How, Why MBA Applicants Should Highlight Military Experience

MBA hopefuls with military experience should know that graduate business school admissions officers are often thrilled to receive applications from military veterans and active-duty military personnel.

MBA admissions experts say MBA candidates from the military tend to have unique work experience and an interesting outlook on life that is distinct from that of their nonmilitary peers, so admitting these candidates enhances the diversity of an MBA class.

Alex McKelvie, associate dean for undergraduate and master’s education with Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, describes a military background as a “major plus” in the MBA admissions process.

“We are looking for students who have leadership experience and can work as part of a team,” McKelvie wrote in an email. “These are fundamental skills for business and being able to demonstrate that in previous military experience, such as having worked as an officer, is important.”

[Read: How MBA Applicants With Military Backgrounds Can Fund Their Education.]

McKelvie says military MBA applicants do face a unique obstacle to success, though, because in the military, people are trained to be humble and not to brag, but it’s important for these applicants to fully and clearly describe their credentials in their MBA applications. “In many cases, they are underselling themselves and their accomplishments — they need to be a bit more braggadocios,” McKelvie says.

MBA degree recipients who served in the military before business school say that any MBA applicant with military experience should recognize that the discipline and grit cultivated in the military is useful in business.

“A lot of military people are thrust into very challenging situations, war or not, at a very young age. And a lot’s expected of you, and the standards are high,” says René Bruer, a Marine Corps veteran and co-CEO of Tallahassee, Florida-based financial advising firm, Smith Bruer Advisors.

Bruer, who suffered an injury while he was in the military, says he included information about the adversity he had faced as a result of that injury in his MBA application to California Lutheran University.

“Some of these injuries will set you back, and they’ll set you back physically, and emotionally and discussing how you’ve overcome them, I think, that’s a tremendous benefit, because it takes a lot to overcome that,” he says.

Bruer adds that military personnel often worry that a lack of civilian work experience will keep them out of business school, so they refrain from applying for an MBA, believing they are not ready.

“I think a lot of veterans are afraid and say, ‘Hey, you know, I need to get some quote-un-quote real-world work experience just in this field,'” he says. “But I would say, you know, don’t wait. Go out there. Put yourself out there, and try, and communicate with the schools.”

[Read: 3 Research Tips for Veterans Applying to Business Schools.]

Nick Armstrong, the senior director for research and evaluation at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, says that MBA applicants with a military background tend to have more compelling leadership experience than their nonmilitary peers.

“Veterans bring unmatched leadership and a wealth of lived professional experiences that are highly valuable in classroom settings, particularly those focused on management, strategy, and human resources,” Armstrong wrote in an email. There are no industries where young people are granted as much responsibility at such a young age as in the military, Armstrong says.

“In addition, by design, the military reassigns service members into new roles every few years, thereby providing new experiences to learn and grow in different positions,” Armstrong stated. According to Armstrong, it is typical for young veterans to have an abundance of organizational management experience, much more than is typical of people their age.

However, MBA admissions experts say that although most business schools value military service, it is still important for military MBA applicants to clearly explain what they did for the military.

McKelvie emphasizes the need for military MBA applicants to avoid using military jargon and to use layman’s terms to spell out precisely what skills they gained through military service, since admissions officers who do not have military backgrounds may be reading their application files.

“Specifically, military applicants need to more fully explain what leading a platoon actually means, or learning to improvise to accomplish a mission, or dealing with great uncertainty or making truly tough decisions that have serious implications,” McKelvie says.

“In many cases, military applicants take these for granted as part of their jobs — but these types of experiences really put them at an advantage when compared to others,” he says. “My advice is to really explain what the different tasks, assignments and levels of responsibility really mean. And, even as the leader of a team, explain your role. Don’t oversell it — but don’t deflect the level of accomplishment either.”

Armstrong suggests that military MBA applicants should note instances during their military service when they demonstrated creativity and flexibility.

“While the military is a large bureaucracy, it’s a common myth that veterans just follow orders,” Armstrong says.

“At the small unit level especially, junior leaders are constantly put in positions to figure out how to lead others and get the job done in the face of constrained resources. This translates well in any business environment. And it’s no surprise that veterans pursue business ownership at higher rates than non-veterans,” he says.

Mark Testoni, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is now president and CEO of SAP National Security Services, says military MBA applicants should be ambitious when deciding where to apply.

[See: 10 Mistakes to Avoid in MBA Applications.]

“Probably the most important advice I would give to anyone is reach for your goals,” says Testoni, who got his MBA from Southern Illinois University. “Stretch beyond them. So don’t hesitate to apply somewhere that you think is on the edge,” he says. “If you honestly think that you can sell yourself, go for it. I think that’s an important piece of advice for anybody.”

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