Guide: From Military to MBA

Updated: December 11, 2020
In this Article

    As they transition out of military service, many veterans decide to pursue an MBA but have questions about the process.  In other words, what’s the best way to actually transition from the military into an MBA program?  As such, we’ll use this article as a guide to assist veterans move from military to MBA.

    Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

    • Why Pursue an MBA after the Military?
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #1: What to Look for in MBA Programs
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #2: Great MBA Program Options for Veterans
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #3: Network with Fellow Veterans
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #4: Prepare and Do Well on the GMAT
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #5: Optimize Your Resume and Essays
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #6: Request Quality Letters of Recommendation
    • Military-to-MBA Guide Step #7: Knock Your Interview Out of the Park
    • Final Thoughts

    Why Pursue an MBA after the Military?

    Military veterans have heard it a million times: service in the military provides you tremendous life skills, skills that most businesses value. From leadership to problem-solving abilities to calm-under-pressure demeanors, veterans tend to possess the “soft skills” companies seek.

    But, what veterans possess in military-related soft skills we often lack in actual business knowledge and experience.

    Formal education can bridge this gap between the skills and experiences gained in the military and the knowledge necessary for a job in the civilian world. And, for veterans interested in pursuing careers in the business world, an MBA – or master of business administration – can provide this foundational knowledge in business.

    While every MBA program structures its curriculum differently, veterans can expect to study the following core business classes in any business school:

    • Accounting
    • Finance
    • Marketing
    • Organizational behavior
    • Economics
    • Management
    • Business ethics

    Armed with this formal business education and their military experience, veterans become extremely desirable candidates for companies – and vastly improve their job prospects.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #1: What to Look for in MBA Programs

    In pursuing an MBA, the first thing veterans should consider is what to actually look for in an MBA program. In other words, what makes an MBA program military-friendly?

    Every program will have its veteran-support pros and cons, with some just better than others.  And, by analyzing the following characteristics, veterans can narrow down their lists and identify the best MBA programs for their unique situations. Put simply, veterans should look for programs that possess as many of these traits as possible:

    • Student veteran clubs or organizations: Transitioning from the military to academia can be a tremendous culture shock, and these groups provide veterans critical support and understanding from fellow veterans.
    • Online course options: For older veterans balancing family life with school, online options can provide tremendous flexibility.
    • Cost: Ideally, veterans can complete their MBAs without accruing any education-related debt. As such, veterans should look for programs that, between the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon program, do not require any out-of-pocket tuition or fees.
    • Program recruiting strategy: How does the school recruit? Does it go out of its way to recruit veterans specifically?  This sort of behavior demonstrates a commitment to veteran support.
    • Career support: The best MBA programs take pride in placing their graduates into high-quality jobs. Veterans should ask pointed questions about A) the career and job support offered by the programs, and B) the job placement rates with previous veteran graduates. At the end of the day, veterans attend MBA programs to get good jobs, so this is one of the most important factors to assess in a business school.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #2: Great MBA Program Options for Veterans

    While certainly not a comprehensive list, the below MBA programs have demonstrated outstanding commitment to supporting the educational and career goals of veterans. As a result, we recommend that veterans consider these programs. Even if you don’t decide to pursue one of these options, they provide solid examples of military-friendly schools for comparison purposes:

    • Dartmouth College – Tuck School of Business: Tuck developed a unique program known as “Next Step” that focuses on guiding veterans and top athletes into the business world.
    • Duke University – Fuqua School of Business: Fuqua stands out in its military-focused recruiting efforts. Every year, the program hosts a veteran symposium that allows potential veteran applicants to tour the school with currently-enrolled veterans.
    • University of Michigan – Ross School of Business: Ross employs a unique first-year course called the Multidisciplinary Action Project. This course uses real-world experience and teamwork to teach business lessons, and it has led to Ross consistently having some of the largest veteran cohorts of any MBA program.
    • University of Chicago – Booth School of Business: Booth – a consistently top-ranked program – received a multi-million-dollar donation to help pay for veteran MBAs, making this both a high-quality and affordable option.

    Once again, you certainly do not need to attend one of the above programs to have a great MBA experience. But, we highly recommend reviewing them to see examples of “what right looks like” when it comes to military-friendly MBA programs.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #3: Network with Fellow Veterans

    Transitioning out of the military, the term networking can have a negative connotation. Many veterans – incorrectly – think that this entails somehow acting insincerely. But, as you talk with people in the business world, it becomes clear that building solid relationships with fellow professionals is absolutely essential to success.

    And, fortunately for veterans, you don’t need to build a network from scratch! Rather, we have a built-in network of fellow veterans who have already made the jump into the business world.  Talking with these professionals – both about MBAs and the business world, in general – can provide you key guidance.

    Maybe you’ll hear about a great business school. Or, maybe a veteran opens your eyes to an industry you’d never considered. Bottom line, talking with fellow vets who’ve already entered the business world will provide you outstanding information and guidance on your own transition.  And, returning to the topic of great MBA programs, most of the veteran organizations at these schools also have veteran alumni organizations, meaning you’ll have access to a solid network active in the business community.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #4: Prepare and Do Well on the GMAT

    While not all business schools require applicants to take the GMAT, most of the top MBA programs in the United States do. Somewhat analogous to the SAT for undergraduate admissions, the GMAT serves as a standardized test to help MBA admissions committees select applicants.

    But, unlike the SAT, you don’t just show up one day and sit for this exam. It’s hard, and you need to prepare for it. As such, you need to begin preparing well in advance of your MBA program’s application deadline, as you may want to take the GMAT a second time if not happy with the first score.

    Some veterans choose to purchase a self-study program, while others prefer formal review courses. Whatever route you choose, you should A) confirm the target scores for the MBA programs where you’re applying, and B) study, study, and study some more to meet those scores.  While military experience may help offset a sub-standard score, it’s far easier getting accepted with a good GMAT score.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #5: Optimize Your Resume and Essays

    Outside of your GMAT score, your resume and application essays serve as two of the best ways to make yourself stand out as an applicant. Accordingly, you’ll need to pour a ton of time and energy into making them as compelling as possible.  Here are some tips to help with both:


    • Basics: Make sure you’ve included your full name, contact information (phone and e-mail), and current address.
    • Incorporate action words: Avoid meaningless clichés and buzzwords. Instead, when adding resume bullets, include hard action words that demonstrate what you’ve actually accomplished.
    • Do program- and industry-specific research: Are you applying to an MBA program focused on a specific industry (e.g. tech, green energy, investment banking, etc.)? If so, incorporate industry-specific common terms into your resume to show that you’ve done your research.
    • Quantify your accomplishments: Admissions committees review thousands of resumes, so they can sniff out meaningless resume “fluff” quite well. As such, make sure you use hard numbers and percentages when describing your accomplishments, as this will demonstrate what you truly achieved.


    • Make it personal: Resumes and GMAT scores offer fairly objective information to admissions officers. Your admissions essays provide you the opportunity to set yourself apart as an individual. As such, avoid generic topics and instead seek to truly show your own personality and character.
    • Don’t use military jargon: Admissions officers aren’t going to understand the abbreviations and military slang you used every day in the service, so don’t use it in your essay. Your words need to communicate with the admissions officer reading them, so make sure to “translate” your military jargon into understandable civilian terms. TIP: Having non-military parents or spouses read your essays helps; if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, neither will an admissions officer.
    • Proofread!: It doesn’t matter how compelling your essay is if it’s riddled with misspelled words and grammatical errors. Use online services like Grammarly or an actual professional editing service to thoroughly proofread your work. Realistically, a poorly edited essay will lead to the admissions officer tossing your application into the “rejected” pile.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #6: Request Quality Letters of Recommendation

    Up to this point, you’ve been focused on promoting yourself. With letters of recommendations, you have an opportunity for other people to promote you to an admissions committee. As such, you need to ensure that you’re requesting high-quality letters of recommendation.

    While you can’t control what a recommender writes about you, following the below strategy can help you get the best possible letters of recommendation:

    • Pick people who actually know you well: You absolutely don’t want a recommendation that comes off as a generic, copy-and-pasted letter, but this is exactly what you’ll get if you ask someone who doesn’t really know you, regardless of his or her position or prestige. As such, identify transparent and strong relationships – both personal and professional. These are the people you should ask for letters.
    • Make it easier for the letter writer: When you ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation, you’re asking them to take time out of their busy schedule to help you. As such, provide them as much information as possible to help with the process (e.g. your resume, your personal essays, the reasons why you’re applying to a specific MBA program, etc).  And, don’t forget to send them a thank you note!
    • Ask people from a variety of backgrounds: While you’ll certainly want to ask military supervisors for a letter, it helps to ask for academic and personal references, too. Maybe you’ve volunteered with a charity – does the director know you well enough to write a letter?  Or, maybe you had a particularly good relationship with a college professor – could he or she write one for you?  This variety will show an admissions committee different sides of your background – and make you a more appealing applicant in the process.

    Military-to-MBA Guide Step #7: Knock Your Interview Out of the Park

    All of the other elements of the application process involve one-sided products: essays, test scores, letters of recommendation. With the interview, you actually get to have a back-and-forth with someone from the admissions office. And, while interviews can seem overwhelming and nerve wracking, heeding the following advice can help you ace yours:

    • Be able to clearly articulate your “why”: Different interviewers will ask the question in different ways, but you can count on the fact that you’ll be asked why you’re applying to a certain program. Make sure you truly know the answer to this question, and practice clearly articulating your answer in a concise fashion.
    • Come armed with questions: Make sure you view the interview as a two-way street. Sure, the interviewer wants to ask you some set questions, but he or she will also want to see that A) you’ve done your research about the program, and B) are generally curious about what life is like there. Having a few questions in the back of your head can help you with this process.
    • Practice!: In the military, you wouldn’t dream of kicking off an operation without a rehearsal, so why should this be any different? Work with an applications consultant, fellow veterans who’ve gone through the process, or just a friend who’s good at asking questions to actually practice the interviewing process. You’ll be far less nervous, and you’ll have an opportunity to refine your responses.

    Final Thoughts

    Transitioning from military service into the civilian world can be a daunting process.  For veterans considering careers in the business world, pursuing an MBA can provide you the education, skills, and support necessary to make this transition. And, by following this article as a guide, veterans will excel in their military to MBA journeys.

    About The AuthorMaurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.

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