Over five years ago, I began taking the steps necessary to attend business school. I took the GMAT, arranged my letters of recommendation, filled out applications, wrote essays, and did my interviews over Skype or phone from Iraq.
First, a little background. At the time I matriculated in 2012, I was a 30-year-old West Point 2004 grad, eight years on active duty in the infantry with four deployments, and was (and still am) married, with three dogs. I graduated from Harvard Business School in May of 2014 and started work with Boston Consulting Group in September of 2014.
My thoughts involve some MOTO (Master of the Obvious) statements about school and life. Hopefully, though, some of my thoughts are something you, the reader, may not have thought about. I’ll add the disclaimer that everyone’s experiences are unique (and mine in particular are based heavily on HBS). Still, for what they are worth, here they are — with the up-front thought that my MBA experience was a great one and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Strive to get into a top 10 MBA program (HBS, GSB, MIT, Darden, McCombs, Kellogg, Booth, Tuck, UPenn, Fuqua, Ross, etc.). An MBA from a top 10 program is certainly worth it, but I question the return on a non-top 10 program because many top firms specifically recruit at the top schools.
GET TO SCHOOL A MONTH EARLY
HBS started in late August. My wife, Megan, and I arrived in the beginning of the month and immediately linked up on Facebook with the HBS 2014 Boston Admit group, whose membership swelled as school got closer and people began moving to Cambridge. Megan and I began meeting and hanging out with people throughout the month. When I went to school the first day, I already knew 60-70 people by name, both in and outside of my section. Also, I maintained relationships with most of that summer crew because we met prior to the pressures of school and other social commitments. Meeting fellow classmates, then, was novel and not overwhelming like the first couple months.
DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
The Army makes it very easy to know when you have been successful in its eyes — you are promoted, you get the next position, and/or you get a thank-you from your soldier. On the wall of every company and above CP are the institution’s definitions of success — the chain of command. Leaving active-duty changed that. In business school, the definition of success is much more ambiguous. Certainly, in large corporations there are well-established measures of success, but outside of those, success takes many forms and is truly dependent on the person. No longer is an easily acceptable definition provided. It is up to YOU to create your own personal definition of success.
LACK OF CAMARADERIE
You read and hear about it: When people leave the military, they miss the camaraderie. It’s true. During my first couple months at HBS, I missed the intense friendships that come with having intense shared experiences (deployments and field problems) toward a common goal. For soldiers who were only in for three years or who never deployed, it may not be an issue. But for someone who went to West Point and then served eight years on active duty with four deployments, it was an issue. Initially, I felt many of my relationships were skin-deep, and I was always putting up a perfectionist front. Slowly, over time, I developed a core group of friends, yet the majority of what I call my “vacation friends” were primarily veterans. We simply had the most in common.
WHAT VETERANS BRING TO THE CLASSROOM
Here is what veterans bring to the classroom: leadership, real-world experience, and exposure to the military.
The Army provides leadership experiences at extremely early stages in a soldier’s career. At 23, I was leading an infantry platoon in Afghanistan with an area of operations the size of Rhode Island. My final assignment was as a headquarters company commander of 250 soldiers during our deployment to Iraq. An infantry buck sergeant, or team leader, has more direct leadership experience than the majority of my business school classmates. It is not entirely their fault, because the industries many of my classmates come from (at HBS, one-third finance and one-third consulting) simply do not provide direct leadership opportunities early in their careers. During an informal survey of my 90 section mates, I learned that two-thirds of the class never had a direct report (subordinate) and the majority of the remaining third had from one to five direct reports. Only myself, another veteran, and one other classmate had ever led more than 15 people.
The second great thing vets bring to the classroom is experience in an organization where not everyone has a college degree. Think about it. Many of my classmates, if they came from a consulting or finance background, went to undergrad and then to work at top-tier firms (the typical pipeline to HBS), and their only interaction with a person without a college degree was at grocery stores with cashiers or restaurants with waiters. Army veterans have worked with a wide variety of people who have varied backgrounds. It broadens your perspective and understanding.
Finally, most of my classmates, unless they have parents or siblings in the military or are veterans themselves, have very little knowledge of the military outside of Hollywood or the news. With an all-volunteer military, it is simply something they do not think about. My classmates were keenly interested in hearing about the military. For some, I was the first person in the military they ever spoke with (which blew my mind). A Chinese student in my section wrote an email at the end of the first year to all the vets in my section stating that we had changed her view on the American military because she had been taught that we were all automatons. It made me feel good.
This article was contributed by Service to School, a nonprofit that provides free application assistance for veterans transitioning from the service to undergrad, MBA, and JD programs. Service to School has helped over 300 veterans into the nation’s top undergraduate and graduate school programs