Why The MBA Is An Ideal Way For A Military Veteran To Transition To Civilian Life and a Business Leadership Role
Maria |
November 10, 2022
As we celebrate Veterans Day, our hosts John, Maria, and Caroline will discuss more about vets in this episode of Business Casual, the podcast that covers all things related to MBA / business school admissions.
Keep reading to see which topics we covered in our discussion, check out 2 organizations helping veterans pursue higher education, or jump straight to the podcast directly (just want to skim what we talked about? You can jump to the transcript)!

  • Why is pursuing an Masters in Business Administration (MBA) one of the best paths for military veterans transitioning back into civilian life? What career opportunities in business leadership roles are available for veterans?
    • (Here’s a hint: Graduate business school can be a clean slate / fresh start on a business career! Many employers, in particular, management consulting companies and investment banks, are more than happy to hire veterans who have gotten MBAs! They see you as a potentially perfect combination of real-world leadership experience, combined with a formal management education. It’s a given that you have discipline, strong work-ethic, and often, have deep experience leading groups of your peers in performing difficult tasks!)

  • What are the advantages or relevance of being a veteran when applying for an MBA in terms of experience, reputation, and knowledge?
  • How can a veteran best describe or explain their experiences in their MBA admissions essays, resume, and interview to maximize their chances of acceptance?
  • What should former members of the armed forces consider NOT doing as part of their graduate school applications? That is, what are the most common mistakes?
  • Is one type of experience more valuable than others?
    • (e.g. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines? Training others? Leading them in to battle? Running operations on a base? Becoming an instructor at a service academy? Working on designing new technologies, such as defense or aerospace?)

  • Speaking of the military service academies such as West Point, Annapolis, etc., do graduates of those programs have preference or an advantage when compared to veterans who might have done ROTC at another college?
    • (Hint! Not necessarily — it’s what you did in the military, how much leadership you demonstrated, that matters more than where you did your undergraduate degree!)

  • As a veteran who has been shaped and molded by experience throughout his or her time in the military, what are the transferable skills or topics of discussion that you can bring to the class if you get admitted?

If you’re a veteran interested in getting an MBA to transition into a business or management career after the military, here are some resources you might want to check out!

  • Service2School: a non-profit that provides free resources (such as individual mentors who are current students or alumni of various colleges and universities!) to apply to a number of opportunities in higher education: college / undergraduate, masters of business MBA, and law school JD. The link to their MBA-specific application resources is here: https://service2school.org/mba-resources/
  • VeteransGuide.org: helping veterans get the maximum VA benefits they are rightfully entitled to. Of particular interest to readers of this blog is their assistance with getting GI Bill benefits to help fund your pursuit of higher education: https://veteransguide.org/va-benefits/gi-bill/
  • ELFI.com: an organization designed to assist borrowers with student loan refinancing as well as undergraduate, graduate, and parent private student loans. Many current service members and veterans are unaware of loan forgiveness options available to them. To help students, they’ve created a guide to Military and Veteran Loan Forgiveness Programs: http://www.elfi.com/military-veteran-student-loan-forgiveness-programs
  • And of course, ApplicantLab.com to give you expert, detailed advice on how to craft your best application! As someone with the self-discipline of a veteran, the Lab might be perfect for you, since presumably you are a strong self-starter… and I am honored to have helped many veterans in the past get into amazing MBA programs! 🙂

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.810] – John

Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast. Today we’re going to talk about Veterans Day. We’re actually recording this on Veterans Veterans Day, although you won’t hear it for a few days. And we want to talk a little bit about how veterans often use MBA programs as a transition to civilian life. Who’s best qualified to get into a great MBA program from the military? Who, if you can’t get into Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg, Columbia, you name your M7 or top 15 school. Will a second tier school help you as well? And if you are in the military and you’re thinking about wanting an MBA and you want to start right away, should you go online? And will that ultimately help ease the transition into civilian life when you leave the military? So we’re here with, as always, Caroline Diarte Edwards, the former admissions director of INSEAD, who is the co founder of Fortuna Admissions. And Maria Wich Villa, who is the founder of Applicant Lab. Maria, you’ve worked with some people who are from the military and help them transition into MBA programs and ultimately into civilian life.

[00:01:27.620] – John

What’s your take on this?

[00:01:29.240] – Maria

I think the MBA is an excellent transition into civilian life. It’s probably one of the best routes in I do think that veterans definitely have some advantages in the application process, but also some disadvantages. So the advantages are that nobody can question your loyalty, your work ethic, your ability to get things done, even in difficult circumstances. The biggest challenge that military candidates have is that the admissions officers may or may not understand what is elite and what isn’t. So it’s the same with anyone who has a very specialized job. You can read a resume and say, oh, I know exactly what that means. I know that this position is a very difficult one to get. I know that getting that sort of commendation or that transfer means that you’re the best of the best. But sometimes you can’t assume that the admissions office will know that. So it’s up to you as a candidate to really explain in the resume and or the essays or even your recommendations to really point out what about your previous background has been extraordinary.

[00:02:30.850] – John

And you mentioned something about being highly selective. And we all know that candidates who go to highly selective undergraduate schools and have highly selective jobs often are favored in elite MBA admissions, in part because they’ve already passed through very fine screens. And I’m just going to say it here. Admission directors are often risk adverse. And if someone has gone to Yale and Princeton and ended up at McKinsey or Goldman, they’re a sure bet. I mean, you don’t have to worry about making an admission mistake. So I wonder if, in fact, some of these jobs that the military might have may or may not be highly selective. But that’s why it’s important to describe exactly how hard it was to get that job, right?

[00:03:20.400] – Maria

Yes, exactly. And for example, if you have there are apparently something like occupational codes or military occupational specialties. And so those are literally almost like number codes that say, okay, this is exactly what my job is in the military. So, for example, if you have a position, if your military occupational specialty code is like, say, a level above where it should be in terms of your age or the number of years of your service, or if you’re performing the duties of someone who is at a higher level, you have to sort of explain that and make sure that it’s clear as one example. But the good news is about the military is that almost everything is quantified. So at the end of every type of volunteering or not volunteering, but every type of work that you’re doing, you will be given a rank. So I was ranked number two out of 200. I was ranked number one out of 40, whatever that is. So that’s another thing that you should use to your advantage, right.

[00:04:18.040] – John

Caroline, your thoughts?



[00:04:19.920] – Caroline

I mean, it’s a great path. As Maria said, the MBA is a wonderful springboard for a career transition, and it can open so many different doors that would otherwise be closed. And that’s the fantastic thing about going to business school, people coming from a vast array of backgrounds. Right. It just gives you a fresh start and gives you credibility with employers that you wouldn’t otherwise have. So it’s a great education to get. The important thing is to think about what are the transferable skills that you have built, because sometimes candidates are concerned that my experience isn’t relevant to business school.



[00:04:59.800] – Caroline

What am I going to have to contribute to the classroom compared to someone who’s an investment banker or someone who’s a management consultant? My experience is very, very different. I haven’t worked in business before. But what you need to think about is breaking down the elements of your experience and the skills that you’ve developed into those transferable skills that will be relevant to business school, but also very importantly relevant to future employers and recruiters. So leadership skills are obviously a key area that people are able to build in the military, often to a much more advanced level than someone coming from civilian life. And breaking down the elements of that and communication teamwork, the ability to work under pressure and stress, you’ve probably developed that to a much more advanced degree than someone who’s come from a different background. It’s important to think carefully about your profile and think about it, not so much in the military terms, but in terms of those specific skills and abilities that you’ve developed. And breaking it down, thinking about how you can convey a clear story about how you’ve developed as an individual and a professional during your time in the military and the part of that has put you on and who you are today as a result of that experience.

[00:06:23.330] – John

Right. I wonder if you really want to go to an elite school, is it necessary to have gone to a military Academy like West Point or the Naval Academy, or is it possible to get into Harvard in the United States with a degree from a non military Academy school if you’re a veteran? Any thoughts on that?

[00:06:47.300] – Maria

Yeah, I can take that one. Absolutely. So there are a couple of different paths into the military. The main one is going to a service Academy. The other one is you can do ROTC at another undergraduate institution. And then the third option is officer candidacy School, which is for people who are essentially my understanding of civilians. And then you basically go through this very intense training program. And if you survive it and get out the other side, you are, in fact, given a leadership position essentially equivalent, I think, if you had gone to one of the academies. But don’t quote me on that. But the point is there are those three different entrance points, and each one of them is actually, I think, a viable path in it’s more about what you do once you’re in the military. So, for example, I had a former client who had gone to an elite College undergrad, had done a couple of years in some sort of standard post College, pre MBA type of role. I don’t remember if it was banking or consulting, but then decided to enlist in the Marines, went to officer candidate School, and did end up going to HBS.

[00:07:47.570] – Maria

And when I spoke with him, he said one of the things that at least HBS in particular seemed to really value more so than where you went for your undergraduate experience was infantry or frontline combat type of experience. So because Caroline just mentioned the advanced leadership skills, I don’t care how good of a banker you are, how amazing your spreadsheet work is if you’ve never actually led people in battle or I worked with someone once who literally jumped out of a helicopter with ten other Navy people to rescue someone. When you have those sorts of stories and you think about a transferable skills, maybe you’re not helping out of a helicopter, but if you’re meeting a big deadline at work, you’re going to be able to keep your cool and you’re going to be able to motivate people. So he said that it was more about within the military who has had either the bigger leadership roles, as in leading people in a combat situation, or also in my experience, there are certain groups within the military that are, for example, creating innovations or are trying to develop the next generation of you name it.

[00:08:55.890] – Maria

Right. Warplanes or missiles on Marine submarines, whatever that is. And I’ve had good luck with people who are working for those innovation divisions, even though they are not on the front lines, but they do have really interesting stories. They are often managing budgets. They are often managing dozens of people. And so those experiences in particular really stand out. And one final one that stands out is I worked with someone once who was actually a graduate of one of the service academies and had been asked back as an instructor. And when I ran out of my other former client, he said, wow, that’s a really big deal if the Academy asks you back to be a teacher after a couple of years. So it’s not enough to simply be in the military to get into, as you said at the beginning, John, the schools are looking for any indicator of elite performance that they can use in a proxy. And so even within the military, there are definitely some assignments that are more plum or more elite than others, as it were. And so the schools may not immediately know that, but they are starting to get a better sense as more and more veterans apply.

[00:10:02.710] – Maria

And again, it’s up to you as a candidate to let them know.

[00:10:05.880] – John

Caroline, are the schools that are known to be super friendly to veterans?

[00:10:11.370] – Caroline

Well, there are some schools that have special programs and clubs and so on. So MIT Sloan, they have a Veteran’s Visit day where you can go as a group and understand how you would fit into the program and what you can get out of the program specifically for your profile. Some of the schools have clubs for veterans, so I think Tark and Wharton have veterans clubs. It’s good to connect with people with a similar profile at the schools so that you can understand what resources you’ll have, what support you’ll get, what sort of community you’ll be part of. So definitely do that research ahead of time and try to reach out to current students who have come from a military background or alumni to understand to what extent they found a like minded community at the school supportive community and how they felt that veterans were welcomed into the program.

[00:11:15.750] – John

Yeah, I would think that the alumni club, or rather the veterans club on campus would be the ideal place to go and just talk to different people about the experience that they’re having at the school and what they did to get in would be very valuable, I would imagine.

[00:11:37.290] – Maria

I also want to give a shout out to an organization called Servicetoschool.org that’s Servicetoschool.org all one word. It is a nonprofit that does help people from the military make the transition to civilian life. And one of the things they do offer is advice for MBA, as well as College and other types of educational pathways. So reach out to them for sure.

[00:12:00.100] – John

Yeah, I know one of the heads of that organization in San Francisco, and it’s a terrific organization. You’re going to get help for free, and you’re going to get help from people who really have done this before and have done it well. The person I knew went to Stanford and got his MBA. He was a terrific guy. Service to school. Look him up. Really helpful. Now here’s another thing about veterans. When they apply, typically they’re older than mainstream NBA candidates and elite programs. And I wonder if admissions officials automatically know that. Look, if you were in the military, you had to sign up for X number of years, and so you might very well be in your early 30s instead of 28. Does that need any explaining or do enough admission officials understand that?

[00:12:55.890] – Caroline

I think that’s fine. It’s often the case that candidates from nontraditional backgrounds will be a bit older than the average candidate. So I don’t think that you need to explain that. Certainly if you’re not far off, not many years off the average, if you’re early 30s, they will understand that you’ve had a certain commitment, and it’s taken a number of years to get to the point where you are and to be ready to make that transition out of the military. So I wouldn’t feel that it’s a disadvantage. And I don’t think that you need to be concerned about explaining that away.

[00:13:34.360] – John

Good. And what about the European schools? Do you think that they are as friendly as the US schools for veterans?

[00:13:41.730] – Caroline

Well, I’m not sure that there are many sort of specific programs that you have in the US. So in the US, you have domestic clubs and paths and support organizations, as we’ve said, geared up to helping people from the US military get into US based schools. So it’s a little bit different with the international schools because there’s people coming from all over the world and a lot of different backgrounds. And so you may not have those sort of specific channels for a specific military going into a domestic school. But having said that, the schools have incredibly diverse student bodies, and that will always include some people with military backgrounds. So certainly in ICS, for example, a lot of people coming from Israel have very strong military backgrounds. That’s a common track to see and worked with candidates from the British armed forces going into international business schools. So it’s a common path. Candidates from military organizations all over the world would look to apply to business school to make that career switch and make a transition.

[00:15:03.410] – John

Yeah. And just as a mainstream MBA candidate going to a European school will be in a more globally diverse cohort, the military candidate also would be in a more diverse, globally oriented veteran cohort because they’re going to have veterans from all kinds of different countries, which kind of makes for an interesting experience in and of itself.

[00:15:27.040] – Caroline

Yes, it is. And these calls are specifically looking to recruit very diverse profiles. And the military often has great experience as well by the nature of their assignments. And the international schools are specifically looking for that international experience. So certainly it can be a great background to have a very relevant background for those international programs.

[00:15:51.830] – John

So let’s say you don’t exactly have the staff background to get into a top 25 school. Is the second tier school going to do going to be just as good to help you make a transition into civilian life, something like an Arizona State University of Georgia, one of these kind of schools. What do you think?

[00:16:17.210] – Maria

Yeah, I absolutely think look, John. Well, it’s better than nothing. It’s much, much better than nothing because people seem to forget that business school is still school. Surprisingly enough, you actually go to class and you learn things. Imagine that. I think the skills that you will learn at a business school. One of the reasons I think all three of us are so in favor of the business school education is that it does cover so many different topics that can be applied in so many different situations. So even if you should go back to the military or something related to public service, you’re still going to know how to build a budget. You’re going to have an idea how to manage a team. You’re going to have an idea of how to position things, to market them or to convince other people of them. So I think that the skills that you get in terms of the two years that you spend in business school or even the one year if it’s an accelerator program, the amount of information that you’re going to get that will help you make some sort of a career Pivot, it doesn’t have to be from a fancy school.

[00:17:17.620] – John

Yeah. And you’re going to make connections as well, and you’re going to get a lot of help, typically if you go to a really good second tier school. So those are the schools I would look at the second group in the 50 after the top 25, are all great schools that are going to help someone make a really good transition to civilian life. The other issue, which I find a lot of military people do, is they take online courses. And obviously, there’s a large portfolio of online and BA programs today, including at very good schools like the University of Michigan, Carnegie millenn, Indiana University, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Southern California, Rice and others. And I wonder what you two think of someone in the military who is stationed abroad but might want to get started on an MBA program in anticipation of leaving the military two years, three years out. Should they be going to an online MBA program, and would that help them? Maria?

[00:18:30.130] – Maria

Yeah, for the same reasons that we just mentioned. Right. I think the education is still there. Obviously, the networking opportunities are not going to be there quite as much. But to the extent that it will help you make that transition perhaps a little bit more quickly because you can probably get part or all of much of the degree while you are still serving in the military, perhaps then it could help accelerate that. And really, you just need that first job out of business school. Once you get a job anywhere in the private sector or in a, quote, unquote business role, as long as you do well in that job, that’s what’s going to matter. It’s your track record professionally that then begins to speak for itself. And that’s where you build your post military career. So even though the opportunities may not be quite as elite or as shiny, you can still make a really good life for yourself. You just need to get that first job and do well in it. And if you’ve already been in the military, you will probably do well because you have that work ethic and that spirit of commitment.

[00:19:30.190] – Maria

So I still think it’s worth it.

[00:19:32.550] – John

Yes, Caroline, you agree?

[00:19:34.290] – Caroline

Yes, I do. I think it depends on your goals. Maria said and Maria said it’s an academic experience. Right. A big part of why people go to business school is to build a foundation of knowledge, and you can get a lot of that through these online programs. So in terms of knowledge building, giving you that strong foundation, that will give you the ability and the confidence to land job post MBA and do well, be professionally successful. With a lot of those online programs, you can achieve that you don’t have necessarily the same opportunity to build close knit relationships. You need to think about what are your goals from the program and whether the program that you’re looking at. If that’s online, that’s going to give you the ability to move forward in the right direction. But in terms of facilitating a career switch and building the knowledge that you need to make a switch and have that springboard to open doors, then a lot of those programs would be a great opportunity as well.

[00:20:46.130] – John

Yeah. I would offer this advice. If you’re looking at online and via programs don’t necessarily go for the cheapest ones. And the reason is because there’s far less career support and coaching in a bargain based on online MBA than there would be in one that’s priced a bit higher, where they can afford to basically set aside resources that are for career development that would help with the transition from the military to the civilian life. Indiana Kelly would be a really good option here because they’re not a six figure online MBA program as some are. I think there are about seven or eight of those now, and those are all great programs, and you’re going to get a lot of support. But that’s really expensive. Indiana Kelly, I think, is priced in the right range, and they have terrific coaching. In fact, they offer a career coach for life in their online MBA program. And all other coaches are trained to be executive coaches, and they have really an amazing career machine at that school. So that would be one option. And if you’re shopping for an online MBA, you should ask to talk to alum who have been in the military and who used it for the purpose that you’re using it for and ask them directly, what kind of help did you get from the school to get to land your first job and even after that and did you have comrades in the program that you felt a meaningful relationship with even though you were taking your degree long distance?

[00:22:33.070] – John

I think those are important questions to ask to sort of kick the tires before you actually commit to an online MBA experience. Well, this is our salute to veterans. We honor you, we thank you for your service and we really do think an MBA is a superb experience, a one or two year program in between these two important chapters of your life that I think would be really an incredible experience for you and really smooth that transition and set you off on a really great trajectory. So, Caroline and Maria, thank you for offering all that great advice and for me. John Byrne at Poets and Quants thanks for listening.

Why The MBA Is An Ideal Way For A Military Veteran To Transition To Civilian Life and a Business Leadership Role
Maria |
November 10, 2022


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