered a high school graduate. For most branches, recruits with a GED will need to score at least 50 to get into their branch of service, unless that branch is the Air Force. Then you need a 65.

For high school graduates, the minimum AFQT score is much lower unless you’re joining the National Guard, in which case you still need a 50. The Army and Marine Corps require at least a 31. To get in the Navy, you’ll need a 35. The Air Force — often considered the “smart branch” — demands a 36. The Coast Guard is actually the most difficult active service, requiring at least a 45.

This score is based on a percentile and how well you do also depends in a way on how others do. So while you can never get a perfect score, a high score does open up more opportunities. If you score a 55 overall, it doesn’t mean you failed, it just means you scored better than 55 percent of the base population.

But the test doesn’t stop at just a final score. This is “testception” — a test within a test. While you only take one test, you’re being graded on how you do on each section as well as composite scores of different combinations of sections for different specialty areas that determine your eligibility to take certain military jobs. When it costs anywhere from $18,000- $44,000 to train and equip a new recruit, Uncle Sam isn’t willing to take a risk on someone who isn’t capable of doing the job.

Most recruits are going to take the computerized test, which has nine subsections:

• Arithmetic Reasoning

• Word Knowledge

• Paragraph Comprehension

• Mathematics Knowledge

• General Science

• Electronics Information

• Automotive and Shop Information

• Mechanical Comprehension

• Assembling Objects

The first four areas comprise your AFQT score.

To make matters even more confusing, different branches interpret the results in different ways. If you want to be a mechanic in the Army, the service will look at how well you did on the Mechanical Comprehension, Electronics Information, and Automotive and Shop Information sections.

The Marine Corps will look at those three as well as Assembling Objects section for the same job. Your recruiter will be able to tell you what your minimum AFQT score will be for their branch as well as the composite score for your chosen career field. Also scoring a 99 for the Marine Corps will earn you a promotion to Gunnery Sergeant.

Just kidding. But you will wonder why you chose the Corps long after it’s too late to change.

You can prepare for this test like any other standardized tests with books and study guides, but the best strategy is to do your best while focusing on the areas that will get you the score you need for the job you want. You’re not in direct competition with anyone but not scoring above a 50 may keep the recruiter from showing the same interest in you as they might have before.

Keep in mind this is all one test and sometime shortly before or shortly after, you’re going to have to do a duck walk naked with a group of strangers while a very old man watches.

Don’t let that rattle you.

Getting that guaranteed job

Believe it or not, there are still people who go into a recruiter’s office believing they have no say in what they do in the military. That’s just not true. As a matter of fact, for an organization as rigid and structured as the military, potential recruits have an astonishing amount of sway — it’s your future, after all.

Remember the military and the recruiter’s office is investing itself in you. From the moment you walk into their office from the moment you arrive at basic training, they are investing a significant amount of time and money in you. It’s in your best interest and theirs to make sure you get the job you want.

You still have to qualify for that job, though.

Just like determining whether you should enlist at all, choosing a career is important. Technical training for a new skill is not only the very first benefit of military service, it’s going to be the first four to eight years of the next phase of your life. It’s especially important if the military itself is going to be your career.

What qualifications you need all depend on the job you want and the branch you want to join. Most recruiters are going to start with the ASVAB. If you haven’t read our rundown on the ASVAB, take a minute to check that out. We’ll wait.

So assuming you qualified for the job you want on the ASVAB, there are still jobs that require further qualifications. For some, this means you need to have above average vision. Others require you to be able to deadlift a certain amount of weight. Ask your recruiter what special requirements your chosen profession may need. But even if you do meet all the requirements, you still might not get the job you want. Welcome to military life. Embrace the suck.

Every recruiter is given a certain number of slots and vacancies to fill in a given month. If you want to be an Army cook but there are no cook vacancies open that month, guess what? You’re not going to start your journey as an Army cook that month. That doesn’t mean you never will, you just won’t start right away. There are certain jobs recruiters say will always have vacancies. Air Force recruiters will tell you the Air Force enlisted corps is here to maintain aircraft, so if you want to maintain aircraft, there’s a good chance you’ll get that gig right away. The same goes for many Army and Marine Corps combat careers. If you want a guaranteed job fast, go for what the services always need. And don’t worry, the recruiter will push you in that direction.

Another way to ship out to basic training in a hurry is to choose an open slot still unfilled. If you are unsure which career to pick or for some reason aren’t particular about what you’ll be doing in uniform for the next four to eight years, in some cases you can choose just to go as an open candidate in a chosen career path. As one recruiter told us, it doesn’t do anyone any good to send a candidate to a job they hate. They’ll just wash out or be awful at it. And no one in their shop will want to work with them. You’ll pick the specific job or broad areas you like on a list and your recruiter will do his or her best to get you the job you want. This is called a “dream sheet.”

Don’t be surprised if you don’t get the top choice on your dream sheet. You should actually get used to not getting the top choice on any dream sheet, no matter which branch you go for.

If you don’t want to ship out ASAP and you aren’t just willing to take whatever job Uncle Sam needs to fill — and keep in mind, the Navy might make you an undesignated seaman, someone who basically fills in doing unspecialized work wherever the ship needs it — you want a guaranteed job you’re officially qualified for, so don’t leave the recruiter’s office without one.

Dealing with your recruiter

A recruiter is kind of like a salesman for his or her branch of service. But the first thing any recruiter will tell you is that they’re not used car salesmen and they don’t need to be. What they’re selling usually sells itself, believe it or not. There are recruiters who have to turn people away.

No matter how hard the sell, a recruiter will give new recruits their first impression of the military and of their branch of service. Recruiters know that and you shouldn’t be apprehensive about walking in the door to their offices. If you want to join the military, they want to have you.

One of the first things you need to know about the recruiter’s office is that you won’t be shipping out any time soon. Some people honestly believe there’s a trip to Fort Jackson or Parris Island just waiting for them in the recruiter’s parking lot. Not wanting to leave right away keeps a lot of people from even approaching the building. The truth is, even in the busiest Marine Corps recruiting offices, 80 percent of the people who walk through their doors aren’t qualified to be Marines, for reasons ranging from education to the Corps’ tattoo policy.

Once inside, you’re going to take a huge step: starting the conversation. The recruiter will give you the rundown of the enlistment process, ask for any information that might disqualify you right away, and then ask what you’re interested in. The best recruiters will tell you if their branch of service (or the military in general) can even help you reach your goals. This is an important step. This is your future so sit at attention and listen:

If you want to be a doctor and already have a way to pay for medical school, then maybe joining the Navy isn’t for you. But if you have no way to pay for medical school and want to get some medical experience as a Navy corpsman and use military benefits to go to med school, that’s when you should see a recruiter. Think of their job as one to help you reach your goals. Be good to them.

Conversely, that means they will do their best for you, but every recruiter has a different formula for keeping on their recruits. When you establish a professional relationship with a recruiter, set the tone for those interactions by indicating just how often you want to hear from them. They may check up on you via a phone call, but if you don’t want them at your home, you should say so.

Recruiters from all branches admit that there are a few “bad apples” out there but most pride themselves on professionalism. It’s hard to become a recruiter and some of the military’s finest troops are the ones reaching out to you. If one is pushy or overly aggressive, it’s because they think they’re putting the right people in the right jobs, doing what’s best for their Air Force, Marine Corps, Army or Navy. You should know that you’re allowed to tell this person to go away or give you some space.

The recruiter’s office isn’t a “Saw” movie. You can walk out whenever you want.

You may encounter a recruiter who shows up at your house or won’t stop calling when you say you’re not interested or you need more time to think. Or perhaps you want to join the military but you and your recruiter have personality clashes. This is not the only person who can put you in the military. You can ask to talk to someone else in the office. At worst you can choose another branch, if they offer your chosen specialty. You can even just go to a different recruiting office. It’s your right.

Don’t let one bad experience keep you from joining the military.

If you don’t have any problems with your recruiter and joining the military is definitely for you, the biggest thing you need to know about talking to your recruiter is that honesty is the best policy. When your recruiter asks a question, answer truthfully, even if the truth hurts. This is your future and the recruiter is trying to find the best place for you. If there’s a medical issue, crime issue, or other pertinent issues relating to your enlistment, it’s easier to take care of if you tell the recruiter early in the process.

So if you’re wanted for unpaid parking tickets or you’re colorblind, speak up. The recruiter is here to help you. MEPS is not the place to bring up the fact that you really, really love to smoke pot, it’s the place where we all lied about how much we smoked.

The Delayed Enlistment Program

So you’re looking to get yourself a guaranteed job. You go to MEPS, score a 99 on the ASVAB, pass your physicals, and sign on to be an Air Force aerial gunner. You get through all the paperwork, look at jobs, take the Oath of Enlistment, and… nothing. They sent you home after leaving the processing station. What gives? You just entered the Delayed Enlistment Program.

Don’t worry, it’s just your first “hurry up and wait.”

Chances are good you gave your recruiter the list of the top jobs you wanted and/or the area in which you preferred to work before heading out to MEPS. Your dream sheet, remember? While you were at MEPS being inspected like cattle in an auction, you took exams related to the career fields you chose and tested to qualify in those career fields during the ASVAB. But that doesn’t mean you ship out right away. You leave for basic training when a spot opens up.

Recruiters know exactly how long it’s going to take to send you through basic training and technical training before you get into active duty (barring any behavioral problems or injuries). Each branch of service sends recruiters their projected needs and dates and the recruiters work to fill those jobs, just like any other organization — this organization just has some special qualifiers.

This also means recruiters don’t have quotas. But they do sometimes offer enlisted bonuses, big lump-sum checks that are designed to incentivize you to join a particular career field. That’s how they fill any gaps if the economy is good and they are struggling to fill demand for new recruits. If that doesn’t work, they have things like a “draft” and “stop loss” for those situations.

If your No. 1 job came open and you qualified for it, your recruiter is going to do everything possible to put you in that job. You’re just competing with other people joining the military who might be a little more qualified than you are. If you listed the open job at No. 6 on your list, the recruiter is likely going to give it to someone who wanted it more. Makes sense, right? Are you in a rush to meet your training instructor/drill sergeant/drill instructor/recruit division commander?

The answer to that should be “no.”

In short, you already committed to joining the military. Your recruiter wants to put you in a spot where you’ll be happy. So what to do while you wait? There are a few things you’ll be learning and doing in basic training, like exercising, understanding the chain of command, and learning military customs and courtesies, so you might want to get a jump on those things. Often times, recruiters will hold classes on these to give recruits a jump start. The best recruiters can be completely booked up six months in advance, so don’t get complacent. Complacency kills.

You’ll find out all about that.

Infantry/SpecOps preparation

If you’re joining the military to join the “real military” of ground-pounders, warfighters, and grunts, there are an untold number of Marine Corps and Army recruiters who want to shake your hand and talk about your future over at the local Applebee’s. But don’t go crazy on the neighborhood’s Chicken Quesadilla Burger — you’re about to get into some serious shape.

Besides, Applebee’s will be there for you on Veterans Day.

Joining the military for a combat arms job is serious business. Literally life and death. You need to be in good physical shape before the recruiter will even send you to MEPS to qualify for that kind of work. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not at peak physical condition the moment you talk to a recruiter — there’s still time to get there. Marine Corps recruiters, for example, just want you to check your pride at the door. They are willing to work on you if you’re willing to work because they want it to be life for you and death for the enemy.

“We have a system in place that is designed to help you succeed,” one recruiter told Military Times. “This is what we do. If you’re not wasting our time, and you want the title of United States Marine, we will get you there one pull-up at a time.”

But some people are just hard(er) chargers. While a lot of young recruits decide to go to basic training first, then into a different rating or job before trying to opt into special operations later in their careers, some just want to get into the military’s most elite units right away. The good news is that you can! And recruiters will encourage you to join the ranks of the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Air Force Pararescue, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, and the Coast Guard’s Puddle Pirate Ship.

Just kidding. The Coast Guard’s spec ops is known as the Deployable Operations Group. And they’re probably hunting me now (but keep the term “puddle pirate” in your back pocket).

Joining the most elite units of the U.S. military right out of basic training is a great deal for any branch of service. Rather than training to do an entirely different job that anyone else could have been trained to do, they get a recruit who is much more rare and can waste no time getting special operator status. But getting into a special operations slot is just like any other job in one respect: are you qualified?

But are you, though?

Unlike those other slots, qualifying for these jobs is much harder than an infantry or combat arms position. Remember, it costs anywhere from $18,000 to $44,000 just to train your average military recruit, not counting your special ops enlistment bonus. Air Force pararescuemen train for two years in at least three different locations. Army Special Forces Q-courses can last anywhere from six months to a year. Navy SEALs will train for 30 months before ever deploying. This is serious business.

To catch a recruiter’s attention, tell them you’re interested in joining a special operations job. If you really want to wow them, qualify for the training program right in front of them and look the part. They will fast-track you to special operations so you can get started on your new “quiet professional” career as soon as possible. If you can’t meet the special operations fitness standards, they’ll be less amazed but still as interested in you as any other recruit.

Be advised: meeting special ops standards are difficult. The rewards, however, are many. Recruiters say there are always special ops slots available and the recruiting bonuses (for you, not them) are plentiful for the same reason: most people just can’t do it.

And here’s some hard truth for you: training to meet the minimum physical requirements won’t cut it either because your fellow SEAL and PJ candidates sure as hell aren’t going to train for the bare minimum and getting in is competitive. The “bare minimum” isn’t even in an operator’s vocabulary. You ever listen to former special ops guys’ on podcasts? There’s nothing minimal about them.

The hardest part is that the recruiter doesn’t have to help train you to get into Special Forces shape. If he or she does, that’s great. If not, you’re on your own. But I’ve heard special operations trainees make some really great teams. Maybe it won’t be so bad.

Pre-basic training fitness

When you show up at a recruiter’s office, they’re going to judge you right away. In every way. And you should come exactly as you are, even if you’re a little overweight or a pretty big kid. Think of it as a physical way of telling the recruiter the truth about yourself and your habits. It actually works out better for the recruiter to know who you really are. If you get into the best shape of your life just to get that great aircrew job and then let yourself go before you ship out, you and your recruiter are both gonna have a bad time.

But you, especially.

It’s not a bad idea to get in shape to join the military, though. If you get into fighting shape and stay in fighting shape through basic training, those habits you formed may well follow you throughout your military career and your life. It can only be a good thing for you. No one is telling you not to do that. But if you aren’t really a gym rat, don’t pretend to be. You will still need to get into shape to join the military, if you aren’t already. Your recruiter can help with that part, too.

A recruiter isn’t technically responsible for getting you into shape to join the military but you’ll find many recruiting offices will offer PT (physical training) for their delayed enlistment program recruits and those who are working to qualify for some of the more strenuous jobs in the military. As a matter of fact, if you go into almost any Marine Corps recruiting office in America, you’ll likely find a weight bench and a pull-up bar.

Marines love pull-ups. If you don’t, consider joining the Air Force.

While most of the services don’t have physical standards for shipping recruits off to boot camp, the Marines definitely do. Some think this is a system designed to weed out the weak, but recruiters will tell you it’s the opposite. The Marines want to build you up to a point you may have never been before. If you put the work in, the Marines recruiting you will, too.

Even though they don’t have to, many recruiters say they are happy (and often proud) to help recruits get into some sort of baseline of fitness. All you have to do is show that you’re right there with them, pushing yourself the way you’ll do while you’re in basic training. There are good reasons for this. The first is that recruiters do come to care very much about their recruits.

The second is much more pragmatic.

For you Army recruits, “pragmatic” means they don’t want to waste resources on a recruit who’s just going to wash out. Physical fitness, like failing the ASVAB or being wanted for excessive parking tickets, can be a disqualifying factor in whether or not you get to join the military. Your recruiters are investing much of their personal time in you and a lot of taxpayer dollars. They have a vested interest in making sure you get to basic training.

So if you want to do them (and yourself) a solid, you’re going to want to get into shape, develop good habits, and likely lose some weight. Maybe pay off those parking tickets before the cops come to arrest you. You could be in the Delayed Enlistment Program for a while and you definitely want to show up to basic training looking like you belong there and without an arrest record.

Basic training: Challenges and how to survive them

Everyone who’s ever gone through basic military training or boot camp — whatever your branch calls it — has a story about how they got through it. What these stories have in common is that basic training is more than just how many push-ups you can do, although being able to do a lot of push-ups does help (you’ll find out). Everyone who goes through overcomes a different challenge, and they do it in their own way.

To be clear, don’t do anything mentioned in the linked video above.

For starters, the idea of having a strictly regimented day is not a natural thing. Some people, especially young people, thrive in what seems like chaos. But chaos isn’t an option in basic training, and it’s much more than just having to get up early. From whatever time you wake up, your day is planned to the letter, filled to the brim, and enforced upon you with dire consequence for failure.

And some people just can’t handle that.

Recruiters recommend you start regimenting your own days early. Get up early, go work out, allot certain time periods for certain activities, and be sure to include travel time and schedule that, too. The most important thing is to keep to that schedule. Your drill instructor isn’t going to let you spend a few extra minutes at lunch, so be sure to force yourself out of that Arby’s and onto your next appointment. Do these things at the same time every day, though you might not want to hit up Arby’s seven days a week.

Don’t worry, Arby’s will be there for you when you’re a vet, too.

The next thing you can do for yourself is to move with speed and intensity in everything you do. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines may not move with the same speed and intensity in their daily military lives, but basic trainees sure do and they are expected to do it for weeks on end. You need to be able to handle the stress of the constant push to do everything faster, with purpose, and with attention to detail. If you could hire someone to yell in your face every time you mess up, that would be good, too.

Practicing this movement really does work and if you give yourself enough time and training, by the time you get to boot camp, running, working, and learning under pressure will be second nature to you.

Finally, the biggest obstacle basic trainees face is mental resilience. Many new recruits are leaving home for the first time and are struggling with being away from their friends and family. Remember that the recruits next to you are likely going through the same things. The culture shock, regimentation, and stress are all shared between you and the other trainees. They’re going to make it and so will you. Just press on.

What to expect when entering active duty

Congratulations, boot. You just passed through the same training and schools as every other soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who came before you. Not to take anything away from your accomplishment, but your elders reminding you how boot you are is as much a tradition as basic training.

Still, it’s a big deal to come home in your dress blues. Once you pass basic training and finish the technical training for your military specialty, you’re ultimately headed for active duty. Are you ready for it? This is the moment you trained for all those weeks. Try not to ask anyone back home to marry you during this time period. The urge will pass.

Getting into active military service is an experience that is both unique and common at the same time. It’s common in that military life for young troops usually involves living in the barracks or dorms (depending on your branch — do your research) and eating at a chow hall. This is not unlike the restrictions placed on young college students of the same age, living in dorms with roommates and eating at a cafeteria while coming and going for their studies. Work is like any other job, only the uniforms are way, way cooler.

Imagine a bunch of college kids who are actually well-paid and living for free together under a bizarre set of strict rules, which includes everyone wearing the same outfit and similar haircuts while being treated like teenagers with an unquenchable desire for booze, dip, and video games. That’s kind of how to understand living in the barracks.

For older troops or those with families, you work your job for the required amount of time and then you go home to your family, either on base or off. If that sounds like a regular day job to you, you are correct.

What’s unique about it is that at any moment, college student and bank officers are not required to drop what they’re doing, pick up a bag that has been pre-packed based off a list of required items, pick up a weapon, and then deploy to some place that is usually sweltering hot to do their jobs or course work.

There are so many more stereotypes associated with new active duty troops, it’s hard to list them here. Try not to buy a car without having the base legal office look over the contract. Don’t marry anyone during your first enlistment, and remember that you get out of the military what you put into it. If you spend every night playing grabass in the barracks, four years will pass without much to show for it. If you spend some of that time getting an education with active duty TA benefits and looking toward your post-military future, you might actually leave the service with your post-high school plans intact.

As far as your military career is concerned, the best advice recruiters give their new recruits is to listen and follow orders. The older people around you, the higher ranking ones, will show you how to improve at your work and show you how to be a better airman, Marine, sailor, or soldier. What you will take away from that instruction is something they aren’t necessarily teaching you directly: leadership. If you can strive to be the best at your job while doing the things required of you as a young military member, you will not only succeed, you will thrive.

But watch and learn about how the older NCOs are interacting with their subordinates. You will need this information in the future. You will impart the same information to someone who just followed your path into military service and they will look to you to show them the ropes. Show them the right ropes.

After you send them to get some grid squares and prop wash.