As a transitioning military officer seeking an MBA, I didn’t realize just how “non-traditional” my background was for the MBA path. There seemed to be so much to navigate: school selection, admissions, career possibilities, imposter syndrome, the GMAT, resume writing, admissions consultant/no consultant, which consultant, imposter syndrome, GI Bill and the yellow ribbon program, and did I mention imposter syndrome? Ha! The list goes on.
Luckily, I found Angela very early on in this process, and she guided me through most of it to help me achieve acceptance to three top MBA programs, including Stanford GSB. So I am writing this article as a guide for military members (officer and enlisted!) transitioning out of the military and thinking about pursuing an MBA.
Resigning your military command to face the unknown
First up – the decision to resign. (This consideration is mostly for officers.) This might seem like an odd place to start, but there is an interesting characteristic about resigning that made it more difficult than I had anticipated. The Navy requires a submission of resignation from 9-12 months before your orders are up. This doesn’t seem so bad, but in practice what it means is submitting your resignation before you have any solid plans in place. This can feel like jumping off a cliff without a parachute.
Realistically, most officers will have to resign before they have a job offer, offer of admission from a grad school, or really any firm plans. This can feel daunting, and, for me, it led to a lot of second guessing what the right decision was. I knew I was competitive for grad school admissions, but I had no idea how to weigh the future military career I knew I could have against the many potential options that I was considering without knowing whether I could actually achieve those goals. Luckily – and you will hear Angela say this often – if you want to get an MBA, and you are committed to putting in the work, there is an MBA for you. I hope that the rest of this guide can help dispel some of the unknowns about this process so you have a little more confidence that you too can do it!
Choosing the right MBA programs to apply to with a military background
School fit is basically everything. As I mentioned before, if you want an MBA, you can find a program for you. I believe you need to look at school fit in two ways. First, and most importantly, you need to think about school fit in the way in which your school will be right for you. Some important questions to consider:
- How do you like to learn?
- What are your post-MBA goals?
- Where do you want to live?
- What are your values?
- What considerations does your spouse have?
- What do you want your peers to be like?
- Does the school have a strong and active veterans club?
- Does the school participate in the yellow ribbon program?
- What do you want the focus of your program to be?
These are all questions you should ask yourself when thinking about whether the school is right for you.
The next aspect of school fit is if you are right for the school. Angela has a lot of resources to help you figure this out. For example, MBAmo is one of the coolest tools in the entire business school application universe, and it really helped me understand this aspect of school fit. Once you have a game plan of which schools are right for you, you need to learn everything about those schools and demonstrate in your application that you are the right fit for them. Career Protocol has tons of resources and frameworks about how to do this, including several on the YouTube channel. Ok, enough about strategy. Let’s move on to more vet-focused topics.
Networking with other MBA vets
Networking. Everyone hates that word and often cringes when people use it. I know I did during my application process. But one thing you need to know: The veterans at the top business schools are very giving of their time and would love to hear from you. Reach out to them. Really. Go to the vets’ club website at the schools you are interested in and send them an email. They will almost always enthusiastically get back to you and offer to chat and answer any questions you have.
If they don’t get back to you, that is a great data point for you about the community at the school. I have had many conversations with prospective veteran candidates at Stanford GSB, and I think those conversations go a long way to helping you figure out school fit. Don’t look at it as a check in the box. Most vets you will be talking to don’t have any input into the admissions process (literally zero at GSB) and you can ask pretty much anything. I love to talk about the culture at GSB, the professors, the learning style, what my classmates are like, what careers and ideas people in my class are interested in, what the program focuses on, etc. These are great questions to ask the vets you connect with. It will give you a good idea about the culture and focus of the schools you are trying to decide between.
Tackling the GMAT while deployed
I prepared for the GMAT while on deployment. Studying for the GMAT in the middle of the night after I got off watch wasn’t necessarily fun, but I used the time to be able to focus uninterrupted by the normal distractions of life. I used two test prep companies, and after a major misfire with the first company, I discovered Target Test Prep. Their curriculum was leaps and bounds beyond the others I tried, and after about 4-5 months of studying and a few tries on the exam, I turned in a test score far above my target school’s average.
The key takeaway here: start early. I was a great standardized test taker in college entrance exams, so I was overconfident in terms of how difficult this exam would be for me. I started nearly a year in advance and only turned in a score that I was satisfied with about 5 weeks before applications were due. So get this out of the way while you are still in the service. Waiting to do this until after is a bad idea, as it will almost always take longer than you are estimating. If you find you are really struggling with the GMAT, try the GRE. Most top programs are totally agnostic about which you submit, and you want to submit the one you are best at. Check out Angela’s article about whether you should take the GMAT or the GRE for more specific advice on which test is best for you.
How to deal with imposter syndrome as a veteran applying to business school
You will hear a lot about imposter syndrome when you arrive at your program. Your classmates will likely be coming from some of the companies or careers you dream about joining. There are multiple Olympians and entrepreneurs in my class at Stanford. Don’t worry about any of that. The adcoms put veterans in the class because of our practical leadership experience and the worldliness we add to discussions in the classroom. You will be respected by your classmates, full stop. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better place for me than where I am right now.
One of the coolest features about an MBA program is that you learn almost as much from your own classmates as you do from the professors. You will find yourself sometimes the only person in the room who has led a team of people before. You will have a lot to give to your classmates while they give you a lot in return. I am not joking. One of my classmates coming from private equity helped me study so much for my modeling and simulation class that I passed the course easily after struggling at the beginning. That same classmate hangs out with the vets’ club sometimes to hear stories about deployment and leadership. From my perspective, collaborative culture like this is what you should be seeking as you assess school choices.
Should you hire an MBA admissions consultant if you are in the military?
Do you need a consultant? Which one? How do you represent yourself and your military career in the application? I was lucky to find Angela and Career Protocol early on in this process. There are a lot of resources out there for transitioning veterans. I will list the ones I find most valuable at the end of this article. But ultimately, I think an admissions consultant is only valuable for one core reason: helping you represent yourself authentically. If a consultant is claiming to have the secret answers about what the admissions committee is looking for, they are full of it and won’t be of any material impact to your application journey. Sure, they could spice up your essay with some buzzwords you may not know because you are coming from the military rather than consulting or PE. But is that what you need to get in? In my opinion no, what you need is to authentically represent yourself in your application and apply to schools that are the right fit for you. If you do so, you will see some success.
Here is how I look at this: I applied to 9 schools, got into Stanford GSB, UCLA, and Booth, waitlisted at Kellogg and Haas, and rejected without interview at four east coast schools. After debriefing these results with Angela, it boils down to this: I was accepted at schools where I would thrive. Schools that were a good cultural, intellectual, and professional fit for me, my background, and goals. It’s not about stats (as demonstrated by the fact that I got into the world’s most competitive MBA program and rejected or waitlisted at other less competitive schools). Admission is entirely about who you are and how you learn and how you will contribute to the community of the specific school you are applying to join. If a consultant can help you express that, without claiming to tell you the secrets and CERTAINLY without offering to write your application for you, then it might be worth a relationship with that person. Quite frankly, I learned a lot about myself during my journey working with Angela, and that was worth it just in and of itself, MBA results be damned. I have so much more confidence in who I am and what my military career brings to the table at an elite program after working with her. My imposter syndrome had pretty much entirely evaporated before I even enrolled.
Thank you for your service.
Building your military resume
One quick note on the resume portion of your application. Don’t use buzzwords, don’t use acronyms, and don’t look at it like a brag sheet from the military. The stuff that will impress a fellow veteran won’t mean much to an MBA adcom. Instead, all you need to do is focus on the impact you had while keeping it at a high school reading level. This way, the ideas translate rather than the flowery language we use in fitness report bullet points during annual reviews in the military. Career Protocol’s resume guide is a solid roadmap to the work you need to put into your resume. One more quick point: No matter how long your career was, you can put it on one page. I boiled a 12+ year career with 8 commands/duty stations down to one page (including extracurriculars!) and that worked at GSB. Don’t submit two pages. You don’t need that second page and it is never a value add.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon program
This might be the most important part to read before you decide to leave the military. The GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon programs are some of the most important aspects of your decision-making process. If you went to a service academy or ROTC, chances are you have used the Montgomery GI Bill already and you will need to use the Post 9/11 GI Bill for your MBA.
Most of the top programs also participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, but there is great variation in the amounts offered from each school, so do a ton of research on this. To be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon program, you need to be 100% eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. This means 36 months of active service AFTER you discharged any service commitment for ROTC or a service academy. For example, if you went to a service academy, you owe 5 years of payback time. Your GI Bill clock starts after those five years, so you are not 100% eligible until you have finished 8 full years of service.
The service branches know this and often structure their career pipelines to get a few more years out of you, but the difference can be VAST. Take, for instance, my current tuition at GSB: $76,950. The Post 9/11 GI Bill covers $26,381.37, if you are 100% eligible. The Yellow Ribbon program then allows the school to put up additional money that the VA will match. At some schools, this can be as much as full tuition. Booth and GSB both provide full tuition matching at the time of writing.
So, as I said, this difference can be vast. Let’s look at some example numbers. If you are not at 100% eligibility for the GI Bill, you do not qualify for the Yellow Ribbon program. For instance, if you are 80% eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, you would only be eligible for $21,105 of the base GI Bill in tuition assistance. If, instead, you made it to 100% eligibility, you would receive the base GI Bill amount PLUS the amount your school additionally commits to the Yellow Ribbon program and the VA match of those funds. At GSB this totals $76,950 in tuition assistance this year. Booth similarly matches the full cost of tuition and HBS comes close, but doesn’t match it entirely. That is a difference of over $50,000 per year if you are 100% qualified vs. 80%.
The Housing Allowance comes directly from the GI Bill, so the only thing that matters is GI Bill percentage eligibility. Current Palo Alto rates are ~$3,600 per month and you would receive $3,600 at 100% eligibility and about $2,880 at 80% eligibility. So think about the major difference between costs for varying levels of eligibility before separating. I recommend doing a cost-benefit analysis of what the total cost to you would be of staying until 100% eligibility and what the worth will be to you depending on the schools you are targeting.
If you are unsure about your eligibility percent, you can go to the VA and apply for benefits while still on active duty and they will let you know your current percent rate and when you will reach 100%. Be sure to research each individual school’s matching rate, too. Some only match $10,000 with the VA rather than full tuition, so you will still need to come up with the rest through a combination of savings, loans, or other scholarships/grants.
For more information, check out this blog post: How to Get a Free Veteran MBA Through the Yellow Ribbon Program.
Should you pursue an MBA as a military veteran?
If you take anything away from this long article, it’s that you can do an MBA if you want to put in the work to find the program that is the right fit for you and put together a compelling application. Lots of resources are out there to help you do just this, and the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon program can take something that is wildly expensive and bring it into reach for you financially.
Here are some of my favorite resources that helped me navigate this process:
- Career Protocol! (You are already here, so you probably know about these, but these are the absolute best resources you can find.)
- MBAmo – an odds calculator that is so much more and will explain to you school fit and the overall process in a way that makes SO much sense.
- Resume Protocol – the Career Protocol guide to writing a resume that is essential for us non-traditional folks.
- MBAMondays – Angela’s YouTube series that breaks down big questions in bite-sized videos with no-nonsense advice.
- Service2School.org – a nonprofit that seeks to help enlisted and commissioned service members make a transition to the world of education. They will pair you with someone who has been in your shoes for free advice on essays, resumes, and general application strategies and advice.
- Target Test Prep – as mentioned above, by far the best test prep company in my opinion and the prep program I used to beat GSB’s average GMAT score by a wide margin.
- The VA Yellow Ribbon Website – really, this is important to be intimately familiar with so you know what your education will cost you.
- Sitrepstosteercos – a blog and popular Instagram page that has lots of irreverent memes about B-School and tons of good advice. A great follow to get you steeped in the language of B-School and find out what other people are thinking about on their MBA journey.
- Poets and Quants – one of the only all MBA-focused media outlets that reviews programs, provides application wisdom, and covers all things in the MBA education world. Just be sure to ignore the ads for all those other MBA admissions consultants that aren’t up to par.
A personal note from the Career Protocol team
We absolutely LOVE working with military applicants. Our only filter for our client intake is whether or not someone plans to use their career in service of others in some way. There is no one who fits that bill better than folks who have already given their career to date in service of their country. So even if working with an admissions coach isn’t in your budget, please talk to us.
Sign up for a free MBA strategy call right here:
And we’ll give you as much free advice as we can in the call and let you know all about how we help you tell your most inspiring stories in a way that inspires confidence in your ability to lead in a civilian context.
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