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Applying to College After the Military: What You Should Know

By Samantha Costanzo Carleton
June 19, 2020

High school seniors typically have strong support systems when it comes time to apply to college. With the help of teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and college admissions staff, their application process can become a relatively easy endeavor. Adults seeking to return to college—particularly military xveterans—generally navigate this process on their own. 

These challenges haven’t stopped veterans from applying to college after military service, though.

Nearly 900,000 veterans used their Post-9/11 GI Bill® benefits and Yellow Ribbon Program funding to pursue higher education in 2017, a figure estimated to grow by 20 percent over the following years. Here are a few pieces of advice to help you join their ranks and make your application process as seamless as possible. 


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5 Tips For Veterans Applying to College

1. Organize your application materials.

“There is little to no difference between the application process for veterans and civilian applicants,” says Andy McCarty, director of Northeastern University’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers. “If any difference exists, it’s most likely on the side of the admissions staff. They’re looking for students that are going to be successful, but who will also enrich the campus community with their diversity of thought, experience, and background.”

Application materials will typically include a letter of recommendation, which you can ask your supervisor or commanding officer to contribute; transcripts from your military training and any previous college courses; standardized test scores, if required; and an application essay. 

McCarty recommends investing time into your application essay, which gives you the chance to talk about your experiences and personality in a way that grades don’t reflect. 

“Veterans and servicemembers offer something unique that the admissions staff won’t find in most of the other application packages,” he says. “These essays can provide a refreshing sense of variety. Applicants want to stand out for the right reasons, and talking about one’s time in the service is one such way to do that.”

2. Apply for benefits early.

Receiving financial support for your education may be necessary, and it’s important to get a head start on understanding the many options available. One way to fund your degree is through GI benefits, which come in varying amounts of money that must be used within specific timeframes. Receiving your benefits can take as many as six months, so begin researching your options and applying for your benefits as early as possible to ensure that they’re ready for you to use when you start school. 

This strategy is also helpful when it comes to scholarships, grants, and federal funding. The Yellow Ribbon Program can cover any tuition and fees not covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, for example. For those who do not qualify for the program, Northeastern offers a number of additional resources, such as the Patriot Scholar Program and Ruby Linn Scholarship. 

Speak with college financial aid counselors to learn more about what the schools to which you are applying offer, and seek out private scholarships from businesses and independent organizations as well. Applying early to all of these can help you get the maximum amount of financial support possible for your degree. 

3. Arrange for transfer credit.

Most colleges and universities will accept transfer credit from courses you may have taken at other institutions, including community colleges. Military class credits may also transfer. At Northeastern, military veterans can transfer up to 90 credits from their college or military classes for most degree programs. 

Ensuring that these credits are accounted for allows you to skip certain general education requirements when you enroll in your new school, and with enough credit, you may be able to graduate early as well. This can help you save time and money on your degree and begin your new career sooner. 

4. Brush up on your skills.

Many veterans apply to college as transfer students, not freshmen, because of the credits they’ve accumulated. As a result, admissions staff may look for a more recent history of college-level education, McCarty says. If you haven’t been back to school in a few years, consider enrolling in some classes at a community college before applying for a four-year school. 

“If a vet or servicemember hasn’t taken many college classes, the admissions staff may not see enough of a history to render their decision,” McCarty says. “If that’s the case, we encourage them to take some more classes and earn some more credits. Once they’ve shown that they have a history of success at the college level, then they can reapply.” 

Several nonprofit programs, such as Veterans Upward Bound and the Warrior-Scholar Project, that provide tutoring, counseling, and instruction for veterans and servicemembers who want to strengthen their basic academic skills before attending classes again as well. 

5. Seek out resources.

You’re bound to have questions during your application process, and a number of people can help you answer them. Speak to staff at the veterans’ resource centers at the institutions to which you’re applying for specific questions about each school. These staff members understand the unique needs of veterans and the intricacies of their schools’ application processes, perfectly positioning them to give detailed advice. 

Connecting with fellow veterans and servicemembers at each school through student organizations, LinkedIn, or groups like Service to School can also be helpful. 

“This can be a helpful way to learn if this school is the right college or university for you,” McCarty says. “Current students may also have useful tips based on their own admissions experience.” 

Northeastern’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS) can guide you through every stage of the application and transition process. Whether you need help understanding the application requirements or getting the necessary documentation, such as transcripts. 

“Any time there’s a question, we want vets to reach out and ask,” McCarty says. “Oftentimes, we know the answer. When we don’t, we can help find it.”

Learn more about how CAVS and Northeastern provide support for veterans throughout the college application process here.


GI 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.

About Samantha Costanzo Carleton
Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a reporter and content marketing writer who treats every story like it’s her latest big scoop. Her winding career has taken her from financial services to full-time freelance writing, and she now spends most of her time asking Northeastern professors for crash courses in their areas of expertise.