We recently interviewed a new graduate of fall OCS in 2017. Thanks to Candidate X for their insight into the new changes implemented with fall OCS.
Q: How did you study for the new test structure?
Speaking in general terms about my study habits, I made sure to put in as much time as possible studying before I set foot on Brown Field, and I would recommend that all prospective candidates follow suit. Candidates should understand that free time, especially at the beginning of the cycle, is minimal.
For much of the “white space,” studying knowledge will actually be forbidden, and you will have to read your candidate regulations. That means most of your studying time will be after lights.
During that time you will also have to stage and mark gear, complete whatever tasks your platoon staff gives you before reveille, fire watch, and probably moving racks more than a few times. Thus how much you study is inversely proportional to how much you sleep, and sleep is incredibly valuable. The tests themselves are 10th-grade level difficulty multiple choice questions wherein two of the possible answers are almost always obviously wrong. Generally speaking, staying up that extra hour in your rack to study was not worth the sleep that was lost.
That said, know yourself and your weaknesses. If academics is typically a point of friction for you, you will need to manage your time after lights to quickly accomplish your other tasks and memorize your knowledge.
You will also need to be efficient with every moment of dedicated study time you are allocated by your platoon staff.
Q: Why do candidates fail academics?
The biggest key is simply staying awake and paying attention in class. Those who regularly fell asleep typically struggled with academics. Those who stayed awake were typically fine. There is a roughly 35% failure rate at OCS overall. As for myself, I came from a fairly vigorous academic background, so studying before I shipped as well as paying close attention during classes was enough to garner strong test scores. I made flash cards for each chapter while I was at OCS, and made sure I had a good grasp of all the Terminal Learning Objectives listed at the beginning of each chapter (just about every question is drawn from these TLO’s), but generally did not spend a ton of time studying. If you think academics are an issue for you, definitely make flashcards, get on those TLO’s, and get with a fellow candidate who excels in academics when you study.
However, the single most important step you can take to improve your prospects is to study as much as possible before you ever set foot at OCS. Be proactive when you have spare time, because as I mentioned, you will not have much at OCS.
Q: How would you have changed your study habits?
As for where I allocated my time when I studied, I spent countless hours with several 2ndLt’s who were on PTAD with my OSO studying the knowledge from past cycles and even going through practice tests. The two areas we spent the bulk of our time covering were Marine Corps History and 5 paragraph order. I highly recommend every candidate on their way to OCS puts an extensive amount of time into studying and understanding OSMEAC. When I went to OCS I had enough practice transposing and briefing OCS style orders that I could create an order skeleton from memory on the fly.
Consequently the four major leadership evaluations (2 LRC, 2 SULE’s) were relatively stress free, so I would say that is a good benchmark going into the course. Just so all candidates are aware, if you can confidently brief a complete 5 paragraph order, you are all but guaranteed to get a passing grade on all leadership evaluations and FEX’s, so I cannot understate the importance of having a total grasp of OSMEAC heading into OCS. Were I to do OCS over again, I would absolutely have dedicated that same time to OSMEAC prep.
Now as for Marine Corps history, when you get your knowledge issued to you, you will notice that history has the greatest number of chapters and the highest volume of information.
I am not sure if this is intentional misdirection, but the tests themselves will have very general history questions, and relative to the number of chapters very few of them. The questions on topics like Uniform Regulations and Land Navigation were far more detailed and specific.
In retrospect, I would have allocated more time to other topics besides history, at least from an evaluation standpoint. In particular, the test with Uniform Regulations was challenging for a number of candidates in my platoon. I highly recommend all perspective candidates study these topics in some detail. The challenge at OCS is that under the new test structure you will have to study for a number of diverse topics at the same time for each test, so again the best thing you can do is put in the hours beforehand, and prioritize your time at OCS on the more troublesome chapters.
Q: Why do so many candidates fail night land navigation?
The basics of Night Land Nav are actually exceedingly simple, but external friction will make it difficult. The first issue is that you will have limited practice before you are evaluated. We had one period of classroom instruction, one practical application, and then a few weeks later an actual evaluation. Thus, you can expect a steep learning curve, and you won’t really have a chance to remediate if you have issues on the practical application. Now, the good news is on the exam the distance between points on the exam is no more than 350m. That bad news is the terrain is not especially forgiving, and if the moon is not bright, that can lead to a lot of time spent walking into and falling over rocks and branches. This will lead to candidates allowing terrain to dictate their paths, and eventually missing your points. If you can pay attention during class (candidates should be seeing a pattern here), and move carefully and methodically utilizing the proper techniques you will hit all of your points and pass. If you move to quickly and/or allow terrain to dictate your path, as I did, you will fail. The good news is, despite what your platoon staff may try to convince you ahead of the exam if you fail night nav or day nav for that matter it is not the end of the world. Nearly 2/3 of my platoon failed night nav, and all but perhaps 2 graduated OCS. Your land nav grades will be rolled into your overall academic grade, so if you do well on all of your tests, land nav should be a stress-free endeavor. Land nav is taught in much greater detail with more time for remediation at TBS, so candidates who have issues with land nav at OCS need not worry too much about TBS.
Q: What environmental hazards did you encounter?
Luckily during fall OCS, the weather was pretty mild. There were only a few cold days we had to deal with, including one pretty rough night in the field. I do have a couple quick tips:
- Do everything you can to stay dry, especially in the field. Following the E-Course and Assault Course, get dry clothes on as soon as permitted. In the field, always have a dry set of cammies, skivvies, and socks to change into, and actually, do that. This is a environmental hazard for the fall ocs class (and winter) that the summer candidates don’t encounter.
- The number of layers is more important than the thickness of individual layers. You will be issued cold gear, sweatshirts, and long-sleeved skivvies. Utilize all of those when you need to, with the exception of when you are hiking. Avoid the temptation to put on layers before you step off and let your body warm up as you hike. Do not be the candidate the becomes a heat casualty in 30 or 40-degree weather.
Q: Retrospectively, how should candidates prepare for OCS?
Understand that at OCS you will almost never be given a long distance and told to just run. You will have a 3-mile boots and utes run, and 5-mile run towards the end of the cycle, along with three PFT’s. Just about every other PT session will involve some sort of high-intensity repetition, like Fartleks, the MEC, the O-course, CFT prep, etc.
Consequently, it would behoove candidates to run a lot of shorter intervals in preparation for OCS. I ran a number of Fartleks and 400-800m intervals ahead of OCS, and I felt as though that paid dividends.
I had also been warned ahead of time about “Core Strength and Conditioning” PT, which is a series of core and plyometric exercises for time. I modeled my workouts to prepare for those as well. A few other tips I would advise candidates utilize:
- Don’t neglect the weight room. That doesn’t mean you should be looking to add mass or spend 2 hours a day bench pressing because you shouldn’t, but having good total body strength and explosiveness is an asset and will help prevent injuries at OCS.
- Make sure you are running hills and trails ahead of time. Those who only ran on asphalt and tracks paid the price at OCS.
- Have a consistent stretching and rolling program that you start many months ahead of OCS and continue at OCS. An injury is the number one reason candidates get sent home. Taking care of your body and developing dynamic flexibility can go a long way towards ensuring that this is not you.
Q: How do you prepare for hikes?
Break in a set of boots before you get to OCS. I bought a pair of Bates Lites and had them ready to roll when I got to OCS. I used them for every PT session we had that required boots, including the O and E-Course.
That said, hiking too much and logging too many miles ahead of time can lead to overuse injuries and may be counterproductive.
I was always a strong hiker, hiked just a handful of times in boots before OCS, and I was just fine at OCS. If hiking is a weakness for you, by all means, hike. Typically, those who struggled did so because they were short or perhaps lacked the total body strength to manage their pack size. For the latter, work squats and deadlifts in the weight room before you show up, for the former, Semper Gumby. In either case, it would be smart to hike ahead of time. You can follow the Colour Sergeant’s Guide on the official OCS site for a good hiking program. Make sure however that you slowly build your pack weight and distance. Don’t dive right into a 12-mile death march. The same goes for boots and utes runs. Start with a half mile and build distance slowly. If I had to sum it all up, I would say work hard, work consistently, work functionally, and work safely. No one workout will get you ready for OCS, but one workout could injure you and set you back. Months of consistent, cumulative preparation utilizing functional workouts will prepare you for OCS. Showing up to OCS in exceptional shape is the difference between PT sessions being a source of stress relief and a confidence builder, and PT sessions being another source of stress. For me, I PT’d religiously for over a year before OCS, and I did not find the PT to be especially challenging at all. Except for the E-course, which will suck even if you are in incredible shape.
Q: Any parting words of wisdom or encouragement for candidates?
OCS is a test of your dedication as much as anything else. It boils down to a game, and the only rule of that game is you always lose. If you somehow win, the rules will change to ensure you lose. The course is structured to create stress, discomfort, and discouragement to make you doubt yourself and give up. They are evaluating whether or not you keep pushing and displaying effort absent any source of encouragement or immediate gratification. The reality is that every candidate who gets selected was chosen out of hundreds of qualified candidates because they are capable of finishing this course because they belong.
If you are selected, it is because to prepared diligently and exhibited the leadership potential to lead Marines. Lean on this at OCS, because amidst the chaos and discouragement you may very well doubt you belong. This is by design.
Remember all of the hours you poured into PT, academic preparation, and getting past the selection board and trust that you can finish. You will undoubtedly fail at something at OCS. Nearly everyone does. If you compensate for your shortcomings with effort and intensity, you will ultimately succeed. The fact is nothing you will be asked to do at OCS is beyond your ability to finish. In fact, were it not for the sleep deprivation and external friction very few of the individual events would be all that difficult. Thus the biggest obstacles will always be mental. Ignore that internal voice telling you to stop and keep pushing. Chow to Chow, rack to rack, libo to libo, dig deep and put out. Before you know it you’ll be crossing the parade deck with gold bars pinned on your shoulders.