Military MBA Applicants: It’s Not About You…Until Now

In the second of our new series of guest posts directed at military applicants, army veteran and Cornell MBA Peter Sukits shares candid, actionable advice for military veterans considering a transition to a full-time MBA program.
Pete is an aspiring career coach, author and finance professional living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He served for five years as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. After separating from active duty, he earned an MBA from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.
Through the process of transitioning, he learned many valuable lessons in the areas of expectations, mindset and preparation when undertaking the shift from military to academic and civilian life. We look forward to sharing his advice with you here.

With service in any branch of the military comes several unwritten rules. Many of us former commissioned and noncommissioned officers especially, know this – it’s just part of the culture.

  • On a training exercise, you don’t eat until all your soldiers have eaten.
  • You give credit to your soldiers at all opportunity when you are praised for doing a good job.
  • You don’t talk about money. You don’t talk about medals. Period.

All of these rules have a common theme – it’s not about you and your accomplishments. It’s about the unit. It’s about the mission. It’s about your soldiers. In your evaluation reports, your main successes are predicated upon how your team accomplishes its mission. If the team fails, you fail.

Former Army officer and Rhodes Scholar, Craig Mullaney put it very succinctly in his book The Unforgiving Minute about his experience in Ranger School. It was stressed to him that he wasn’t there for an award or a career booster. The skills he was learning, and the experience he was going through was for the benefit of his future soldiers.

In the military realm, you’re rewarded for selflessness and ostracized for self-promotion.

advice for military mba applicants

Sukits in Afghanistan

In my humble opinion, this is one of the single most difficult concepts with which newly separated veterans must come to grips. Once you have made the decision to enter an MBA program, you’ve shed the weight of your subordinate unit off of your shoulders, and are focused on improving yourself and beginning a new career. To do that, it’s going to take a lot more than great academic performance and experiences to achieve your new goals.

You need to make sure people know about your great academic performance and experiences.

Maybe it’s because a career path in the military is structured and almost preset, or maybe it’s because everybody wears their “resume” on their uniform. For better or for worse, there is no need to sell yourself while serving. So naturally, this will be an area where at best you will need some practice, and at worst…an area that will make you cringe in your desert boots.

As I found out very quickly, the art form, or “soft skill”, of selling myself, which flies in the face of the environment I had just left, is essential for success in business school and the business world. You need to be able to communicate your experiences to your classmates, your recruiters, your interviewers, your mentors etc. Anyone that has a vested interest in seeing you succeed needs to know what makes you, you.

No, it’s not what your team did. It’s what you brought to the table personally that ensured mission success. For the first time in a long time, it’s about you.

Your opportunities to practice and implement this skill will come in many forms. Primarily, job and admissions interviews will require to literally trace your career for the past several years – that famous “walk me through your resume” question, among others. These will often be the “make or break” events that will secure you admission or the position.

Likewise, networking is key in your MBA journey (more specifics on that topic later). Often times, the people you are looking to connect with at a career event, at a cocktail reception or at a company visit, won’t know you at all and they will not have seen your resume. This is not to say that you need to blow your horn so loudly that security needs to escort you out. But they need to get a picture of what you’ve done and what your intentions are.

Where to start? It’s going to be uncomfortable at first. One of the best things that my colleagues and I have done is literally write down what you are going to say to someone. Write down your answers to interview questions. Write down how you’ll introduce yourself to a recruiter. Write down the words you will say to a 2nd year you’re looking to meet. Then, say it. Then, say it again. Practice with people. It’s going to sound awkward at first, but eventually you’ll get used to it. By the time the real thing comes around, you should be in a position where you’re able to effectively market yourself without coming across as rehearsed, and without feeling arrogant.

Tasks to Prospective Students:

  • Take every opportunity to interact with potential classmates. If you know any veterans that are already in business school or have gone, reach out to them for mentorship. They can help you navigate this challenge and coach you along.
  • Immerse yourself as much as you can in the culture of the school you’ll be attending (if you’ve decided on it). What is the reputation of the student body among companies? Learn how you can position yourself for success among your future classmates.
  • Take your Officer Evaluation Report (OER), or NCOER and rewrite out all the things you accomplished in your most recent rating period. You can also do this with your academic record. Even if it is just a simply list of statements. Frame the statements entirely in terms of what you have done, nobody else. Practice getting used to telling folks about this. The idea is to get comfortable in this frame of mind.

It’s about you now, and that’s a great thing, because you have a lot to bring to the table. All you need to do is embrace the new challenge.

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