Do Veterans Need Unique Admit Advice?

When Dave Crabbe filled out his application for the Harvard Business School (HBS) two years ago, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. One of Harvard’s essay questions prompted Crabbe to reflect on his five-month deployment in Iraq. In 2006 and ’07, he and a battalion of about 900 Marines were tasked with making an insurgent stronghold, the town of Barwanah, safe for civilians.

The Marines had to clear hostile forces out of the city, street-by-street and house-by-house, and then make the place livable again. Over a five-month period, the battalion built two schools and recruited a new police force. Children returned to school and began playing in the streets. The marketplace was thriving.  When Crabbe left the town, he felt he had made a real difference.

His experience—meticulously recounted in one of his Harvard essays–helped him gain acceptance to HBS. Last week, he was among more than 30 veterans who gained MBA degrees in Harvard’s Class of 2011. Now, he and three other former junior military officers who graduated with him are launching an admissions consulting firm to help veterans get into top-ranked MBA programs.

In a field overcrowded with hundreds of MBA admission consultants, Crabbe believes his firm, Military to Business, offers a unique perspective to help the increasing numbers of former military people who want MBAs. Crabbe says there is a special bond among veterans of today’s generation. “That bond and that trust give our clients the assurance that we’ll go the extra mile to achieve maximum results,” believes Crabbe.

Even so, the competition in the $35 million MBA admissions consulting business is tough, with many entrenched rivals. One prominent firm, The MBA Exchange, already employs a half dozen admission consultants with military experience. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve helped hundreds of armed services veterans gain admission to top business schools,” says Dan Bauer, managing director and founder. “So we definitely ‘get it.’

The HBS-born venture started as an anonymous blog written by one of the partners—who still wants to remain anonymous. The MBA blogger smartly detailed the HBS experience through the eyes of a veteran military officer. His thoughtful blog posts ranged from describing a day in the life of an MBA student to digging into statistics that showed which business schools most welcomed military vets. The blogger and some of his HBS friends soon found themselves helping out veterans who e-mailed asking for application advice. (See excerpts of the blog for advice to military MBA applicants.)

Crabbe believes that the soldiers and officers who want to pursue an MBA have unique concerns and issues. For one thing, many are so accustomed to speaking and writing in military terms that B-school essay writing is a major challenge. For another, the meaning “leadership” and “teamwork” in the military can be  quite different than in the corporate world. Military protocols like the “chain of command” and “following direct orders” influence how and when an individual can show initiative, challenge authority, and question assumptions. So essays and business school interviews often demand more refinement.

Many junior officers, moreover, already have families to support and are hesitant to walk from a steady paycheck to go to business school. It’s understandably hard for many of them to summon the nerve to take out large loans to pay for the degree as well.

Yet, Crabbe and his partners point out that the post Sept. 11 GI bill can make a huge dent in the cost of an MBA and post-graduate pay from a top school can far exceed the compensation a vet would receive going straight into the job market. They estimate that the average total starting compensation for a military veteran with a Harvard MBA this year is between $175,000 and $200,000 a year. One veteran in the class, they said, turned down a job that would most likely pay more than $300,000 a year in favor of an entrepreneurial venture.

Crabbe himself was planning on going straight to work until a mentor, a West Point graduate and HBS alum, convinced him that a prestige school could open many doors. Harvard became an obvious first-choice, not least because Crabbe’s wife, who was still serving in the Navy, was going to be transferred to Worcester, Mass. “She and I had already spent too much time apart,” Crabbe explains.

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