Overcome 3 MBA Application Challenges Facing Military Veterans

In honor of Veterans Day, we are re-posting a story from earlier this year with advice on transitioning from the military to business school.

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

When it comes to some of the key qualities elite business school admissions officers are looking for in MBA applicants – demonstrated leadership and management skills, an ability to motivate and work well in a team and international and cultural awareness – military veterans typically display them in spades.

Benjamin Faw, HBS MBA ’14

Coming from the armed forces rather than a civilian career path prior to business school can give rise to certain difficulties when drafting an application, however. Let’s take a look at some common areas in the application where veterans face challenges and find out how to mitigate them.

1. Difficulty explaining experiences in civilian terms: Top MBA programs welcome military applicants and offer seats to veterans each year. So while it’s logical to assume the admissions committee is very familiar with the perspective of applicants with a military background, your application essays, resume and interviews need to make sense to a civilian reader.

“Language and terms from the military are often hard to translate into civilian terms, making it hard to communicate what you accomplished and why it matters,” says Ben Faw, an Army combat veteran from West Point who received his MBA from Harvard Business School this spring. “With limited experience in telling their stories to the civilian world, sometimes a veteran will have trouble clearly and succinctly explaining their own personal story.”

To counteract that, military veteran applicants should enlist trusted advisers outside of the military to proofread essays and help translate any military jargon in the MBA resume into plain English. Ask yourself if what you were writing would make sense to a civilian with no military experience.

Weaving stories from the military into your MBA essays is expected and encouraged, particularly where they illustrate leadership accomplishments in a high stress environment, or how you persevered in the face of setbacks. But your essays should also highlight experiences outside of the armed forces, either during college or related to your extracurricular interests.

Veteran applicants often worry about presenting a clear, concise career goal post-MBA, especially if they have little experience in business. This is not as critical as you might think, since many MBA students change industries entirely as they explore the myriad possibilities offered at business school. Begin by clearly articulating why you’re leaving the military, and why an MBA is necessary to achieve that goal.

[Follow these steps to develop a personal brand as an MBA hopeful.]

2. Trouble handling recommenders and interviews: When trying to decide whom to approach for a letter of recommendation, think about people who have encouraged your development as an individual and leader, and, as you prepare to leave the service, ask if they would provide a supportive reference.

I suggest all applicants create a recommender package, which contains instructions on the process, a reminder list of your strengths with on-the-job examples as well as a growth area you’re working on, and a summary of your career goals that the recommender can use as a reference.

While military applicants may feel uncomfortable approaching a senior officer with this level of coaching, leaving matters to fate could result in a lackluster recommendation, especially if the officer doesn’t have a lot of experience writing letters of recommendation. In most cases, your recommenders will appreciate your assistance and thoroughness, and will produce a better recommendation on your behalf.

If you’ve passed that first important hurdle and are invited to interview, congratulations!

Interviewers will usually be very interested in learning about your military experiences, so capitalize on that enthusiasm. Organize your thoughts by jotting down all of your really cool stories. Then, for each one, write a brief summary of what you did, how it made a difference and what you learned from it. Practice mock interviews with family and friends until you feel at ease discussing your military experience in a way everyone will understand.

And remember, it’s okay to talk about your successes in the first person rather than recounting everything as a team victory. This is how you differentiate yourself and reinforce your personal brand.

3. Not knowing how to maximize your resources: The single best resource for applicants coming from the armed forces is the MBA veterans club of the schools you’re considering. Those who have gone before you and succeeded are almost always willing to go above and beyond to share their advice on what has worked for them.

From providing essay and resume tips to offering an authentic view of the veteran experience on campus, these groups are your go-to resource for insight into the school and guidance for your application.

Many schools waive the application fee for U.S. military members and veterans who have served on active duty, and the federal agency Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, known as DANTES, will reimburse the GMAT or GRE General fee for eligible military personnel. Also, pre-MBA candidates can take advantage of boot camps and paid fellowships through MBA Veterans during the summer before their first term.

An MBA is a great next step for transitioning veterans no matter what branch of service they come from. When asked what advice he would offer future applicants, Faw says veterans should know, “There is something special about you, your experience in the military and what you want to do next. Make sure your application reflects those unique aspects that make you who you are. Authenticity is awesome.”


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