Enlisted Promotions Made Simple

Part 3 - Marine Corps Enlisted Promotions

female and male marine corps members
Women Attend Marine Boot Camp At Parris Island, South Carolina. Scott Olson / Getty Images

As I mentioned in our Army Enlisted Promotions article, and the Air Force Enlisted Promotions article, each year, when Congress passes the Defense Authorization Act, they tell the Marines exactly how many people can be on active duty during the year. Congress also states by law what percentage can serve in each grade above E-4.

While there is no statutory authority to limit percentages in the ranks of E-4 and below, The Marines limit this on their own.

In the Air Force and Army, promotions up to the rank of E-4 are pretty much automatic, based on time-in-service and time-in-grade. In the Marines, this is true only for promotions to the ranks of E-2 and E-3. Promotions to E-4 and above are competitive and are based on specific vacancies within MOS's (jobs).

The Marine Corps takes the number of "slots" they have for each enlisted rank, above the rank of E-3, and allocates them to the different MOS's (enlisted jobs). In other words, MOS 123 may be allowed to have 5,000 E-4s at any point in time and 2,000 E-5s and MOS 456 may be authorized 7,000 E-4s, and 5,000 E-5s (as a general rule, the higher the rank, the fewer positions there are).

In order to promote someone (above the rank of E-3), there must be a "vacancy." For example, if an E-9 retires in a certain MOS, that means that one E-8 can be promoted to E-9, and that opens an E-8 slot, so one E-7 can be promoted to E-8, and so-forth.

If 200 E-5s get out of the Marine Corps in a particular MOS, then 200 E-4s can be promoted to E-5.

The Marine Corps has 154,348 enlisted members on active duty. Here's how it breaks down, by enlisted rank:

  • Private (E-1) - 9,671 (6.3%)
  • Private First Class (E-2) - 20,625 (13.4%)
  • Lance Corporal (E-3) - 43,141 (30.0%)
  • Corporal (E-4) - 29,578 (19.2%)
  • Sergeant (E-5) - 23,019 (15.0%
  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 14,794 (9.6%)
  • Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) - 8,801 (5.7%)
  • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 3,306 (2.1%)
  • Master Gunnery Sergeant/Sergeant Major (E-9) - 1,413 (0.9%)

Decentralized Promotions (E-2 and E-3)

Decentralized Promotions means that the unit (company) is the promotion authority. By theory, the commander decides who gets promoted and who doesn't. In actuality, because there are no quotas for promotion for E-2s and E-3s, commanders pretty much promote everyone (as long as they do their job okay and don't get into trouble) who meet the "promotion criteria." The "promotion criteria" is set by the Marine Corps to ensure that the "promotion flow" remains stable, and everyone (regardless of MOS) can expect to be promoted at the same (approximate) time-frame.

The promotion criteria for promotion to the ranks of E-2 to E-3 are:

  • Private First Class (E-2) - Six months Time-In-Service (TIS) with six months Time-In-Grade (TIG)
  • Lance Corporal (E-3) - Nine months TIS and eight months TIG

Like the other services, it's possible to enlist in the Marine Corps at an advanced rank for certain accomplishments, such as college credits or participation in Junior ROTC.

However, while the Army allows advanced enlistment rank up to E-4, and the Air Force up to E-3, the Marines only allow advanced enlistment rank up to Private First Class (E-2).

Composite Score Promotions (E-4 and E-5)

The promotions to E-4 and above in the Marine Corps are competitive. That means there are only so many "vacancies" in each grade (above E-3) in each MOS (job).

The Marines need a system to decide, who, within each MOS are the ones to get promoted. For promotions to the ranks of Corporal (E-4) and Sergeant (E-5), the Marines use a system of composite scores.

First, to be eligible, Marines must meet the minimum Time-in-Service (TIS) and Time-in-Grade (TIG) requirements:

  • Corporal (E-4) - 12 months TIS and 8 months TIG
  • Sergeant (E-5) - 24 months TIS and 12 months TIG

Composite Scores are calculated each quarter (every 3 months).

Each quarter, the Marine Corps announces how many Marines in each MOS, will be promoted to E-4 and E-5. To determine who gets promoted, "Composite Score" points are awarded from each of the following areas:

GMP Score. The GMP Score is determined from promotion points awarded for Qualification Scores on the rifle range, and Qualification Scores from the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test. First, Rifle Range Scores are converted to Promotion Points. The Rifle Score Promotion Points are then added to the Promotion Points determined from the Physical Fitness Test Score. The result is then divided by 2.

Average Duty Proficiency Marks. Each enlisted Marine is rated periodically on their duty performance by their superior(s). These ratings are then used as part of the Promotion Composite Score system. All ratings are used since the last change in rank (promotion, demotion, etc). First, the ratings are averaged. The average of duty proficiency marks is then rounded off to the nearest 10th (4.44 would be 4.4; 4.45 would be 4.5). Finally, the result is multiplied by 100 to determine the Average Duty Proficiency Marks Composite Points.

Average Conduct Marks. Like the Average Duty Proficiency Marks, each enlisted Marine is rated periodically on their duty conduct by the same standards.

Time-In-Grade. Composite points are received for each month served in their current rank. Time in Grade (months) is multiplied by 5 to determine TIG Composite Points.

Time-In-Service. Composite points are received for each month of total active duty federal military service. Time in Service (months) is multiplied by 2 to determine TIS Composite Points.

Self-Education Bonus Points. Certain college courses, and credits, and military training courses result in composite points. Points are only awarded that were earned since the last change in rank (promotion, reduction, etc). The maximum number of "Self-Education Points" that can be used is 75.

Drill Instructor/Recruiter/Marine Security Guard Bonus Points. Commanders can award 100 bonus points for Marines who are serving as Drill Instructors, Recruiters, and Marine Security Guard assignments. Points are valid for one year after completion of the DI/Recruiter/MSG assignment, but once bonus points are used in a composite score and the Marine is promoted, those points may not be applied for subsequent consideration for promotion. The 100-point bonus will be revoked in the case of Marines who fail to perform duty successfully or complete their assigned tour of duty.

Command Recruiting Program Bonus Points. This is an interesting aspect of the Marine Corps Enlisted Promotion Program that isn't shared by any other service. In the Army, one can earn advanced rank by referring individuals who ultimately enlist in the Army. However, to earn this advanced rank, one must be in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP). The Marines take this a step farther. Lance Corporals and Corporals get promotion points for referring applicants who ultimately enlist in the Marine Corps DEP, into the Marine Corps Reserves, or on active duty in the Marine Corps. 20 points are awarded for each individual referred while serving in their current rank. The maximum number of points is 100.

Centralized Boards (E-6 through E-9)

For E-6 through E-9 promotions, the Commandant of the Marine Corps convenes a promotion board once per year. In order to be eligible to be considered for promotion by the board, Marines must meet the following Time-in-Service (TIS) and Time-in-Grade (TIG) requirements:

  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 4 years TIS and 24 months TIG
  • Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) - 6 years TIS and 3 years TIG
  • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 8 years TIS and 4 years TIG
  • Master Gunnery Sergeant/Sergeant Major (E-9) - 10 years TIS and 3 years TIG

You've probably noted that, like the Army, the Marines also have two ranks for E-8 -- Master Sergeant and First Sergeant. Just like Master Sergeants and First Sergeants in the Army, Master Sergeants and First Sergeants in the Marine Corps are paid the same (both are E-8s). However, the First Sergeant has a much larger degree of authority and responsibility. The First Sergeant wears special rank (with a diamond), and is the top enlisted leader in the unit. First sergeants work directly for the unit commander and are responsible for the morale, welfare, and discipline of all of the enlisted members assigned to the unit. Gunny Sergeants indicate on their proficiency reports whether they wish to be considered for promotion as a Master Sergeant or as a First Sergeant. For more details about First Sergeants, see Dedication to the First Sergeant and Day in the Life of a First Sergeant.

Professional Military Education

In addition to the Time-in-Service and Time-in-Grade requirements, NCO's must complete designated Professional Military Education (PME) courses in order to be eligible for promotion:

  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - The Marine Noncommissioned Officer (MCI) Course, The Noncommissioned Officer Basic Nonresident Program, or The Sergeants Nonresident Program/Sergeants Distance Education Program
  • Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) - Senior NCO (SNCO) Career Nonresident Program/SNCO Career Distance Education Program
  • Master Sergeant (E-8) - The SNCO Advanced Nonresident Program/SNCO Advanced Distance Education Program and The Warfighting Skills Program
  • First Sergeant (E-8) - Either the SNCO Career Nonresident Program/SNCO Career Distance Education Program or The SNCO Resident Course, and The SNCO Advanced Nonresident Program/SNCO Advanced Distance Education Program, and The Warfighting Skills Program, and The Staff Noncommissioned Officer Advanced Resident Course

Successful completion of Drill Instructor, Recruiter or Marine Security Guard school in the grades of corporal through gunnery sergeant can replace the requirement to complete resident PME courses, including the SNCO Advanced Resident course, provided the Marine has also completed the appropriate nonresident program.

The Promotion Board

The centralized promotion board generally consists of 16 to 18 members. The board is told how many to select for promotion in each MOS's to meet the projections for the next year. The board then selects the "best qualified" in each MOS to fill those slots. Marines do not appear in person in front of these promotion boards. Promotions are determined by the Marine's promotion records, which basically include everything in their military records, including an official photo, current and past assignments, military awards and decorations, and proficiency reports. In the course of their evaluations, selection boards consider demonstrated performance/achievement, leadership, professional and technical knowledge, experience (type and level), growth potential, motivation, military proficiency, physical fitness, personal appearance, conduct, moral character, and maturity.

Enlisted Marines are entitled to correspond directly with the President of the selection board considering their case for promotion. Personal correspondence may include, but is not limited to, letters to the President, copies of award certificates, school completion certificates, MCI’s, photographs, third party correspondence (letters of recommendation or explanation), etc.

Other individuals may also correspond with selection boards concerning an eligible Marine; however, this correspondence must be forwarded to the individual concerned for his or her approval/endorsement prior to submission to the board. Unsolicited letters (i.e., third party letters, copies of fitness reports, etc.) to selection boards will not be accepted unless endorsed by the Marine concerned. Correspondence not endorsed by the Marine will not be forwarded to the selection board.

The members of the board discuss and score each record, and then make a determination as to whether or not the individual should be promoted (remember, the board is told in advance exactly how many in each MOS can be promoted that year).

The Marine Corps then takes all the selectees (without regard to MOS), and assigns them a promotion sequence number, which is assigned according to seniority. For example, if it's the E-7 list, the Marines will give the lowest sequence number (0001) to the E-7 selectee with the most time-in-grade as an E-6. Each month, for the next 12 months, the Marines will then release the sequence numbers of those to be promoted during that month. This ensures a smooth promotion flow for the following 12 months (when the next board will meet and do everything all over again).

Below-the-Zone Promotions

Commanders can request that the promotion records of especially outstanding Marines be considered by the promotion board "below-the-zone." That means one year before the Marine would normally be eligible to be considered by the board for promotion. The selection board may select a maximum of five percent of the selections from the below zone, based on the Marine’s outstanding ability and career potential that completely justifies selection and advancement ahead of qualified Marines in the promotion zone. A selection of the below zone is based on the criterion that the Marine is so outstanding it would be against the best interests of the Marine Corps to not select the individual at this time.

Selection boards are obligated to select from the entire eligible population those Marines considered to be "best and fully qualified" to perform the duties and assume the responsibilities of the next higher grade. Selection boards are reminded that a selection from the below zone is, in essence, equivalent to a meritorious promotion and due care should be used in recommending these Marines for promotion to the next higher grade.

Meritorious Promotions

In addition to the "normal" promotion system, commanders can promote a very few, outstanding Marines via the Meritorious Promotion System. Marines can be promoted up to the rank of E-8 under this system. Promotions to the rank of first sergeant (E-8), however, cannot be made by meritorious promotion. Additionally, meritorious promotions to Master Sergeant (E-8) are limited to Marines in the Drill Instructor and Recruiter of the Year Programs.

There are no Time-in-Grade (TIG) requirements for meritorious promotions, but those promoted under this program must meet the minimum time-in-service requirements:

  • Private First Class (E-2) - No TIS requirements necessary
  • Lance Corporal (E-3) - No TIS requirements necessary
  • Corporal (E-4) - 6 months TIS** Sergeant (E-5) - 18 months TIS
  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 4 years TIS
  • Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) - 6 Years TIS** Master Sergeant (E-8) - 8 years TIS

Meritorious promotions are not used as rewards or when a personal commendation/award is appropriate. A meritorious promotion is based entirely on the Marine’s demonstrated capability to discharge the responsibilities and duties of the higher grade in a satisfactory manner.

Combat Meritorious Promotion Program. Commanding generals may award combat meritorious promotions to Private First Class (E-2) through Sergeant (E-5) in numbers that do not exceed the quarterly meritorious promotion allocations established by the Marine Corps Commandant's Office. In the cases of Sergeants (E-5) and Staff Sergeants (E-6), commanding generals make recommendations to the Commandant's office who approve or disapprove the recommendations for combat meritorious promotion based on meritorious action and performance in combat or performance under combat conditions.

Marines recommended for a combat meritorious promotion must have demonstrated outstanding leadership to a degree rarely attained by Marines of equal grade. Such leadership performance should justify the Marine being advanced in the grade ahead of all other Marines of the same grade, regardless of TIG or TIS. Determination of eligibility for promotion will be based on the command’s recommendation, combat performance, and past military record.

The recommendation for a combat meritorious promotion must be submitted within one year of the meritorious action and performance in combat or under combat conditions.

Non-combat Meritorious Promotion Program. Commanders may submit recommendations for non-combat meritorious promotion based on a single meritorious act to the Marine Corps Commandant.

Examples of acts that may qualify under the provisions of the Non-Combat Meritorious Promotion Program are:

  • The winner of a national or higher level marksmanship match (e.g., the National Trophy Individual Rifle Match; the National Services Rifle Championship; the National Pistol Championship.)
  • The winner of individual marksmanship matches in the Olympic Games, Pan-American Games, or International Shooting Union Matches.
  • The invention of a weapon or device, or the development of a new technique/process which is of Marine Corps-wide significance and produces substantial savings in time and money on a continuing basis.
  • Commanding generals may submit a recommendation for meritorious promotion to the grade of SSgt for the squad leader of the winning annual rifle squad (super squad) competition.

Criteria for Meritorious Recommendations. Commanders, in their determination of qualifications for meritorious promotions, are guided by, but not limited to, the following:

  • Marines must have completed the required PME for the grade to which being recommended.
  • The Marine’s performance of duty, in comparison with all known Marines of the same grade without regard to MOS/OccFld, must be to a significant degree superior to that of their peers in order to merit promotion over other qualified Marines in that grade, regardless of TIG.
  • The level and type of duty performed within the individual’s MOS/OccFld, as well as outside the MOS/OccFld, must be clearly superior to that of his or her peers.
  • Superior performance on unusual assignments that reflects favorably upon the Marine Corps.

Promotion Averages

So, how long does it take to get promoted in the Marine Corps? Remember, it's dependent on the particular MOS (job) and how many vacancies (due to separations and retirements) there are in that job. On average, however, one can expect to be promoted with the following time-in-service (2001 statistics):

  • Private First Class (E-2) - 6 months
  • Lance Corporal (E-3) - 14 months
  • Corporal (E-4) - 26 months
  • Sergeant (E-5) - 4.8 years
  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 10.4 years
  • Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) - 14.8 years
  • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 18.8 years
  • Master Gunnery Sergeant/Sergeant Major (E-9) - 22.1 years