Joining the Military: Q&A

Navy Personnel Specialist 1st Class Tonya Roberts. (U.S. Navy/Kathleen Gorby)
Personnel Specialist 1st Class Tonya Roberts. (U.S. Navy/Kathleen Gorby)

INTRODUCTION: Rod Powers is a retired Air Force first sergeant and military author. His informative articles about joining the military have appeared in numerous military and civilian publications. He has also authored a book about the ASVAB, entitled "ASVAB For Dummies." spoke with Rod about the ASVAB and strategies for success. If you're going to take the ASVAB, be sure you read this interview! Can you tell us about your background, and how you became an ASVAB expert?

Rod Powers: I spent 23 years in the Air Force. Eleven of those years were in the position of first sergeant. A substantial part of my duties as a first sergeant was to counsel and prepare my people for retraining opportunities. The ASVAB test was part of this.

A first sergeant makes many, many contacts in the course of his or her business. Many of my contacts were those in the recruiting world (for all of the services, not just the Air Force). Over the years, I've cultivated friendships among recruiters, recruiting first sergeants, recruiting commanders and MEPS personnel. After my retirement, I used these contacts to extensively educate myself on the recruiting policies, regulations and practices of all of the services. What is the best way to prepare for the ASVAB?

Rod Powers: Questions on the ASVAB are not difficult. None of the topics ask questions beyond the high school level. The best way to prepare for the ASVAB is to determine your areas of weakness by using a practice test (such as those contained in "ASVAB for Dummies"). Use the results of the practice test to discover which particular subject areas you need to study.

"ASVAB for Dummies" is written with this concept in mind. It's not simply a collection of practice questions, as many other ASVAB study guides are. Each ASVAB subject area is covered with explanations of how that particular subject area applies to the overall ASVAB score (if it does), and how it applies to specific military job qualifications. Additionally, there are extensive tips for further study in each area to help the applicant improve their specific scores. If you don't do well on a section of the ASVAB that you need for a military occupational specialty (MOS) but score well overall, can you still get that MOS? For example, you could get a 99 for your AFQT (math and verbal sections), but still miss all of the auto and shop questions. If you did this, could you still get a MOS such as aircraft/engine repair?

Rod Powers: The overall ASVAB score is known as the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) score. This score is used to determine whether or not one is (overall) qualified to join the service. This score is comprised of only four subtests of the ASVAB (math and verbal subtests) and is a percentile score (1 to 99). For example, the Air Force requires an AFQT score of 40 or higher to join. The Army requires an AFQT score of only 31 or higher, but one must score at least a 50 to qualify for certain incentives, such as enlistment bonuses.

Actual job qualification, however, is not based on the AFQT score. Each of the services have developed a "composite score" system, which is based upon individual subtests of the ASVAB. Composite scores determine job qualification. If one does not achieve the required composite score that the job requires, they don't qualify for that job. It's that simple. There are provisions for composite score waivers (not more than five points), but such waivers are approved only in exceptional cases (such as the individual has extensive civilian education and experience that relates to the job). What section(s) are usually the most troublesome for recruits?

Rod Powers: Depends. Males usually do well on the electronics and mechanics section but have problems with the English (vocabulary, reading comprehension, etc.) sections, while females generally do well with the English sections, but not as well on the electronics and mechanical areas. Most of it depends on courses/experience from high school, and fewer females take auto or shop classes. However, the mechanical and electronics subtests are not used to determine overall ASVAB scores, and most females who are interested in electronic or mechanical military jobs are the ones who are likely to have taken such courses in high school. What are some typical mistakes recruits make in preparing (or not preparing) for the ASVAB?

Rod Powers: The biggest mistake applicants make is to purchase an ASVAB study guide and then waste time trying to memorize the answers to the questions presented in that guide.

The ASVAB test is a highly controlled test. No author of any study guide has access to the actual questions on the test. At most, we can present similar questions. By the rarest of random chances, one might find one or two questions on the ASVAB that are the exact same that one saw in a study guide; but for the most part, that's not going to happen.

ASVAB study guides are valuable tools that can show one the specific areas that one needs to concentrate on in order to score well on the ASVAB. The correct way to use available study guides is to give yourself a "self-test," determine which areas you don't do so well in, then use other resources (high school and college textbooks, available in any public library) to study those areas. How much do time limits become a factor, or do most people finish well within them?

Rod Powers: The time limits are not much of a factor for most people. Most applicants finish the specific sections well before the time limit. The exception is some specifically timed sections of the ASVAB that are "speed tests" (such as the "coding speed" section, which is being deleted). In those subtests, individuals are not expected to complete all the questions, just as many as they can. How much of an effect do your ASVAB scores have many years down the line, when you might be looking to become an officer?

Rod Powers: Depends on the service. The Army is the only service that uses ASVAB scores exclusively for "officer test" qualification. In the Army, one needs an Army "GT" (general technical, which is word knowledge and paragraph comprehension plus arithmetic reasoning) composite score of 115 to qualify for commissioning programs. The Air Force and Navy both have separate officer qualifying tests. In the Marine Corps, one must have a GT score of 115, or one must achieve a minimum score on the math and verbal sections of the SAT or ACT.

One of the most significant factors for commissioned officer qualification is college grade-point average. With the exception of the Army, which allows enlisted personnel to apply for a commission after earning 90 college credits (if they can finish their degree within one year), commissioned officers *must* have a bachelor's degree. Officer qualification test scores, college grade-point average and military record are the primary means of selecting officer candidates. Along the career development track, if you're 2-3 years into your MOS, and you want to transfer to a completely different job, can you take the ASVAB again? Do they look at your old scores at all?

Rod Powers: In conjunction with retraining, one can retake the ASVAB, if they wish. When taken in-service, it's given a different name -- the Armed Forces Classification Test (AFCT); but, other than the name, it's the same test. The scores used are the scores achieved on the last test taken, not the highest scores. That means one potentially could qualify to retrain into a specific job, then take the AFCT, get a lower score and no longer qualify. Can you skip a section and come back to it later?

Rod Powers: No. If one takes the paper version of the test, one is given one section of the test at a time, and not given the next section until they finish the first section. If one is taking the computerized version of the test, the computer will not present the next section until the previous section is finished (or the time limit for that section runs out). How many times can you take the ASVAB? How long is it valid for?

Rod Powers: Depends. The ASVAB scores are valid as long as one is in the service. In other words, if one retrains after 10 years in the service, the original ASVAB scores are used for job-qualification purposes (unless one elects to retest; in that case, the latest test scores are used).

If one is not in the service, the ASVAB scores are valid for two years. If one took the test more than two years ago and now wants to join the service, they would have to retake the ASVAB.

There are special provisions that govern ASVAB retests. With the exception of the Navy (discussed below), one cannot retake the ASVAB for the specific purpose of raising line-scores in order to try and qualify for a specific job. One can only retake the ASVAB if they fail to achieve the minimum AFQT score required to enter that specific service. For example, let's say someone is joining the Army and got an overall ASVAB score (AFQT score) of 50, but didn't get a composite score high enough for the specific job they wanted. That's just tough. Because they scored high enough overall to join the Army, they cannot retake the ASVAB.

However, let's say that same person scored a 30 on the AFQT. That person would be allowed to retest, because he/she failed to achieve a minimum qualifying score.

There is an exception to the above rule. If one can show that something unusual happened during the test that affected their test score, one can request a retest, even if they achieved a qualifying score. For example, both of my daughters (twins, now serving in the Air Force) first took the ASVAB (paper version) at a local National Guard Armory. On the day of the test, the air conditioner broke, and the room temperature was higher than 95 degrees. Even though both achieved a qualifying score, they were allowed to retest, because the test conditions were such to negatively affect their test scores.

One must wait a minimum of 30 days for the first retest, 30 days for the second retest and then a minimum of six months for any retests thereafter. There are no limits to the number of times the ASVAB can be taken (keeping in mind the above rules).

The High School ASVAB (the ASVAB that is given to students in high schools) does not fall under the retest rules. If one takes the ASVAB in high school, one can enlist using those scores, or one can elect to retake the ASVAB through the recruiter, regardless of scores achieved on the high school test. However, the latest scores, not the highest, are the ones used for enlistment qualifications.

The Navy is the only service that will allow an applicant to retake the ASVAB for the specific purpose of raising individual scores for job qualifications. However, in order to do so, the applicant must show that there is a substantial chance that the retest will result in a higher subtest score. For example, let's say a Navy applicant wished to qualify for the nuclear program but didn't have high enough math scores. If that recruit took some college math courses, he/she then could request a re-test. If you're at MEPS and suddenly get sick or get too anxious, can you cancel your test and try again later? What if you have already started?

Rod Powers: Any test that is officially started is considered a valid test and falls under the retest rules above. So if it is a first test, one would have to wait a minimum of 30 days to retest. If it's a retest and the applicant gets sick or anxious, then he/she won't be allowed to test again for six months. (This can be waived by the recruiting squadron/battalion/division commander, but such waivers are rare.) If you're stuck on a question, should you pass the question and come back to it later (while you're still in that same section of the test), or should you just guess and move on?

Rod Powers: This is certainly possible on the paper version. It is not an option on the computerized version of the ASVAB, since the computer will not go onto the next question until the previous question is answered.

One advantage of the computerized version is that ASVAB questions are "weighted." In other words, harder questions are granted more points than easier questions. On the computerized version, if one gets a question correct, the computer will then choose a harder question (worth more points) for the next question. If one gets a question wrong, the computer will choose an easier question for the next question. On average, this system results in higher overall ASVAB scores. Those who take both the paper and computerized ASVAB generally find that they score higher on the computerized version.

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