Perhaps you are leaving active military service and hoping an MBA can help provide a smooth transition into civilian life. Or maybe you are pausing your active service to get an MBA with the goal of gaining skills to boost your military career. Will schools view your military service in a positive light? In a word, YES! The traits of a successful military service member will also help lead to success in business school and beyond: leadership, the ability to work and make decisions under pressure, and teamwork. Think about how you can capitalize on these traits to present yourself as a solid MBA candidate.
Just as you probably had to learn a new language full of acronyms when you joined the military, you will now have to learn the language of business and learn how to translate your military experiences into stories that will resonate with civilian admissions committees. These committees review all applications on a holistic basis with a focus on academics, work, leadership/community service, recommendations, and essays. Following is a brief run-through of these components and how they relate to active service members and veterans.
When reviewing an MBA application, the first things schools look at are the applicant’s GPA and test scores—either the GRE or the GMAT. Schools need to know that you can cut the mustard in the core and beyond. Your GPA is in the rearview mirror; although there is nothing you can do to change it now, there are ways to mitigate a less-than-stellar GPA. Admissions committees have been known to be a little forgiving of a slightly lower GPA for a vet; they know that if you were a ROTC student or an academy grad, you had a lot of other graduation requirements and obligations beyond the classroom. That said, if you don’t have a great GPA, spend time studying for the GRE or GMAT to ensure your test scores are solid.
In the military, the fruit salad pinned to your dress uniform told other service members a lot about you and your achievements. Civilians must rely on their resumes to tell their work histories. Obviously, your resume will highlight your military work, but you should make sure it resonates with civilian admissions committees and isn’t full of military jargon. Review your military evaluations to get a good sense of the achievements you should highlight on your resume and then reframe them for civilian readers, keeping success, teamwork, and leadership in mind. Military resumes are often light on quant experience. If you had budgetary responsibilities or you did forecasting or any other type of quantitative work, be sure to note that.
Here is where most military candidates really stand out. It is likely that you have earned leadership responsibilities in the military that would have taken many more years to achieve in private industry. If so, use this to your advantage. Throughout your service, you were probably responsible for training and preparing new recruits or more junior officers for wartime scenarios in addition to being responsible for expensive equipment and supplies. Think about any formal or informal mentoring you have done, and be sure to articulate in your writing how you are able to influence others without just relying on your rank to do so. Many deployed military members do volunteer work with their local communities, and these experiences can provide good examples to help schools see a different side of you.
For civilians and veterans alike, the best letters of recommendation come from people who have worked directly with you—who can speak to your work and how you measure up versus your peers. A direct supervisor is the best choice. These letters can make or break your chances of success. In my years as an admissions committee member at MIT, I read many letters that helped move a candidate from the ding pile to the interview pile—where they then had the chance to sell themselves to the interviewer. You should prepare your recommenders by sharing the things you’d like them to highlight without providing information in such a way that they could cut and paste it—and without actually writing the letters yourself. Let them know why you want to earn an MBA and how your target schools can help you achieve your goals.
This is the component of your application that is fully under your control and is another area where military candidates can stand out because you can pick the stories you will share. Given the nature of their work, military applicants can come across as overly serious. Although attempts at humor in essays very often fall flat, don’t be afraid to show your human side in your writing. You likely have some really interesting stories that can make your essays memorable and help set you apart from the pack. You might never want to appear vulnerable in the military, but showing that side of you in your essays can make you more relatable.
As you are starting the application process, contact your target schools. These days, all top schools have active veterans’ organizations and/or clubs. Reach out to current students who are or were in the military to get the inside scoop on what the school is like and how supportive it is of military students.
We at Stratus wish you the best of luck on your MBA journey! Thank you for the sacrifices you have made for our country.