How to use your Veteran experience in college application essays

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Veterans have a unique set of circumstances to draw upon when putting together their application essays. A Veteran is likely to have been many places, in many situations, and seen many things that the average high school senior simply can't imagine and for which he or she has no frame of reference.

Here are a couple of tips for how best to use your military experience in your application essay—and (perhaps more importantly) some thoughts on what not to do.

DO mention your leadership ability

Leadership potential might be the number one character trait that schools are looking for in applicants. Proof that you've taken on serious responsibility and have a high level of maturity is a good indication for those in admissions that you will take your education seriously and will go on to do great work post-graduation (and then make millions and donate back to the school, of course). As a Veteran, it is likely you have led a command of some kind—make sure this is touched on in your essay piece.

DO NOT tell this boring story: I went to teach them… but it turned out to be they who taught ME

There's a particular essay that all adjudicators and admissions committees dread. It goes like this… I was employed to teach people/children in a remote village/urban center/small rural area. I went into it thinking I would be educating them, but in the end it was I who learned from them.

Admissions officers hate this essay. Why? Because it doesn't really say anything about you as a person, and the story is not as original as you might think. Careful of this theme… it's deadly.

DO talk about challenges you faced

It's very likely you have dealt with questions and situations that most people have not. Illustrate how you used quick thinking and skills to overcome problems, and how you became more mature because of these decisions.

DO NOT get too dark. Leave out deep personal tragedy

Of course it's good to talk meaningfully about your experience, but this can go too far. Abuse, depression and death are striking subjects and therefore you might think they are good fodder for an essay. After all, the idea is to provoke a response, to make sure you are memorable. Unfortunately, an essay that focuses on these topics does not serve you well. Similarly, psychological trauma that may have been suffered during military service is not great for your essay, not because it's not important to your character, but because it tends to take the reader out of the narrative and usually doesn't connect very effectively to why you'll be a good candidate for college. So often essays that focus on dark subjects go down a trajectory that leads away from your achievements, which is what these pieces should highlight. Never stray from a path that keeps you talking about why you are anIDEAL candidate.

DO tell your specific story

It's important to tell your story—not just one of general military life. Your narrative may seem relatively commonplace to you because it was spent in the company of people who were participating in similar activities, but the details of your service are unique and interesting to admissions officers.

DO NOT feel like it is out of place

Some people with military background feel awkward about telling their story, feeling it is exploitative. Not only is it sensible to use your military life in your essay, it's likely if you went into the service right out of high school, you don't have much else to discuss.

DO highlight technical skills you learned

In your years in the military, you likely were given highly technical jobs and responsibilities that will look very impressive to laypeople. Make sure to talk about these positions and give some details as to how these might help you in a future career post-graduation.

DO NOT forget to seek help

If you need advice or just someone to go over your application with you, talk to an education services officer. And make sure you visit the military education center and explore the VA website. There you'll find insight on how best to utilize the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill (also known as Chapter 33 benefits), the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program and other programs designed to help Veterans finance their education.

Full understanding of these programs might be a good element to include in your essay, but more importantly, be sure to take full advantage of these programs.

And finally, DO get college credit and discuss that on your essay!

Submit a DD-214 form to make sure that your full military experience is included with your applications. Some of your experience might help you gain college credit and that might be a selling point to universities to which you apply.

Follow these tips, and you're sure to have a stellar application. And you can feel confident in the fact that there are many institutions that are eagerly awaiting to accept young men and women who have served our country.

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