Military to college student

by 1vet2another

As an active-duty enlisted Marine in the infantry (3/1 out of Camp Pendleton), I didn’t have a clue what life would be like after service.  I was months away from getting out.  A lot of Marines spent their last month’s assigned to time-killing positions like landscaping or lifeguard duty while their old unit prepared for the next deployment.  I wish the military put more emphasis on preparing us for getting out, just as they prepared us to enter the service.  In my opinion, the transition classes were a joke.  I continue to make the journey from an enlisted service member to civilian.   I have learned a lot along the way and hope to pass on that knowledge to my fellow veterans (still learning).

I received a Bachelor’s in Economics, worked for 2 Fortune 100 corporations (still working for one), and recently received my Master’s from Northwestern University.  This is blog #1 of hopefully many more.  I will share experiences and provide tips on each part of my journey.  We will discuss everything from preparing to leave service, college life, finding a career, getting hired, business tips, community involvement, etc.  My goal is to help you gain a competitive advantage, realize the power of your skills and experiences, and ultimately crush the transition.  It is important to note that I am not always right (wow).  These blogs are my own perspective from my own experiences.  I hope to spark conversation and want to hear your own opinion, whether you agree or not.  Also, if you want me to add a topic or go more in depth, I am willing to do that as well (use the comment section below). Let’s get started…

Whether you are 2 years away or 30 days from entering the civilian world, it is never too early to prepare.  The choices you make now will have a huge impact on your success after the military.  If your goal is to enter the “white collar” workforce, you almost certainly need higher education, specifically a bachelor’s degree.  Believe me, I get the argument that a degree doesn’t guarantee success, and there are numerous examples of people succeeding in corporations without it.  But the odds are not on your side with this strategy. A bachelor’s degree has quickly become a minimal requirement for getting your foot in the door at most businesses.

Competition is everywhere and the majority of your competition will have a bachelor’s degree (at least).   The name of the game is standing out among your peers.  A degree paired with your service will give you a competitive advantage. What you should avoid is taking time off.  The time right after service is not the time to take a break.  In addition to not wanting a gap in your resume, you are already slightly older than most students in school, it will only get harder to get back into the student mode the older you get. Keep the momentum going and get right into it. Remember, it is an extremely competitive environment and your time is limited.   Let’s review some tips to help you start the process of getting a Bachelor’s degree after the military…

1. Earn credit while you are still in

During your service, you may have opportunities to start chipping away at your degree early.  For me, I was able to register for a college course while on a Navy ship during deployment.  My platoon officer was the acting professor for a Psychology 100 level course, which would count towards general education required at a university.  The course was offered through Central Texas College and all assignments and tests were sent to the university for grading. This expedited course lasted about 6 weeks.  If you look for it, opportunities are everywhere for college level courses.  Find your local education information center on base and learn about your options (available schools/benefits).  Utilize the tuition assistance offered during service, it will help your limited GI Bill benefits take you further after service. Also, knocking these courses out now will only save you time when pursuing your degree after service. Taking an accredited course should reduce the amount of courses/credits you will be required to take at a university after service. It will also give you a taste, perhaps even confidence, about what it will take to be a college student.  Schedules for military men and women are hectic, but we all know down time exists.  Use this down time to your advantage!

Another way to start chipping away at your degree is utilizing the education and training you received in the military. Many of these are accepted by universities as credits towards your degree, which means you don’t have to start from scratch.  I believe I had around 20 something credit hours before I entered Western Illinois University.  In addition to the 3 hours from my psychology course on ship, I was able to add things like recruit training and courses from the learning management system.  Coming in with credit hours allowed me to graduate about a semester earlier compared to my peers.

2. Use your officers

Before you begin looking at schools, put some thought into your plan.  Are you positive about your career path after service?  Is there something specific you want to study?  Are you planning to attend as a full-time student or part-time?  Am I looking for a school with a great reputation?  Am I willing to get a student loan, how much can/should I be spending?  Will I get better benefits in one state over another?  Online or in-person (highly recommended)? Should I save money and go to a Community College or do I want the full University experience?  Are you completely clueless about what you are looking for?  There are thousands of universities in the U.S., many of which specialize in different areas.  You might want to be closer to home, in a city, or somewhere warm.  The point is you need to start filtering down your wants before going in.  You don’t have to know everything, that is where your officers come in.

I had no clue what I wanted, I just knew I should go to school and take advantage of the benefits offered.  I also knew it was important for my career, no matter what I chose (still had no clue about the career either).  I found officers to be great resources. Since all of our officers already had the bachelor’s degree, I decided to start asking questions.  They quickly helped me narrow down my selections and helped prepare for the dreaded application process.  They also helped me understand my benefits, in addition to pointing me to the experts.  Understanding the benefits in the state is critical.  It is also important to know the benefits that each school will offer/accept.  In addition to state and federal benefits, some universities will accept more military credit hours than others.  All of this information should go into your search.  Pro Tip: If you don’t have competent officers to talk to, utilize your base resources.  If that doesn’t work, use the online community.  Sending your questions out on LinkedIn or RallyPoint can give you a great deal of insight.   You should also reach out to the Veteran Resource Center for each school (most schools have these).  The VRC will be one of the best resources to help you through the entire process.

The application process takes persistence and patience.  Be prepared to get a few rejections.  I had less than average grades in high school, so transcripts weren’t going to help me. I also had average ACT test scores. Overall, I had to really leverage my military experience.  In a way, I had to prove that I was a completely different person because of the military and would excel as a student.  My best opportunity was to rely on the essay and recommendations.  One or two of my closest Lieutenants were critical to this process.  My essay had to persuade the reader that my work ethic, leadership skills, and other challenging experiences in the military would make me a successful student.  Learning how to highlight my soft skills (like leadership, work ethic, etc.) and connect them to my experiences (through the use of stories) was the difference maker.

Officers were also my only hope for letters of recommendation (another application requirement).  Once again, I asked a few of the Officers (who knew me well) to write recommendation letters.  I made sure they made one for each of the universities I was applying to.  Pro Tip: Have them write a generic one for your job applications after college, and save it somewhere safe! Like I said before, you will likely get some rejections, which is why I recommend finding a few different target schools to apply at.  In my opinion, the school reputation at the bachelor’s degree level is not as important as the master’s degree level.  So it is okay if you don’t get into that long shot school.

3. Find the right major, be open

Once you get accepted, it is okay to not choose a major right away.  In fact, if you aren’t 100% positive about your future path, I would recommend waiting at least a year before choosing a major.  For me, I took advantage of the general education portion of my degree to learn about different areas. In a way this allowed me to stick my toe in the water.  This is important when you feel like you forgot everything from high school.  I even had to take a math refresher course before entering college level math courses.  General education and different elective courses also allowed me to find the topics I had the most interest in, which is important if you want good grades to follow.  I chose Western Illinois University because they were very military friendly and a few hours from home (plus Illinois paid tuition for in-state public universities).  They accepted more credit hours from my service than most schools.  They also were well known for criminal justice degrees. At the time, I was almost positive that I would become a police officer (I was infantry, what else was I going to do?). Side note: Just because you had a specific role in the military, doesn’t mean you have to continue down that same path.  If you were in a logistics role, you can choose a career in finance after the military. It is all about leveraging the soft skills gained from service.  Instead of choosing my major from the beginning, I still decided to wait after recommendations from my surrounding network, including the school counselor.

I ended up loving the Economics courses (of all things) and decided to major in Economics.  Note to those considering criminal justice: having a criminal justice degree will help you enter this industry, but limit you in others, like business.  It also isn’t required to have this degree in order to become a police officer.  I spent a lot of time talking to different federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, etc., and they preferred degrees like accounting, finance and economics anyways (just a thought).   I never thought (along with the majority of those closest to me) that I would enjoy and major in Economics.  I am grateful that I didn’t choose criminal justice immediately.  Research, being patient, following my interest, and being open to new areas of interest  helped me find a degree that would lead into some great careers. It also helps to research the degrees you are looking into.  What kind of job/salary potential does it have?  How many that receive this major get a job immediately after graduation? Will this silo me in one industry?  With all that said, it is important to not wait too long.  You should at least pick a major by the end of Sophomore year (don’t become a permanent student).

This blog was meant to provide some high level tips for getting a bachelor’s degree after the military.  If asked, I am willing to go into more depth in any of the areas I covered.  Future posts will cover succeeding in school, finding a job, getting promoted, etc. Please let me know your thoughts!

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