Having worked with numerous military veterans as they begin to transition to college, I know firsthand how challenging and daunting this shift can be. In particular, many veterans struggle to include their military experiences and accolades within the context of a personal statement, often assuming it is at worst a shot against them (proving they have been removed from school for way too long), or at best an aberration from a “normal” academic background that should, therefore, be glossed over in any personal statement or interview.
4 (incorrect) assumptions about your military experience
While it is understandable for veterans to feel that their military service is unusual, a nontraditional, and in this case military, background can be tremendously beneficial in the application process. Here are some typical assumptions veterans make about themselves in academia, followed by an expert response to each and its validity.
Serving in the military means I’m less prepared for college because I haven’t been in high school in X number of years, and the other applicants are coming straight from thirteen years of schooling!
While you might feel less prepared, all veterans who are high school graduates have still had the same amount of schooling as a recent high school graduate. In fact, the years after high school in which a veteran has served in the military are years of schooling of a different sort. These are years full of growth, maturation, and yes, education which any college would love to hear about. You might have learned all about sea navigation in the navy, or strategies for nontraditional combat in a war zone.
NOTE: Emphasizing the level of responsibility you carried in the military is a crucial way to demonstrate your readiness for college. Be careful to specify whether you were ever in combat and/or what other responsibilities you shouldered. You will have learned a great deal about teamwork and self-reliance, as well as what it means to devote every ounce of energy to a single task or physical challenge in a way most people are never asked to do. Consider your experiences and what you learned from them, for they, like high school classes, all count as educational preparation for college.
I am now X number of years older than most 17- or 18-year-old college applicants. Doesn’t that make me look strange, or delayed in reaching this goal?
If you spent the last X number of years sitting in your parents’ basement playing video games, then yes, you do look strange, perhaps lazy, and you will need to work very hard to present a good case for applying to college later than a usual applicant. However, if your age is older than the average college applicant because you decided to commit years of your life to defending your country or bettering the world, and in so doing you matured and learned valuable lessons, there could be no better reason to have delayed college!
It is all about your explanation for delaying college; a delay in and of itself is not a concern. It can, in fact, be an opportunity to share the unique experiences that have shaped you, and that you have contributed to.
College seems to be all about exploring new ideas and topics, yet I just spent many years in a system (i.e. the military) in which I was largely told what to do and what to focus on. How do I still make myself appealing to a college that values curiosity?
If your years in the military have drained you of every ounce of curiosity you ever had, then you are right: you will not seem to be a very appealing candidate, especially at a liberal arts college. However, assuming you do possess a decent dose of curiosity and eagerness to learn, you can leverage your military experience in two different ways for this very purpose:
- You might think about the way you were trained to think in the military and how it differs or is similar to the thinking and exploration that will be encouraged in college. Was there value to being told what to do all the time? Has it made you hungry for the flexibility and exploration that college allows? Has it given you any skills that might help you to succeed in college?
- You might think back to your military service and the instances when, even in a very top-down system, you needed to make a decision, guide a group through a difficult training, encourage others when things got rough, and so forth. When did you reveal your individuality within such a conforming system? What does that say about the person you are?
How do I know I’d be a good fit for college? I’m already married, in my 30s or 40s, and wouldn’t fit in with dorm life, Greek life, etc.
While it is true that a majority of college students in the U.S. are coming straight from high school and will indeed live in dorms and partake in all activities together, that is by no means the rule. In fact, your life experience might be very compelling and interesting to both your professors and your peers.
Your decision to pursue college later in life is often a decision that is deeply respected in the academy. This is not to say that your experience will be like that of the typical student, because it won’t. However, many students at all sorts of schools choose to commute from home, to live off-campus, to work part-time and thus limit their extracurricular involvement, and make other such decisions. You will never be alone in your decision to live a more independent life away from the grounds of your university.
Bottom line: Show that your experiences are valuable
When applying to college from the military, you must show that you have had experiences that college and universities value. In your personal statement, highlight your leadership, teamwork, travels, and lessons learned in challenging situations. Show that you, as a nontraditional applicant, have a wealth of experience to contribute to your school, class, and community. If you do, your personal statement will enhance your chances of acceptance and facilitate your transition from the military to the academy.
Do you want to optimize your college application to highlight how your military experience contributes to your competitiveness? Our expert advisors can guide you through the admissions process, helping you create an application that truly represents you at your very best, one that will excel at your target school and beyond. Check out our College Admissions Consulting & Editing Services to learn more about how we can help you get ACCEPTED.
With 30 years of career/admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business and College of Engineering, Dr. Karin Ash has met with thousands of recruiters seeking to hire the best students from leading schools. She has served as a member of the admissions committee, ensuring that the applicants who ultimately enroll are a good fit for the program and prime candidates for employers. Karin has been a Consultant with Accepted for 8 years and has facilitated students’ entry into top engineering, data science, MBA, and other STEM graduate MEng, MS, and PhD programs. Her clients have been accepted into MIT, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, UPenn, and USC. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
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