SATs for Soldiers

How hard is the aptitude test for U.S. military recruits?

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Last week, the Army National Guard lowered its standards for new recruits in 34 states. These states will now be able to enlist those who scored in at least the 16th percentile on an aptitude test. How hard is that test?

It depends on which branch of the military you want to join. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery includes sections on general science, automotive information, mechanical comprehension, electronics information, and assembling objects. But these scores are only used to determine which jobs a recruit might be good at once he or she enters the military. The ASVAB also includes two math sections and two reading sections, together known as the Armed Forces Qualification Test. If a recruit can’t pass the math and reading sections, he or she won’t be eligible to enlist.

To join the Army, a recruit must normally score in at least the 31st percentile. The minimum score is 32 for the Marines, 36 for the Air Force, and 35 for the Navy. A recruit’s eligibility is also determined by educational background, and scoring exceptions are made. (With forces spread thin, the number of exceptions has risen dramatically in recent years.) But according to federal law, no one who scores below a 10 can enlist in any branch of service.

The military first implemented the AFQT after Congress mandated a standardized recruitment exam in 1948. (The Defense Department added to the basic math and verbal sections to create the ASVAB in the late 1960s.) Prior to that, other branches used their own tests. Until World War II, the Army alone had two versions: Literate, English-speakers took the Alpha test, which measured vocabulary, math, and general knowledge; other recruits got the Beta test, which consisted of diagrams and pictorial tasks (“What’s missing from these pictures?”) and even running a maze.

The Department of Defense began implementing the ASVAB in high schools throughout the country in 1968; the test officially became the standard recruitment exam for all military branches in the mid-1970s.

The ASVAB has evolved over the years to keep up with technological innovations. For example, you wouldn’t see a question asking how to use a vacuum tube on the test today, whereas such a question may have been standard 30 years ago. Nowadays, two-thirds of ASVAB enlistment tests are administered via computer.

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Explainer thanks Don Hill of the United States Military Entry Processing Command, and reader Brian Mosley for asking the question.