The Secret to Applying to College as a Military Veteran

Benefits and obstacles veterans face when seeking higher education

Posted May 26, 2016

Rob Henderson
Source: Rob Henderson

As service members consider the choices available to them when they transition out of the military, many are faced with a difficult decision. The path to civilian life is not always straightforward, and the job security of the military appears alluring when one considers the unknowns of easing back into civilian life. In this post, my aim is to use my story of transitioning from the Air Force to Yale University to help fellow veterans realize their options in the realm of education.

Like many fresh-faced service members straight out of high school, I planned to attend college after completing a four-year enlistment in the Air Force. And again, a story familiar to all veterans, plans change and unexpected re-enlistments occur. Seven years later, the time had come: My contract was ending in one year. Finally, I could pursue my original plan of attending college and I had an abundant resource to fund this next phase of my life: The Post-9/11 GI Bill. While I understood the worth of this asset, I was unsure how to go about maximizing its value.

One thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to aim high (no pun intended for my fellow Air Force veterans). I had developed a love for knowledge during my years in the military. I had read hundreds of books, took night classes, and watched free lectures on YouTube during downtime on deployments. I was not the best student in high school but I had built a strong GPA taking part-time college courses while I served. My plan was to be accepted into the best possible school. Still, the application process for selective colleges can be daunting—especially for a first-generation applicant with an unusual backstory. Moreover, there appeared to be few resources that offered guidance to nontraditional applicants.

There were two obstacles in my path as I considered my decision to attend college. The first is that there were not many places to turn for advice on how to apply to a top tier college. In fact, while most of my enlisted colleagues were supportive of my efforts, a few senior enlisted individuals seemed skeptical when I told them the schools to which I had applied. To some of them, a veteran attending a top tier college was outside the realm of possibility.

The second obstacle was the transition assistance class designed to help veterans ease into civilian life. The military now requires individuals to attend this class, which primarily focuses on seeking civilian employment after leaving the military, rather than capitalizing on education benefits. The class instructor took it for granted that the majority of veterans in our class would elect to work rather than earn a degree. During a resume workshop, I asked the instructor, an employee for the Department of Labor, if we could discuss college applications. He recommended I stop by his office after the class. I took him up on the offer. He spent 15 minutes extolling the wonderment of the GI Bill but had no insight on how to apply to college as a veteran.

Luckily I had found two programs that offered exactly the sort of guidance I needed. The first organization is the Warrior-Scholar Project, an academic workshop held at universities across the country geared toward helping veterans rediscover the academic skills necessary to succeed in college. The second program is called Service to School, which links veterans who are currently attending college with a veteran seeking higher education. The student veteran acts as a mentor, guiding the applicant through the college admissions process. I now work as a mentor for Service to School, and recently helped a former Marine receive admission to Brown University.

It is important to do your research when preparing for your transition. One question often raised by fellow veterans is how they can afford to attend certain universities. The GI Bill covers the cost of tuition for state universities, they say, but how can veterans afford an expensive private school? The answer is that many colleges offer the Yellow Ribbon program, which is designed to offset remaining costs that the GI Bill does not cover. Moreover, certain schools have generous financial aid policies. Scour the websites of colleges that interest you, and if you have specific questions, do not hesitate to contact them.

As a college-bound veteran, you must create opportunities for yourself. Do not be reluctant to seek help, and say yes when others offer it. While military promotes collaboration and teamwork, sometimes veterans are so self-reliant that it verges on impediment. Someday you will be in a position to offer help to others. Until that point, accept the generosity of people in such positions. In a future post, I’ll discuss why veterans hold themselves back from applying to top tier colleges. These include class differences, too few success stories, and mindset barriers.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.

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