Make Your College Application Stand Out

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Many veterans seek to use their GI Bill benefits for college after transitioning. It’s one of the best benefits available to service members: free (or at least steeply discounted) education is available only to a very few people in America today. But to get into the college of your dreams, you must have an application that will stand out and impress an admissions committee. Give yourself the best choice of colleges by following these tips.

1. Craft a narrative.

Everyone knows that to get a call-back on a job application, your resume must make an explicit, clear and easy-to-follow case that you can meet every requirement of the job posting. Unfortunately, the “requirements” for admission into college are not so cut-and-dry.

But if you look past the rhetoric of college and trade school brochures about finding your calling or learning something great, you’ll see what the real admissions requirements are: colleges want someone who can pay (check: GI Bill and/or student scholarships); they want someone who will graduate (colleges are graded on retention and graduation rates); and they want someone interesting. Your application must convince the admissions committee that you are a lock to graduate and that your military experience will make you and the students around you better.

Where many veterans fall short in college applications is in the narrative. Not used to discussing themselves, or making a case for themselves, they tend to put together a complete application that is nevertheless disorganized. One essay will focus on military service or stories, another will indicate vague plans in the civilian world and a third will argue for the importance of education. An application like that gives the impression that you’re searching for what to do next, and college seemed like a good idea — hardly an indication that you’ll put in work and effort and be a credit to the school.

Instead, you want your essays, interviews and recommendations (more on that in a bit) all to tell a story about your life leading up to the application. What made you join the service, what you learned in the service, your experiences during deployments — they all should lead to a reason why you are pursuing this education.

And you should talk about your desired major or course of study like it’s what you’ve wanted to do since you knew what college was: give the impression that your academic goals are clear, well-considered and consistent with your life up to this point. That gives admissions officials a nice fuzzy warm feeling that you’re going to graduate with good grades and succeed, and are likely to become a lucrative donor late in life.

And by the way, writing that you want to major in accounting on an application does not, repeat does not, lock you in to anything. Portraying yourself as someone with a clear vision for your future is accurate, even if you’re making your best guess on what you want to study. Certainly something may happen that will cause you to change your mind, but that’s in the future. Remember, you’re selling yourself as a sure thing to pay, to graduate and to make your class of students better.

2. Don’t overemphasize your military service.

Some veterans believe that others, including famously liberal colleges, should and do appreciate their military service. They therefore make sure to bring their service into every conversation (and put it in every part of their application). But they are making the mistake of believing that one’s military service gets you “in.” Colleges, like jobs, won’t hire you simply because you’re a veteran (even because you’re a combat veteran). They need to see something else like competence, experience and ambition — things you will show them you have by your past achievements, either on a resume or college application.

Your military service is a part of who you are, and it is definitely interesting to admissions committees: it shows a breadth of experience and a willingness to dedicate yourself that they very much want in students. But it should shape you, not define you. You may have no other experience to reference in essays other than military experience, and that’s fine — but you want to make the case that you want an education due to things you learned/discovered in your military service, not that you’re a veteran and therefore they should accept you.

3. Write essays consistent with your narrative.

College essays are much like job interview questions. They are often very similar in tone, and they’re designed to reveal your character. They may ask about your future goals, or your most formative experience or even what makes you happiest (some college essay questions are very trivial). But whatever the essays want from you, answer them in reference to your narrative. That gives your application consistency and cements an image of you in the mind of the admissions committee — the image you want them to have.

Also, don’t copy and paste between essays on the same application. It’s easy to imagine that several paragraphs from one essay will fit into another essay, but that kind of shortcut will get your application kicked out in a hurry. Write each essay as its own effort, and while you may say similar things (because you’re referencing your narrative), making each essay unique will impress the admissions committee. If you want to recycle essays from one college’s application to another, well, that’s a different story. Lessen your work and copy away!

4. Make sure your recommendations fit your narrative. 

Veterans often get their “buddy” to write them a recommendation. This is dangerous because the things that make you a success to your buddy, your partner in crime and so on, don’t often translate well on paper and may not portray you as a mature, certain-to-be-successful student. You want to make sure your recommendations come from people for whom you worked, primarily. Usually you’ll need two recommendations.

Also, when you ask for a recommendation, give the writer guidance on what you want them to say. Maybe you want them to emphasize how you stepped in as squad leader that one time, or how you solved that tricky network or maintenance issue. Whatever you want them to say, however, it should link to your narrative. And when those admissions officials consider your application, they will perceive you as mature, goal-oriented and intriguing — something different and special. That’s how you stand out and earn acceptance into college.

Read Next: Applying to College as a Veteran

military to civilian transition guide


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