As a veteran returning to civilian life, you have a variety of adjustments to make. It isn’t easy. Our military provides valuable experience, but it can be tough to translate into a civilian job back in the United States. Often times veterans decide to earn a college education, building upon the skills they’ve learned during their time of service. Combining your military experience with education can be a valuable asset, but it can be overwhelming. Everyone has to adjust to college life, but as a veteran, you have a different kind of adjustment to make.
The majority of traditional college students are single, in their late teens, and transitioning from high school to college. Conversely, forty-six percent of student veterans have children and less than one-third are single and have never been married. As a veteran, you may have a family to support and care for ─ and you may be learning to cope with physical and mental conditions as a result of your time in the military. These adjustments are tough, but you can navigate the challenges veterans face in college with the help of these ten tips for veterans going to college.
1. Search for Colleges With a Veteran Population
When you begin to search for colleges, consider searching for schools with a veteran population. A veteran student presence on campus usually means there is a veteran’s office or veteran’s administrator, which can help you sort through your eligible benefits. The office or individual may also be familiar with other resources you can take advantage of in your transition to civilian life, specifically as a student.
Having veteran students on campus also means that many of the professors are familiar with veteran students and their unique needs. You may have a family to support and children to spend time with, and you might need some sort of counseling to help you through your transition to civilian life. That’s a lot to juggle on top of college classes. If professors haven’t had veteran students, they may not be familiar with the demands, and they may not be as empathetic.
Another one of the challenges veterans face in college is feeling isolated. Eighty percent of student veterans are over the age of 25. Traditional college students are often fresh out of high school, so there is a significant difference in age ─ as well as maturity. A traditional college student often can’t relate to a veteran student. You will have a group to connect with if a college has veteran students on campus, a group that understands you, which is valuable in your transition to college and civilian life.
2. Consider the College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
Even though you will receive GI benefits, the reality is that college is expensive. The College Level Examination Program is a series of exams that strives to translate the college-level knowledge you’ve gained through your experience. There are a variety of exams ─ some general, others subjective ─ that are worth up to six credits. While there is a cost to take a CLEP exam, the cost is a fraction of the cost of tuition and fees, so it can be an affordable and efficient way to help you earn credit for the skills you’ve learned and skip some of the general introduction courses.
The CLEP exams are administered at colleges and on-base testing centers across the country and around the world. Credits are awarded at 2,900 colleges and universities, so make sure your schools of choice are on the list.
3. Don’t Assume Admissions Representatives Will Understand Military Jargon
As with any career, the military has jargon specific to the field. Remember that people outside of the field likely won't understand it. When you're applying to a few specific schools, remember that the admissions representatives may not be familiar with military jargon ─ including military titles. When you’re applying to colleges, take extra time to translate military jargon into civilian words. Explain the roles you had, what you did, and what skills you learned through the position.
For example, perhaps you can say you learned management, leadership, and streamlining skills in your roles overseas. When it comes to the experience, focus on challenges you faced, actions you took to overcome them, and the results you achieved.
Include your military title, but also include an equivalent civilian title that may help admissions representatives understand your experience. You’ll likely have the opportunity to talk more about your roles and experience in a college interview, but it’s best to explain your skill set and experience thoroughly on the college application. This way, admissions representatives can begin to understand you as a candidate and identify if you would be a good fit for the college and a particular major or program.
Some schools, like Vista College, employ specialized military admissions representatives who will be more likely to speak your language and understand your unique needs.
4. Connect With a Veterans Administrator About Your Benefits
As a veteran, you are entitled to benefits through the GI Bill®¹. One of the most important tips for veterans going to college is to make an effort to find the veteran’s office or veterans administrator on campus and give them a call to discuss your unique situation, as well as what you need to do to claim your benefits.
A veterans administrator can guide you through the process, explaining what documents you need, what forms need to be completed, and the deadlines for everything. There are a variety of education benefits available ─ including some state benefits. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Simply find the veterans administrator at the college of your choice and talk to him or her about your options.
If you want to do some of your own research, start with the GI Bill® website. It has a variety of information in addition to the application for benefits. If you do the majority of research and application on your own, it's still wise to recommend connecting with a college’s veteran’s office or veterans administrator who can help veterans with benefits every day and maximize the benefits you can receive.
5. Apply for Financial Aid and Scholarships
You should still apply for financial aid even though you qualify for GI benefits. The GI Bill® doesn’t cover all of your expenses. Financial aid comes in the form of grants, loans, and work-study. Grants don’t need to be paid back. Loans awarded through financial aid will likely have competitive interest rates when compared to private loans from your bank. Work study funds often open doors to jobs on campus, which allow you to earn extra money. While there are no guarantees about what or how much you’ll qualify for, it’s worth applying so you know what’s available if you need it. Applying does not commit you to anything you’re offered. Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
In addition to applying for financial aid, you can also apply for scholarships, which are awarded in a certain amount and do not need to be paid back. They are available for a variety of needs and achievements, including scholarships specifically for veterans. Ask the veterans administrator or financial aid office about any scholarships that are available specifically for veterans. There is a variety of scholarship websites available for you to browse and apply for scholarships. You can start with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), The American Legion, and DAV. Don’t ever pay for a scholarship application because they should always be free.
6. Take Advantage of Your Academic Advisor
Every student is assigned an academic advisor. Some schools may have an academic advisor specifically for veterans, regardless of their major or program of study ─ other students may not. If there isn’t an advisor specifically for veterans, often your advisor will be for students within your area of study.
An advisor’s role is to help you navigate your classes and overall academic experience. If you take the initiative to meet with your advisor and share some of your experience in the military and your career goals, he or she can help you plan your courses to meet your goals. If you aren’t exactly sure about your career goals, your advisor can help you by recommending classes based on your experience and areas of interest.
Advisors are a wealth of information and can help you navigate choosing a major, changing a major, preparing for a specific career, and providing you with classes and coursework at that college or university.
7. Seek Veteran Groups on Campus
Veteran students are often older than traditional students, and their life experiences have often been radically different. Many veterans have a spouse or family. Even the most empathetic traditional student often can’t begin to comprehend a veteran's experiences. It’s natural to see a division between traditional students and veteran students on campus, but it can be a problem if the veteran students are not connected. Be proactive about finding veteran groups on campus. It’s important to connect with a group of veterans who understand what it’s like to have military experience and transition back to civilian life.
While not all veterans have had the same experience, many of them can relate to the transition ─ and that can be a source of comfort. Often veteran’s families have a tough time understanding the transition, so finding a few others who are at a point in their transition is a great support. Some veterans have likely been at the college for some time and can help provide some insight and guidance to classes and campus life. Connecting with other veterans also provides an opportunity to help others after you’ve been in college for some time.
8. Don’t Assume Professors Know What Life Is Like for a Veteran
Regardless of whether or not you’ve chosen a campus with a pre-existing veteran population, it’s important to remember there may be faculty members who don't understand the challenges veterans face in college. Don’t assume they know the unique needs of a veteran ─ and don’t assume their rules and assignments were created out of a lack of empathy for veterans. Professors may simply be unaware that a particular rule or assignment is challenging for you as a veteran.
Veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may find sounds, words, and other triggers that are tough to deal with in a classroom setting. There may also be class rules that are tough for you to manage ─ for example, if you have a family to care for and support, perfect class attendance may be tough for you to achieve.
You may face unique situations that professors may not be aware of. Try hard to give them the benefit of the doubt and if a conflict arises, meet with your professor and give them some insight to your situation. Every professor may not be empathetic to your every need, but they will likely appreciate your honesty. If you have to miss class and they dock you points, at least offer some insight about why you were absent.
9. Don’t Neglect Career Development
In addition to making your way from class to class and completing assignments, colleges offer career preparation services. Your academic advisor can help you choose the right classes, and the career services office can help you create a resume, prepare for job interviews, and place you in an internship or co-op related to your career.
A college or university with a veteran population should be able to help you with more than a resume and interview preparation. It should also help you translate your military experience into skills and achievements for future employers.
There are a variety of organizations dedicated to helping veterans transition to civilian life, many of them offering job preparation and placement. A few of them are included on our list of 10 Organizations that Help Veterans Transition to Civilian Life.
Visit the career services office on campus, and don’t shy away from looking for outside resources to help. There are a variety of organizations that specifically want to help veterans find jobs ─ take advantage of them.
10. Remember That Being a Veteran Empowers You as a Student
It can be so easy to feel lost and overwhelmed during the entire process of applying to college, going to class, and trying to find a job. As a veteran, you may feel like your time away in the military has been a burden because you aren’t familiar with all of the steps in the process, but the reality is that your military experience has prepared you to tackle college unlike any traditional student.
Your discipline and training allows you to take responsibility for your education ─ to find the resources you need to develop a plan, understand different subjects, and focus on assignments. You have a unique world view, which often helps you grasp concepts better as a result of your experience.
In addition to the benefits of your experience, you have access to benefits that other students don’t. As a veteran, you are truly empowered in a unique way ─ recognizing that fact will help you tackle any of the challenges veterans face in college.
Vista College Can Help
At Vista College, we understand you have unique needs as a veteran. This list of tips for veterans going to college is only one of the many resources we provide. We’re familiar with the challenges of transitioning from active duty to civilian life. We have a variety of programs with convenient class schedules, many of which offer military scholarships to those who qualify. In addition to our programs, we also offer educational resources. Visit our website to learn more about the programs and resources we have for veterans.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.