Navy veteran Tim Martin's decision to apply to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2007 filled him with apprehension. A previous college attempt years before had not gone well for the former aviation electrician's mate second class.
"I was scared because of my first experience in college," Martin admits. "I didn't want to fail [again]."
Now a senior management major, Martin is not alone. Fear and intimidation are the twin plagues of many service members and veterans hoping to start — or restart — their higher education after what is often many years away from a classroom. Many, like Martin, joined the military after earlier lackluster academic performances. Others believe they're too old to start school and worry they'll feel awkward and out of place among younger classmates.
Demystifying the process is key to banishing these often-unfounded anxieties, say college admissions experts. They offer the following best practices of successful college applicants:
Give yourself plenty of time to find the right school.
"If you look at the traditional student population, they start preparing to make this college decision as sophomores in high school," said Julia O'Dell, president of the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound Project Personnel.
O'Dell recommends giving yourself two years to research and apply to colleges. Explore a school's Web site, and get information about it from trusted sources such as http://www.petersons.com">Peterson's and the http://www.collegeboard.com">College Board. Call or visit the campus, and ask to be put in touch with a military student or veteran you can talk to about what it's like to attend there.
"What each veteran is looking for might be very specific," O'Dell said. "Some veterans — particularly the younger ones — are really looking for the traditional college experience." Others are more interested in how college is going to set them up for the future.
"Depending on what you are looking for as a student, you might want to focus on different things at different schools," she said.
The hard part isn't over once you've decided where to apply. "Gathering the paperwork you need could take a couple of months," O'Dell said, particularly if you have taken courses in a variety of places over many years.
To streamline the process, keep a folder containing relevant documents such as your high school transcript, standardized test scores, military transcripts and transcripts for any college courses you have taken, recommends Marjorie Southworth, senior manager of education counseling at the advising company College Coach.
You'll still have to request that official copies of such documents be sent directly to your school of choice, but keeping copies of all important paperwork in one place helps you know how to get them faster.
Be seen (or heard)
If time and distance permit, schedule an on-campus visit with an admissions counselor sometime during the application process, said Teege Mettille, an admissions counselor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.
Because nontraditional student applicants are just that — nontraditional — they tend to stand out, he added. If those applicants are able to get in front of an admissions counselor, "they are so much more likely to leave a positive impression of who they are than a 16-year-old [high school] junior."
Not able to make an in-person visit? Call or send an e-mail, Mettille advises.
Don't be afraid of the past
"Oftentimes, nontraditional students are embarrassed by their previous schooling," said Linda Dammer, director of admission, advising and student affairs at Embry-Riddle.
That embarrassment can delay or prevent students from applying, but it shouldn't. "Don't be embarrassed," Dammer said. "If you had a poor performance at some point, write us a letter and tell us what was going on ... in your life."
Don Bishop, Embry-Riddle's associate vice president for enrollment management, said the school is much more interested in what military students accomplished and what skills they acquired during their time in uniform. "We have admitted some military students who were not stellar in high school but accomplished a lot in the military," he said.
At Lawrence, a selective school with an average GPA around 3.6, admissions counselors will weigh a poor transcript against the life experiences the student is bringing to the table, Mettille said. He urges would-be students with lackluster academic records to take a military class or college-level class or two before applying to a selective college to show examples of improved performance.
Tell your military story
In the military, where you are around so many others who have had experiences like yours, it's easy to forget how unusual those experiences are, Mettille said. Basic training or recruiting duties may seem mundane to you, but "you have to remember the other people in our applicant pool are 17- and 18-year-old kids who haven't had the benefit of those experiences," he said.
If you can demonstrate in your application essay what your military experience has taught you, and how it's shaped you, it can give you a major advantage over those fresh-faced high school seniors.
Mettille recalls one military student who wrote his essay about "the choice of a lifetime" — joining the military instead of going to run track in college — and how that decision made him a better person in terms of courage, commitment, honor, leadership, teamwork and self-dependence.
Such writing is a perfect example of the well-rounded essay, according to O'Dell. It's important to convey your time spent in uniform as part of who you are — not all you consider yourself to be, she said. "I like to see well-rounded applications that mention not only, ‘this is why I went into the military and these are my experiences,' but also, ‘on the civilian side, this is what I gained.'"
If there is no essay portion on your application, attach a résumé or some other document that reflects your experiences and explains your duties — but be careful not to lapse into jargon and acronyms.
"We have a lot of confidence in our military applicants," said Bishop. They are "loaded with stories that they can share and skills that they have built that can parlay into the attributes we are looking for in successful college students."
There are no dumb questions
Don't be fearful of calling your would-be school with application questions, Dammer said.
"If there is anything [veterans] are unclear about, they should not be afraid to just call us up," Mettille agreed. "Traditional students have guidance counselors. They also have hundreds of other [classmates] to bounce ideas off of who are going through the same thing they are. Nontraditional students don't have that benefit. They are often alone in the application process."
For Martin, who plans to graduate from Embry-Riddle in May with a degree in business administration, a large part of conquering his admission fears came from having supportive counselors at school. "Everyone [at Embry-Riddle] wanted me to come to college. They helped. It made it easier for me."
What you'll need
Application packages are pretty similar from college to college, but the process might be different for military veterans at a few points. In general, here's what you'll need:
* Application form. Most colleges have online applications that can be saved, allowing would-be students to work on them over days or weeks.
If you are applying to multiple schools, you might be able to use the http://www.commonapp.org">Common Application or the http://www.universalcollegeapp.com">Universal College Application, both of which allow you to enter your application information and have it sent to participating schools.
No matter how you choose to submit it, proofread your application carefully before sending it.
* Transcripts. You'll have to submit official copies of your previous academic work, starting with your high school transcript and including transcripts for previous college coursework.
Keep track of any stray classes you have taken over the years and where you took them. When it comes time to apply, "schools are always going to want a copy [of your transcript] mailed directly from the other institution," said Julia O'Dell, president of the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound Project Personnel.
* Test scores. Most schools require the SAT or ACT for admission, but this requirement is often waived for military students. Check potential schools' rules for standardized tests for nontraditional students; if you have to take one or both, give yourself time to test — and re-test, if need be.
* Letters of recommendation. For traditional students, these letters typically come from a teacher or guidance counselor. Military students can submit recommendations from supervisors.
* Essay. "Students often get tripped up by the essay because they don't know what we're looking for," said Teege Mettille, an admissions counselor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "Write an essay about something specific in your life that tells us who you are [and] what kind of student you are going to be." Pass your essay around to friends and family, and get their opinions, Mettille said. And, of course, make sure you proofread.
Too much information
Admissions counselors encourage military students to share unique experiences or challenges from their time in uniform on their applications. Such stories can illustrate how they developed leadership skills, showed bravery in the face of danger or overcame extreme adversity.
But how much information is too much information?
Marjorie Southworth, senior manager of education counseling at the advising company College Coach, said students are not obligated to disclose physical or mental disabilities on college applications and advises them that it is illegal for schools to ask about such illnesses.
If such illnesses are disclosed, Southworth said, the application typically will go to a more experienced counselor who will read it in light of the issues the student has had to deal with, the academic record the student is presenting to the school, and the resources that would be available to him or her at the school.
Admissions experts advise those with PTSD — or any other combat-related injury — to investigate whether a school has the resources and support services needed to make the college experience a positive and productive one. They should call the school's office of disability services even before they apply. All such conversations should be kept confidential.