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What Does It Take to Be a General in the Military?

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Reaching the rank of general – or admiral for Navy officers – is the peak in responsibility and achievement for an officer in military service. Only a small percentage of officers reach the ranks of one- to four-star general and the career path is a combination of well-defined steps and competitiveness at each level.

Becoming an Officer

All generals start out their careers at the most junior officer rank – second lieutenant or lieutenant junior grade, depending on the branch of service. To become an officer requires a four-year college degree and receiving a commission through one of the officer commissioning sources such as a military academy, ROTC scholarship, or Officer Candidate School. All branches of the military use an O-number classification for officer ranks. A new officer starts out at the O-1 level with O-7 as a general or admiral many years in the new officer's future.

Annual Evaluations

The career of a military officer will be a series of education programs, assignments, and an increasing level of responsibility. Along the way, every officer receives performance evaluations from her superior officers at least once a year. The jobs and assignments an officer goes through along with how well those jobs were accomplished as shown on the evaluations determines how far she will be able to move up the rank and career ladder.

Systematic Promotion Ladder

For the ranks of O-1 through O-6, the promotion system runs on a set timetable and what an officer needs to do to reach the next rank is fairly standardized. Any officer who does a good job for the military should reach the O-5 rank and be able to stay in the service for the 20 years needed to draw a retirement check. For each promotion, an officer's information packet showing career information and evaluations goes to a promotion board that decides whether the officer moves up to the next rank. The promotion to O-6 gets more competitive, but the promotion board system works the same as with the lower officer grades.

O-7 Selection and Appointment

The O-7 through O-10 level are the four general officer ranks, often described by the number of stars. Officers who want a promotion to general will be reviewed by a general officer specific promotion board where the competition to get a star is very high and only the most qualified O-6 candidates will be chosen. The board considers both the officer's career leadership results and the needs of the service for general officers for specific positions. From the promotion board recommendations, the President of the U.S. nominates an officer for promotion to the next star, and then the U.S. Senate must confirm the nomination. A general will be promoted to that rank somewhere between 20 and 30 years of military service.


Tim Plaehn has been writing financial, investment and trading articles and blogs since 2007. His work has appeared online at Seeking Alpha, and various other websites. Plaehn has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

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