United States Naval Academy

The United States Naval Academy is not for everyone. You need a congressional recommendation to even be considered. The life there presents physical and mental challenges that far exceed the usual undergraduate rigors. Plus, you've got to get your hair cut short.

Established in 1845, the academy prepares young men and women for careers as officers in the U.S. Navy -- so the curriculum is not what you would find at your typical liberal arts institution. In addition to the usual round of courses in history, science and the like, students also learn about small arms, seamanship and navigation, naval weapons, leadership and ethics. Each summer, midshipmen train at naval bases and on ships in the fleet.

In general, the course of study leans heavily toward the technical. The class of 2004 could choose from among 18 possible majors, eight involve engineering and six focus on science, mathematics and computer science. Only five majors are available in the humanities and social sciences.

Long an all-male bastion, the school bowed to congressional mandate in 1976 with the acceptance of its first female students. In 2003, women accounted for roughly 16 percent of the freshman class. The overall student body numbers roughly 4,000 young people representing every state in the nation and more than a dozen foreign countries. All live together in the behemoth dormitory, Bancroft Hall.

An academy education focuses heavily on character development, and the student body is expected to adhere to a strict honor system at all times, both on and off campus. Get caught in a lie: You're gone. "Midshipmen are persons of integrity," reads the student pledge. "They stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the full truth is known. They do not lie. They embrace fairness in all actions. ..."

The academy's location is enviable. Situated on the banks of the Severn River in historic downtown Annapolis, The Yard (how the midshipmen refer to the campus) features tree-lined brick walks, French Renaissance and contemporary architecture and views of the scenic Chesapeake Bay.

Students don't get much time to take in the visual grandeur, however. Between the demands of athletics, academics and military training, they average less than six hours' sleep a night and have been known to literally fall asleep standing up. Life at the academy is not easy.

A Naval Academy education costs nothing, and students even get some monthly spending money.

What's the catch? If you stay the course and graduate, you will be required to serve as a naval officer for five years (for most commitments, but aviators serve seven years after they complete their initial flight training). Drop out early, and you may owe the government a hefty sum in the form of back payments for tuition and room-and-board charges.

Like we said: The Naval Academy is not for everyone. But with such distinguished alumni as Sen. John McCain, former President Jimmy Carter and America's first astronaut Alan Shepard, the school continues to attract many of the nation's brightest and hardest-working undergraduates each year.