Getting into the U.S. Air Force Academy is hard. This graduate wants to help

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8min 19sec
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Cadets stand during the 2023 United States Air Force Academy Graduation Ceremony at Falcon Stadium, Thursday, June 1, 2023, at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

For 2018 Air Force Academy graduate Sam Eckholm, going to the prestigious institution in Colorado Springs was always a dream — one that he shared with his father and uncle, who also went there.

“I remember growing up hearing their stories of attending the academy, jumping out of airplanes, flying gliders in the summer, going through survival training,” Eckholm said.

With that dream in mind, Eckholm is now making it his mission to help other prospective cadets achieve their dreams of entering the academy — and navigating the immensely complicated nomination process.

“I'm so, so excited and motivated for what the Academy did for my life. What the military does for so many people out there,” Eckholm said. “I wanted to share that passion with others and help them achieve their goals as well.”

In late August, he launched a new program called the Air Force Academy Blueprint.

Eckholm said his program is for anyone interested in going to the Academy, but it's also a way to help others who might feel worried to apply — especially BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or first-generation students.

“Over the years, the academy has changed drastically. There are now affinity groups at the academy,” said Eckholm.  

I spoke with Eckholm about his time at the Air Force Academy — and what prospective cadets can expect when applying — and how to survive their freshman year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nathan Heffel: First I want to mention what you currently do. You are a YouTube creator. Your videos about the defense and aerospace fields have been viewed millions of times. You're a former public affairs officer with the Air Force, specifically with the  F-22 demonstration team. So when did your passion for aviation and military service begin?

Sam Eckholm: It actually began growing up. My dad's an Air Force Academy graduate. My uncle is as well. So I remember growing up hearing their stories of attending the academy, jumping out of airplanes, flying gliders in the summer, going through survival training. And I was like, man, this is pretty cool. I would love to have the opportunity to do so. So followed in their footsteps, was able to apply and get accepted into the academy. Graduated in 2018, like you said, had an absolute blast. And then my goal ever since is to, you know, share that passion with others. You know, I'm so, so excited and motivated for what the Academy did for my life, what the military does for so many people out there and, and I wanted to share that passion with others and help them achieve their goals as well.

Heffel: When should high school students really start getting into this process?

Eckholm: The Air Force Academy application is the most complex and rigorous college application in the country. It's not a common app, it's not a couple of essays you have to do. It's a long process. And that does deter thousands of applicants each year from applying because it's tough. To answer your question, ideally, you wanna start applying towards the end of your junior year [in high school], but that process really starts even earlier than that. I always say the earlier, you know, you wanna go to the academy, the better because that means you can start implementing your game plan. You can start prepping, getting the things you need to get done in high school, summer leadership, athletics, and really hit the ground running.

Heffel: Sam, can you give us a sense of daily life there, maybe as a first year? It's got to be intense.

Courtesy photo.
2018 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Sam Eckholm says he's on a mission to help others apply and survive the rigors of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Eckholm: It actually starts before you really even start the first year. At what's called basic cadet training. So cadets will report the last weekend of June and they'll go through a six-week basic training program, which is really designed to take high school civilians from that, you know, normal kid, to a military cadet. So once you graduate from that program, after six weeks, the academic year starts. And then it's kind of a mix of honestly, what you think of as a normal traditional college. You know, we have sports at the academy clubs, organizations like that, but of course it is a military school as well. So it's gonna be long days, uh, tough classes.

Heffel: Give us two or three quick tips for starting a path toward joining the academy.

Eckholm: So, if you're a high school student right now, the best thing you can do is start building your resume. Now the Academy cares about three things. They care about academics first and foremost. Then they care about leadership, then they care about athletics. So grades are always going to be the most important. Make sure you're studying, take those AP classes, those honors courses, if you can also sign up for clubs, but not just any club. Sign up for a club that you think you can be a leader in, whether that's, you know, the president of your student council or student body, something like that. And then athletics are always going to look good as well. They wanna see that you're physically fit, you're the most well-rounded applicant as you can be. So that's where, you know, playing sports, getting to the varsity level can be good.

Heffel: What hat tips did your father and uncle give you?

Eckholm: I remember when I was in basic cadet training, you actually get letters from your parents and friends and family, because they take your cell phones away. And so I remember my dad would write me letters and the advice he would give me is make it to the next meal. And so he would always say make it to breakfast, make it to lunch, make it to dinner. That's just a way for the days to go by quicker. And then you can celebrate those little accomplishments and then all of a sudden you wake up and, you know, you've made it through basic training. You've made it to Thanksgiving break, Christmas, and to the end of your first year, which is always the hardest. So, you know, I took that advice and I passed that along to anyone else.

Heffel: Did you ever think like, I'm not gonna make it to breakfast or I'm not gonna make it to lunch. Did you ever have those feelings?

Eckholm: I did. I think everyone at the Academy doubts themselves at some point. I mean, you think, “Hey, this is gonna be such an amazing place,” and it is. But takes a while to fully realize the benefits from everything they're throwing at you. Especially the infamous freshman year. So I leaned a lot on my classmates. You really form bonds unlike any other, which is just a huge benefit of going through a place like the academy together.

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