The Enlistment Process of the U.S. Air Force

The Air Force is the youngest of our nation's military services. It was separated from the Army Air Corps as part of the National Security Act of 1947. The Air Force is also one of the hardest services to join. Why? Well, it seems that the Air Force is the most popular of the military services. They also have the highest reenlistment rate of any of the services.

In other words, those who join tend to want to stay in after their initial term of service is up. This results in fewer slots for new recruits. In fact, over the past several years, the Air Force has found themselves in the embarrassing position of having more people on active duty than Congress says they can have. That means, each year, some people who want to stay in the Air Force can't, and many people who want to join the Air Force also can't.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to join. If you can meet the enlistment qualifications, are willing to be very flexible in job choices, and are willing to spend months (possibly several months) waiting for an enlistment/training slot, you can be among the 30,000 (or so) who will enlist in the Air Force this year.

01
Getting Started

A young woman walking past the Times Square Armed Forces Recruitment Center sign.
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Your first step in the enlistment process is to meet with a recruiter. AF recruiting offices can be found in all major U.S. cities. They're listed in the phone book in the white pages, under "U.S. Government." You can also locate your nearest recruiter using the Advisor Locator on the Air Force Recruiting website.

The recruiter will conduct a "pre-screening" to see if (on the surface) you are qualified for enlistment. The recruiter will ask you about your education level, your criminal history, your age, your marital/dependency status, and your medical history. The recruiter will weigh you to ensure you meet Air Force accession weight standards. The recruiter will have you take a "mini-ASVAB" (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery), on a computer, which gives a pretty good idea of how you will score on the actual test.

The medical pre-screen is sent to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), where it is reviewed by a doctor. The recruiter forwards the rest of the information to his/her bosses at the Recruiting Squadron. The review process will take a few days. If there are no obvious disqualifying factors, the recruiter arranges an appointment for you to go to MEPS. If there are disqualifying factors, the recruiter will speak with you about the possibility of waivers.

02
Doing the MEPS Thing

A room full of fresh recruits with their right hands raised taking the oath of enlistment.
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MEPS stands for Military Entrance Processing Station and is where your real qualifications for joining the Air Force are determined. MEPS is not owned by the Air Force. In fact, it's not owned by any of the branches. MEPS is a "joint-operation," and is staffed by members of all the branches.

There are 65 MEPS located across the U.S. Usually, the MEPS process takes two days. Depending on how far the nearest MEPS is from where you live, you may have to stay overnight in a contract hotel.

Unless you already have a valid Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) score, you'll usually take the ASVAB in the afternoon you arrive. The next day, the real fun begins—and it's a long, long day. Your day will start at about 5:30 a.m., and you won't finish until about 5:00 or 5:30 that evening.

Your day will include a urinalysis (drug test), medical exam, eye test, hearing test, strength test, security interview, weight check, body-fat measurement (if you exceed the weight on the published weight charts), security clearance interview, meeting with a job counselor, reviewing enlistment options and possible enlistment incentives, taking the enlistment oath, and signing the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) contract. Oh, yeah, intermixed in between all of this you'll fill out lots of forms and do lots and lots of waiting.

03
The ASVAB

New Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas standing in formation.
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The Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, more commonly referred to as the ASVAB is used by the Air Force primarily for two purposes: (1) to determine if you have the mental capacity to be successful through basic training and other Air Force training programs, and (2) to determine your aptitude for learning various Air Force jobs.

The ASVAB consists of nine subtests: General Science, Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, Mathematics Knowledge, Electronics Information, Auto & Shop, Mechanical Comprehension, and Assembling Objects.

The ASVAB comes in two flavors: The pencil and paper version and the computerized version. If you're taking the test as part of your enlistment process into the Air Force, you'll most likely take the computerized version during your trip to MEPS.

The Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), often mistakenly called the "overall score," is actually comprised from only four of the subtests (Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, and Math Knowledge). The other subtests are used to determine job qualifications.

04
The Medical Examination

Air Force recruits sitting in a row of chairs holding medical records waiting for an exam.
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The largest portion of your day at MEPS is taken up by the medical examination. You'll start by completing a detailed medical history. Your blood and urine will be taken and examined for this and that. Your eyes and hearing will be checked. You'll have to do some stupid-sounding things, such as walking while squatting—commonly called the "duck-walk."

Medical Standards for enlistment are set by the Department of Defense, not the Air Force. The doctors at MEPS will medically disqualify you if you fail to meet any of the standards. There are two types of disqualification: temporary and permanent. A temporary disqualification means you can't join right now, but might be able to at a later time. For example, if you just had an operation the week before. A permanent disqualification means that you failed to meet the published standards, and that won't change with time.

If you're permanently disqualified, the Air Force can choose to waive the medical disqualification and enlist you anyway. The commanding officer of the recruiting squadron will determine whether or not a waiver will be submitted. If the commander approves it, the request goes all the way up, winding its way through the command chain, to the top doctor in the entire Air Force (The Air Force Surgeon General). The SG's office has final approval authority. This process can take several weeks (sometimes several months).

05
The Security Interview

a view from hallway of recruits standing in line
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Most Air Force enlisted jobs and assignments require a security clearance. To obtain a security clearance, one must be a U.S. Citizen. You can still enlist without U.S. Citizenship, but your job choices and assignments will be limited to those which do not require a clearance.

Some Air Force jobs don't require a clearance level, but due to the nature of the job, they still require a favorable background check. These jobs require what the Air Force calls a "Sensitive Job Code" (SJC) of "F."

Of course, nobody can tell for sure whether or not a security clearance will be approved, and the process can take several months. It is where the Security Interviewer comes in. They will ask you numerous questions about your past (drug use, alcohol use, mental health treatment, finances, criminal history, etc.), and is pretty good at making a prediction as to whether or not you're a good candidate for security clearance/SJC approval. It, in turn, will affect which Air Force enlisted jobs you are eligible for.

06
Selecting Your Job

Air Force recruits standing in line waiting to talk about career counseling.
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The Air Force has two enlistment options: Guaranteed Job and Guaranteed Aptitude area. There are only enough guaranteed job slots made available to the Air Force Recruiting Service to accommodate about 40 percent of the recruits who enlist each year. Most enlist in a guaranteed aptitude area.

The Air Force has four aptitude areas: General, Electronics, Mechanical, and Administrative. Various combinations of ASVAB scores make up line scores for each of these areas. Under the Guaranteed Aptitude Enlistment Option, one is guaranteed that they will be assigned to a job that falls into that aptitude area but won't find out what their actual job is, until the last week of basic training.

If you're very lucky, you may be able to reserve a specific job at the time you meet with the Job Counselor at MEPS. More likely, however, there won't be any available slots listed in the computer system. In that case, you'll give the Job Counselor approximately five choices.

Usually, at least one of your listed preferences must be for an aptitude area, and the other preferences can be for specific jobs. You'll then enlist in the DEP (see next section) and your preferences will be entered into the job computer system. When one of your choices becomes available, your recruiter will notify you of your job assignment and your shipping date.

07
Taking the Oath

A room filled with Air Force recruits taking the oath of enlistment with their right hands raised.
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You're almost done! All you have left to do is to go over your contract and enlistment options and take the Oath of Enlistment to enlist in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP).

A counselor will go over your contract with you line-by-line. Don't get too wrapped up in the DEP contract, because what really counts is the final enlistment contract, which you will sign on the day you ship out to basic training. This is because the DEP contract is probably going to have several omissions, especially if you haven't been assigned to a job, yet. Certain enlistment incentives (such as enlistment bonuses) cannot be included in the contract until your job is known. Additionally, your active duty shipping date won't be known until your job is assigned.

08
Waiting it Out

Air Force recruits conversing at a table in a cafe during a break
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The waiting period in the Delayed Enlistment Program is probably the hardest thing about the enlistment process. The Air Force recruits for several months in advance. Depending on job and training availability, you may have to wait for several months to ship out to basic training—some have spent over a year in the Air Force DEP.

If you're in a hurry to get out of town, ask your recruiter about the possibility of being placed on the "quick ship" list. At times, there are recruits who drop out of the DEP at the very last moment.

In order not to waste a scheduled job/training slot, the recruiting service maintains a list of those who agree to take the place of such individuals. The only problem is that you would have to accept the same job (or aptitude area) of the person dropping out, be of the same sex (usually), and keep your bags packed, as you may only get a day's notice.

While waiting in the DEP, you'll meet with your recruiter periodically (usually once per month). Often these meetings take place in the form of a "Commander's Call," where all the DEPpers attend a group meeting. Often the recruiter will arrange for guest speakers, such as recently graduated recruits, or senior recruiting officials. Your recruiter will also use these meetings to help get you ready for basic training and your Air Force career.

09
Getting on With Your Career

Air Force pilot climbing into an F-15 Fighter Jet
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The time will finally come when it's time to ship out! You'll return to MEPS to process out of the DEP and onto active duty. The folks at MEPS will have you fill out some forms to ensure that nothing has changed (medical, criminal history, etc.) during your time in the DEP, which could affect your enlistment qualifications.

You'll then review and sign your active duty enlistment contract, take the enlistment oath again, then be put on a plane to San Antonio, Texas, where you'll be met by Air Force Basic Training Personnel.

Following Basic Training, you'll proceed to technical school to learn your Air Force job. When you graduate technical school, you'll be granted a week or two of leave (vacation time), and then it's on to your first duty assignment. Good luck with your Air Force career!