How Service To School Helps Veterans Get Accepted to Grad School

By - May 23, 06:50 AM Comments [0]


How Service To School Helps Veterans Get Accepted to Grad School

In this episode, the CEO of Service to School and the Chief Programs Officer at Service to School explore the resources available to active duty service members and veterans through the nonprofit and give practical examples of translating military experience into public sector terms. [SHOW SUMMARY]

Are you a veteran considering grad school? Are you thinking about entering the military and wondering what you should do after it? Would you just like to hear some great advice about applying to grad school, even if you’re not in the military? Please join me for this informative interview with the CEO and the Chief Programs Officer of Service to School, a nonprofit that provides free college and grad school application counseling to military veterans and service members.


An interview with Alec Emmert, CEO of Service to School and Sydney Matthes, Chief Programs Officer. [Show Notes]

Welcome to the 524th episode of Admission Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Are you ready to apply to your dream MBA programs? Are you competitive at your target schools? Accepted’s MBA Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment, but tips on how to improve your qualifications, plus it’s all free. 

In honor of Memorial Day, which the United States will observe this Monday, May 29th, I decided to invite two guests from Service to School, an organization that helps US military veterans gain acceptance to college and graduate programs. It gives me great pleasure to have for the first time on Admissions Straight Talk, Alec Emmert, CEO of Service to School, and Sydney Matthes, Chief Program Officer at, again, Service to School.

A little background about our guests. You could say that Alec really likes school. He holds a BS from the US Naval Academy, an MA in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University, an MS in finance from Georgetown University, and an MBA from Wharton. After serving in the military for almost eight years, Alec joined Booz Allen Hamilton, earned his MBA at Wharton, and then joined McKinsey as a consultant. He became the full-time CEO of Service to School in March of this year. Congratulations on your new position.

Sydney also likes education. She has worked in higher ed since 2011 on different college campuses, and is an independent admissions consultant. She earned her bachelor’s at West Virginia University and her master’s in Higher Education and in Education Administration from George Washington University. Her master’s focused on veteran support programs and campus resources. 

Alec and Sydney, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:40]

Sydney Matthes:

Thanks. Excited to be here.

Glad to have you both. Okay, the first question is a basic one, and let’s start with Alec for this one. What is Service to School? [2:45]

Alec Emmert:

In a nutshell, Service to School is an organization that provides free college application and admissions support to any veteran who wants it. We’re talking about everything from community college to PhD programs. So if you are a veteran and you want any form of higher education, you can reach out to Service to School, and we’ve got a group of about 500 plus volunteer ambassadors who’ll be willing to help you out and get you into the program you’d like to go to. We also offer a number of weekly programs, a newsletter, things like that, that veterans can use, to better inform their college decision.

I’d like each of you also to give us a little background on your personal journeys to involvement with Service to School. And Sydney, why don’t you start with that one? [3:33]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah, absolutely. I actually started as an ambassador. So during my time as an independent admissions consultant, I was consistently approached by soldiers. My husband is active duty army, so he would send me soldiers that had questions about going back to school, and that was my full-time job. I would help them through the process and I was like, “Why isn’t there an organization that does this?”

So after a Google search, I found Service to School and I signed up to be an ambassador, supporting students on our undergraduate team. And then eventually as a volunteer role, I was the co-director of our other grad program that supports veterans that are applying to those one-off programs, like a master’s in higher ed. We have a lot of graduate degrees in computer science that fall in that space. So I led that team, and then eventually they asked me to come on full-time here at Service to School to help support the resources and the content that we provide across all of our different teams. So I started as a volunteer.

Alec Emmert:

I also started as a volunteer ambassador. When I was at Georgetown pursuing my master’s in finance, I was part of their veterans club, and I was looking for a way to give back to the veteran community, and I just started asking around. One of my colleagues there in the veterans club told me about Service to School. I reached out to the organization, signed up to be an undergraduate ambassador, did that for several years. When I decided to apply to business school, I actually became an applicant and got an MBA Admissions ambassador, and he was tremendously helpful in my success. Following my admission to business school, I paid it forward and became an MBA ambassador myself. And then only recently was I asked to take on the role of CEO, and so I moved from Ambassador to CEO. So all in all, I’ve been with the organization for about eight years in some capacity.

In 2015, I interviewed Gus Giacoman, who was one of the co-founders of Service to School, for Admissions Straight Talk. If you’re interested in that, we’re going to link to the episode. Now, Alec, when you applied to Wharton, you already were a graduate of the Naval Academy, and you had two masters  degrees. As I said, you clearly liked school. Why did you want an MBA, and are you glad you got it? [5:35]

Alec Emmert:

The short answer is, I’m very glad I got it. My experience at Wharton was very positive, and really what differentiated my MBA experience from the other two masters I had gotten was the ability to take two years off to really focus on myself, my future, my career, and learn from a variety of different people around me at the Wharton School. The previous two master’s degrees I got were part-time programs. They’re both very, very useful for me professionally. In my case, in my time in the military, I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so I wanted to learn about the root cause of a lot of the challenges that were going on in the region, so I pursued that degree.

And then I used my GI bill benefits while I was working for Booz Allen Hamilton to get the Masters in Finance from Georgetown. It was an excellent program. It still is an excellent program, but it’s part-time, so I wasn’t fully immersed in an academic environment, where going full-time to Wharton enabled me to spend time talking to teachers, really digging deeper into what the future of the business landscape is going to look like. My major is in business analytics, so I got pretty deep in things like machine learning, and really was able to use that time to hit the reset button, figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and expand my professional network.

I think recent surveys said that there’s growing interest in one-year and online programs, but you really felt that the two-year, full-time program was very beneficial. [7:33]

Alec Emmert:

I did, because you get an internship, and the good thing about that is really your first year, all everybody ever talks about is where do you want to intern? And you don’t really have a full picture of what that internship’s going to look like, whether or not you’re going to like the industry once you get there. So it really gives you a chance to try out your first hypothesis, and if you don’t like it, if you go to your internship, you’re not really crazy about it, you want to try something else, you have the opportunity in your second year to re-recruit, try something else and meet with people from different industries, see what else is going on. Even take the time to start a company yourself, things like that.

The bottom line is that I think that the one-year programs are very compressed. They’re good at getting you the education in a shorter period of time, but I do think that the two-year programs are very, very beneficial if you’re looking to really try a bunch of different things out and focus on your own personal development for a little bit longer period of time.

And you’re not doing the juggling that you’d be doing with a part-time program. [8:46]

Alec Emmert:

Oh, yeah. 

That must be hard, working full-time. [8:51]

Alec Emmert:

It was. The MSF program at Georgetown is fantastic, and I learned so much in it. It was definitely a very rigorous program, and working full-time as a consultant while doing that, there were many late nights. I felt like I was always burning the candle at both ends with that one, in the sense, getting a full-time MBA removes the variable of having a full-time job. So your first responsibility when you’re at business school is doing well in the classroom, whereas your first responsibility when you’re getting a part-time degree is your day job.

Sydney, why did you go for your Master’s, and are you glad you got it? [9:33]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah, absolutely. I think the reason I went for my master’s is a lot of what Alec echoed in his experience in his MBA program. My undergraduate experience was truly transformative for me, just as a person. And I loved my time on campus, which led me to say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that working in higher education on a college campus can be someone’s full-time job.” So when I thought about going back to school, how can I do that full-time on a college campus, but also to be able to learn the intricacies of the US higher education system. So while doing my master’s program at GW, I had the opportunity to work in the law school admissions office. I worked in the undergraduate admissions office while also being a graduate student. So I had a full view of how a higher education and research institution can work.

I stumbled into the space of veteran support. Like I mentioned, my spouse is an active duty service member, and we were looking at student development theories. There wasn’t a lot of research around student veterans and how they integrate onto college campuses, be it at the undergraduate or graduate level. So I had the opportunity to create new knowledge. There’s so many incredible opportunities on college campuses across the different programs that students can enroll in, and that was just really exciting for me.

So to be able to go back for a graduate program, focused on a student population I was incredibly passionate, interested in learning more about, while also supporting my interest in learning higher education, 100% it’s led me truly to my position here now at Service to School, when I look back at 2015 and the research projects that I had. So 100% absolutely it was worth it. Just being around people that are excited to learn – you get that on a campus. And to Alec’s point, the networking, those hands-on experiences that you get from being fully immersed in a college campus, I’m just incredibly passionate about sharing that opportunity for service members, but also for anyone who’s interested in higher ed.

And your program was also a full-time program, was it? [11:40]

I worked full-time, went part-time.

But you were working on campus, so in that sense you were immersed. Got it. [11:47]

It felt full-time, because I would go straight from work to class in the evenings, when I would travel for work, working in admissions, talking to prospective students, was able to apply what I was learning in the classroom to my job. So it felt like I was doing both full-time, but wouldn’t change it, definitely to be able to see that practice and the application to what you’re learning in the classroom, play out in the workplace. I mean, to be able to marry those things was truly a dream come true.

So that’s the flip side of the part-time program, especially when you’re working in a related field. 

So there are advantages to being a vet, applying to school, and there are disadvantages to being a vet, applying to school. Why don’t we have each of you start with one of them, and you can obviously add if you have something to add. Alec, since you’re such an expert at applications, why don’t you address the disadvantages of applying or the challenges of applying as a vet to, in your case, graduate school? [12:14]

Alec Emmert:

Sure. And so, I’d say that the disadvantage is really why Service to School is here. So the disadvantage is, when you’re in the military, it’s a fairly small percentage of your coworkers and your peers are going to be looking to go to graduate school to leave, and then go on to say business school, law school. Whereas when you think about it, a lot more people in the private sector, say hypothetically you’re working for an investment banker or consulting firm, I wouldn’t say the majority, but a large number of your peers are looking to those types of programs, looking to business school, potentially law school. And so, within your network there’s a lot more, I’d say peer and near peer mentorship.

You can talk about different programs, you can weigh the pros and cons of each, things like that. You can talk about good GMAT and LSAT prep programs. Whereas, when you’re a veteran, there’s a lot less information, or I’d say good information going around. Now, what Service to School is, it’s a network of mentors. So if you’re looking to get that good information, that mentorship, that near peer mentorship with your applications, that’s what we’re here for. So we’re here to essentially correct that disadvantage that many veterans experience.

Sydney, what will you say would be some of the advantages that vets have coming from the military and applying to grad school? And do you have anything to add to Alec’s comment? [14:06]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah, I mean, hitting home his point of the good information shared, that’s what we definitely try and do here at Service to School, is make sure that our applicants are well-informed about the admissions process, and where they could be a good fit at some of the nation’s strongest institutions. That’s one of the advantages, I think, of being a veteran applying to college right now, there’s so much unknown about our veterans. From my time reading admissions files, I have no idea what someone’s job in the Navy entails, or someone’s job in the Army entails. And to bring those real life experiences to a college campus, to a graduate program classroom, it adds to the depth of the conversations that are able to happen inside the classrooms.

And I think we see that through the program. The students that are going to some of our top business schools, Wharton, Harvard, they are actively seeking and enrolling veterans in those classrooms, because they see that their experiences, their lived experiences are very different from the rest of the students that are enrolling in those programs.

And we have those conversations with our student applicants regularly that you have very different experiences from what a traditional application’s essay is going to sound like, or what their resume is going to look like, and how can we best tell that story and help you translate those military experiences into civilian equivalencies or a language that a civilian’s going to understand. And that just sets their application already apart, because reading files, you’re used to reading the same undergraduate experience, there’s undergraduate clubs, but when you get a veteran’s application across your desk, it’s a whole new lens, which is really exciting from an admissions reader standpoint.

It seems to me like it’s almost a double-edged sword. You have this distinctive experience which will add to the classroom in ways that graduate admissions offices and employers will value, but you have to translate the distinctive experience into language that civilians will understand. Am I correct? [16:03]

Sydney Matthes:

Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s a lot of what we spend our time doing, is helping them find those equivalencies. I tell our applicants, if I don’t understand what you’re talking about in your personal statement or your statement of purpose, an admissions officer probably isn’t going to be either, so let’s make sure we run that by your ambassador or Service to School team member, to make sure that you are translating that in the best way that we can. So then employers or an admissions office would understand some of the very specific military schooling that our applicants are coming to us with.

Alec, do you have any feedback from there, especially your time as an ambassador too?

Alec Emmert:

Yeah. The big thing is, veterans don’t write resumes. Most veterans will join the military and never have to write a resume until they leave. And so, understanding really what to put in a resume, how to convey the impact that you’ve made with your unit, is something veterans I think often struggle with. We’re always taught to be somewhat humble, by and large give the credit to the group. Whereas when that comes to writing a resume, that doesn’t always put your best foot forward.

So the key, I think, is a lot of veterans struggle with, we already discussed the acronyms and things like that, things of that in the military are pretty well known, but not well known outside and certainly not very well understood by a college admissions officer. So having that type of information in there that is not well explained, and then also being able to convey the impact they made with their unit and the situation, task, action, result, type, resume, bullet, and that’s, again, what Service to School is here to help them do.

Let’s dive into some of the different forms of assistance that Service to School provides to different types of applicants. Again, we’re going to keep the focus on the graduate programs, because that’s Admissions Straight Talk’s focus, but obviously an understanding is that you also provide to high school grads applying to college and community colleges also. So let’s start, Alec, with MBA applicants. What kind of assistance does Service to School provide to MBA applicants? [18:07]

Alec Emmert:

Sure. So the big thing, we have our MBA ambassadors that provide one-on-one mentorship to potential MBA applicants. So a potential MBA applicant will fill in an intake form to Service to School. They’ll have an onboarding call, and then they will likely be paired with an ambassador with a similar background who went to a school that they are interested in attending, usually. So in my case, Wharton was my top choice, but Service to School paired me with an ambassador who was at HBS.

So they might not give you the exact school you want to go to, but a peer school. That ambassador will typically help with application preparation, resume review, essays, interview coaching, things like that. Additionally, we’ve got an MBA guidebook that’s available on our website that provides, independent of the ambassador, an applicant can go there. There are examples of good essays, good resumes, things like that. So there’s those free web resources that are available on our website at any time an applicant wants them. And additionally, we have some MBA programs where members of different veterans clubs at schools will talk to our applicants and answer questions as well.

Sydney Matthes:

Can I just piggyback in there as well?

Alec, being humble, he also just wrote and authored his own MBA Guidebook for Veterans. It’s available on Amazon.

But also, we do host an annual MBA and law school admissions fair, so we bring in schools. This year we had over 30 admissions offices represented, so veterans are able to speak directly with admissions offices for JD and MBA admissions.

Is it online or in person? [20:28]

Sydney Matthes:

It’s all virtual.

And then for our healthcare professionals team, we have information sessions. This last year we did one with Mount Sinai. So a lot of virtual events for our applicants as well, and it’s all free to the applicant.

And you’re anticipating my next questions, which would be about JD applicants, applicants to graduate programs and healthcare, and applicants to other graduate programs, whether it be the masters in finance that Alec attended, maybe he can touch on that again, or research oriented PhD programs or engineering or public policy. So Sydney, you want to take that, several sub questions, if you will? [20:45]

Sydney Matthes:

Sure, sure. So in addition to the events, I mean, I think the near peer piece is huge. Speaking specifically to our other grad team, that’s where a lot of our PhD applicants will fall. And when applying to PhD programs, typically they’re asking for a statement of purpose, an idea of a dissertation topic. So our PhD ambassadors are typically going through with applicants thinking, okay, well what kind of research might you want to do? Or what’s a topic for your dissertation? Have you thought through what that would look like in terms of a timeline?

Same conversations when we’re talking with applicants through their medical school applications. Okay, well, let’s think timeline. If they’re using their GI bill, how is that going to play into financing, the entirety of their time in a medical program? So the near peer piece, I think, is very key for our graduate programs, in addition to just the events and the resources that we’re able to provide with some of the partnerships that we have with graduate programs across the country.

Now, you mentioned PhDs, most PhD programs are by their very nature research-oriented and want to see previous research. Does the military provide opportunities for service members to do research? And if not, how do applicants handle that? [22:09]

Alec Emmert:

That’s a good question. Sydney, feel free to jump in if my answer is lacking in any way. The short answer is yes, the military does provide opportunities for members to do research specifically. So the military is increasingly growing, more technologically advanced. And the military really actually has always been on the cutting edge of technology. And so, when you think about up and coming fields like AI, autonomy, like autonomous vehicles, things like that, members of the military are often at commands where this type of work is things that they do on a daily basis. And they might not specifically be in an R&D capacity, but they’ll publish articles in military journals and things like that. So there is the opportunity to do research while you’re in the military. I would say it’s not perhaps as easy as if you’re in a purely academic pursuit, but it’s there.

Sydney Matthes:

Agreed. Seeking out those opportunities too, there’s a lot of employers, organizations that have opportunities for research specifically for either student veterans or active duty. I know my spouse specifically, he’s getting an article published, and he’s a lawyer, and that’s all through the Army, so there are opportunities out there. That’s another thing I think Service to School does is, we try and share those opportunities with our applicants. All of our teams, graduate teams, our MBA team is run by one of our best ambassadors, and he’s regularly sending out opportunities for applicants within the MBA program for internships, research, scholarships, whatever those fields are in terms of the program that they’re applying to. Whenever we get resources like that, we try to share them with our applicants. So they’re definitely out there.

What suggestions do you have for vets applying to the different programs? Do you recommend, let’s say that MBA applicants get experience in the business world after separating from the military and before applying? Or do you think that perhaps the logistics experience they may have gotten in the military is usually enough for business school, and ultimately employers? Alec, again, do you want to take that one since it’s about MBAs? And we’ll go through the other categories also quickly. [24:18]

Alec Emmert:

Yeah, sure. The short answer is, you can. I actually have known veterans who have left the military on say a Friday and started their MBA on a Monday, and they have been very successful. So it can be done. I mean, I do think the reality is, the more experience you can have working in the private sector between the military and the start of business school, the better. In my case, I spent about five years working for Booz Allen Hamilton before I started my MBA, and I think that, that gave me a little bit of a leg up over some of my other veterans at business school in terms of just really understanding really how corporate America works, because it’s fundamentally different than the military. But with that said, I think that five years might have been on the extreme side. I’d say that a good thing that a lot of veterans can take advantage of, is the DOD SkillBridge program, which I believe it’s six months before they leave the military, they can get an internship for a company in the private sector.

And so, they still get their military pay. They’re still technically on active duty, but they are working for this company. So if you can get a little bit of experience like that before you start business school, that’s very helpful. There’s also opportunities out there for pre MBA programs for veterans, that I knew some of my peers at Wharton also took advantage of. There’s some, I believe  BlackRock has one, so those are also good things to look into. And the best way to handle it is, if you’re a veteran, you get into business school, reach out to the veterans club at the university, and they’re often, they’ve got a good handle on the different internship opportunities available. And then also, the Service to School MBA team can be helpful as well in that regard.

And since your husband’s an attorney in the military, what would you recommend for service members who are thinking of going for a JD? [26:41]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah. I think there’s, again, comes back to the good information. There’s a lot of bridge programs even from the military where they will go back and pay for you to go to law school, and then you come back as an active duty JAG. There’s so many opportunities that I think unfortunately a lot of people just don’t know about. So as much experience as you can get, as much as you can network and connect with people, like Alec said, reaching out to vets clubs where and when you can, and connecting with ambassadors from Service to School.

I hate to keep plugging that, but they’ve made that transition, they’ve made that leap that a lot of service members are looking for. But to talk to someone that has done that and charted those waters, is the best way to figure out what that could look like for you. But yeah, absolutely, I think as much hands-on experience as you can get, knowledge about the field and what it looks like and what that process entails, it’s just going to set you up to be the most successful, but also to make the best decision for yourself if that’s the journey that you’re wanting to go down.

I know that the military also has a medical school. That’s certainly one opportunity, and I think if you go to that medical school, your medical school education is paid for, or you have to serve afterwards, but it is paid for and you emerge debt free, which is pretty nice. But what are other things, especially if somebody’s coming out of the military, maybe they were a medic in the military, what should they be doing? And Sydney, why don’t you take that one? [27:49]

Sydney Matthes:

I think a lot of it depends, and this is where we do a lot of educating with our admissions colleagues as well, is the job that someone could have in the military, it’s going to depend where they’re at in terms of rank, at least from my understanding. So my husband works as a JAG, he has a law degree, but he also works with paralegals. Some of them don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

Just for civilians, what’s a JAG? [28:43]

Sydney Matthes:

For sure. He’s a lawyer for the Army, is essentially what it comes down to. He went to law school and then joined the Army afterwards. But to go back to your medic example, one of his paralegals was thinking about going to medical school. And I was saying, okay, well, what’s some experiences you can get through the military that can help show an admissions office that you have an interest in medicine that, that’s your journey? Putting him in a position to get that experience. Like you were asking about previously, should they join the workforce before they apply to some of these graduate programs? But if you can check both of those boxes from your time in service before you get out, then you’re getting paid to check that box while you’re still on your active duty assignment.

But to your point about the medical program, we had several friends that are military doctors, and they had their whole medical school paid for. They also have a residency, and take all of that part out of it too. You don’t necessarily have to do the matching when that comes with medical school residency programs. So I think when you can use the military to get that experience at whatever degree program through undergrad, I think that sets you up to double check a lot of those boxes, and use your time as efficiently, as effectively as you can.

We also once had an interview, this was a few years ago, with a representative of military medical recruiting. It’s episode 266.

You have research oriented-programs, you have terminal masters programs, and let’s say engineering or public policy, all kinds of programs. So talking about grad, a very broad category, can be pretty difficult. What can veterans do to prepare themselves for those kinds of programs? Really broad strokes. [30:00]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah, I think researching your why, figuring out why you might go into one of these more specific programs. Like I said, I knew for me, higher ed, I wanted to understand the ins and outs and how it works. So a higher education administration made sense for me. But does the field that you’re transitioning into, does the career, does it require an advanced degree? It’s a lot of what I ask my applicants that are applying to some of those more specific graduate programs, are you going into a PhD because you think it’s going to make you more marketable or is it going to lead to career progression, or are you just truly interested in learning that field? So much of it, I think, comes back to your, why? Why would you invest four years, three years for law school to then come out with a law degree? What do you want to do with it? What is your why, I think is the most important to reflect on.

That’s great advice, because many, if not most or all graduate programs, most require something called a statement of purpose. And if you don’t have a why, you don’t have a purpose. And it’s extremely difficult to write a statement of purpose without a purpose. 

Alec, what are Student to Services requirements for participants in its programs, other than being active duty or veterans? [31:49]

Alec Emmert:

That’s really it. If you’ve served your country, we’re here to serve you. It’s more so I’d say the timeline. We’ve got a ton of free resources on our website. We do the fairs that Sydney discussed. We’ve got programs that are open to all veterans. When it comes to ambassador pairing, we try to pair them with the ambassador at the time that their application is going to be completed. So if you’re in theory, say you’re applying for an intake in the fall of 2024, we’ll pair you up with that ambassador in the fall of 2023, so that you can get your application worked on then when it’s due.

But oftentimes, people will reach out to us two years before they actually have to have their applications prepped. They’re just really interested in getting our feedback on different programs, and advice. And so, we’re always open to that. And then typically, we’ll set reminders as a staff to reach out to these people. Again, check in with them, see how they’re doing. But when it comes to the actual, where the rubber meets the road, you get paired with an ambassador and you work on your application, we tend to do that right when that application is actually going to be due.

And is there any requirement, I thought I saw online, but I might have misread it, that they need to have their test if the program they’re applying to requires a test. [33:37]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah. On our website, it’ll list the teams what their requirement is in terms of testing. We like to see at least an unofficial score for an exam that’s different from enlisted versus officer. So it will vary on the program that they’re interested in applying to. But we do like to see at least a practice test, some investment in moving towards that application timeline.

People coming from the military, they have this wonderful, rich, and distinctive experience, which schools would value, but it’s hard to understand. Much like, I had to look up J-A-G, judicial something, something. Can you give me any tips or advice on how service members or vets, can translate their experience so that readers don’t have to constantly be Googling acronyms, and application readers can better appreciate the quality of their experience and the relevance of their experience in the private sector. [34:12]

Alec Emmert:

The easiest thing that I tell people is, don’t put acronyms in your resume.

I’ll give you a perfect example of one client I had. I was working with, he was an MBA applicant and he had a very impressive job. He was working for, and I’m going to tell you the way he described. He says, “And I was an aide to the CNO.” Okay, the CNO is the Chief of Naval Operations, that is effectively the head of the US Navy on active duty. I’ve got to remember my numbers here. I think it’s on the order of 200,000 active duty personnel, and another 200,000 reservists. So what we’re looking at is someone who’s equivalent to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

I talked to the individual saying, what you did is very impressive, but anyone who’s reading that resume is not going to know who the CNO is. Yes, people in the military know, but other people don’t. So you can say something to like, Chief of Naval Operations, parenthesis, CEO equivalent of a 400,000 person organization. And so, just put something like that, so when an MBA ADCOM reads it like, “Wow.”

And the use of numbers is critical, right? [36:14]

Alec Emmert:

Yes. Oh, yes, yes. And so, that’s key. I say always, numbers create impact. And say for example things like, ranked number one out of 10 peers, something like, led to a 20% improvement in unit readiness, things like that. So numbers as much as possible, and no acronyms.

Okay, great. Sydney, can you top it? [36:37]

Sydney Matthes:

I don’t think so. I think I would echo everything he says. I mean, even still, my spouse has been in for 12 years and I am constantly learning new acronyms. I’m going to ask them for a dictionary.

So if I’m feeling it, admissions officers, admissions readers, they’re 100% feeling it too if you’re seeing acronyms and words they’re not used to, coming across their desk.

Let’s say we have an active duty military person who has six to nine months between separation from the military and when they hope to start their graduate program, whatever it might be. Do you have a recommendation for what they should do during that period? [37:10]

Alec Emmert:

So the short answer is, you can do a lot of things, and it really comes down to the individual and what they feel they need. So a lot of times a service member will have been deployed a lot. They’ll be really burned out from the grueling military experience, and maybe just taking six months to relax to go sit on a beach for a bit. One of my friends went to Bali and surfed for six months before business school.

And that was what he needed. He had been very stressful, very stressful deployments and was burned out mentally. And before he embarked on the next phase of his life, he really just needed that reset. Now, at the same time, there’s other people who are just dead set on getting that investment banking job, that private equity job. And the best thing for them might be pursuing a pre MBA internship. So I think that the key really is for you to take a look at yourself, figure out what you need before you make that next jump.

If somebody is now thinking of applying to an MBA program this upcoming cycle, they have time to plan. And you can expand that to other grad applications too, but well, not healthcare. You’re hitting the ground running now, especially MD and DO. But all right, let’s keep it to MBA and JD. It’s now probably 15 months until they will start their program. And let’s say they’ve already separated, what would be your suggestions for them? So they’re applying presumably later this summer, maybe the fall, and they’re hoping to start their MBA summer 2024. [38:59]

Alec Emmert:

So for that person, I think the number one priority is figuring out where you want to go to school, because that’s going to drive all of your decisions, because if you want to go to one of the top MBA programs, you’re going to have to get a very strong GMAT or GRE score. But if your aspirations aren’t as lofty, then you don’t necessarily have to spend as much time stressing about that GMAT or GRE. So my recommendation is really, set your target, figure out what you need to get there, and then you need to start reaching out to Service to School as the first step, I always tell people to do.

If you’re interested in going to any form of advanced education, send us a note, we’ll get you in the system, we’ll start rolling with you. And then reach out to the veterans clubs at the different schools you’re interested in applying to, because those people can generally give you some good insights. And then they’ll often have veteran visit days. So for example, Wharton has, I believe it’s semi-annual veterans visit day, where if you’re interested in going, people two, three years out will just go there, just see what Wharton’s all about, meet with some vets, sit in a classroom and see if that’s really for them. So I’d say that the first step is, setting your target, figuring out what you’re going to need to get on your standardized test to get there, and then networking with veterans who have walked the road you want to walk.

Sydney Matthes:

I mean, as you’re researching schools, encouraging them to think about how they’re going to pay for it. So if we’re talking about utilizing your GI bill or any financial aid, what that could look like for you if you’re going to pay out of pocket. That’s a big part too of figuring out what that school or that program fit is. So would definitely encourage the financial piece to be a big conversation that you start with when you’re thinking through, okay, what is this program going to cost me over the course of three plus years?

I would actually like to add something to Alec’s point if I could, not specifically military, because if it was, I couldn’t be adding anything. But in general, I am a firm believer that graduate decisions should be guided by what you want to do after the graduate program. So if you start researching your schools, you have to really know the direction you want to take afterwards, and then that becomes a true north star in guiding where you also apply. Now, hopefully there’s not a disconnect between qualifications and your goals, that’s sometimes a problem, but if that aligns, then the whole process becomes much, much easier. [41:48]

Alec Emmert:

Oh, yeah. No, of course. And I’m going to throw in one more thing I forgot: Family buy-in. 

You’re going to have to ask your significant other if they’re okay with you taking the time off from being in the private sector, for sacrificing several years of income, and for them to disrupt their lives to go where you want to go to school, if that’s something they’re on board with. And I think that it’s very important to set expectations with your family members and make sure that they’re really on board with your decision to apply to graduate school if you do have a family.

I do want to ask you about your new book. Can you tell us about it a little bit, Alec? [43:03]

Alec Emmert:

Yeah. The book is called, Breaking Business School, The Savvy Veteran’s 10-Step Guide to MBA Success. It’s free on Kindle. So if you just go to Amazon, you can get it for free there. And basically, I learned many lessons the hard way between the military and business school. I spent five years in the private sector. I tried many different options as we discussed. I had a part-time business degree in finance, I worked for a consulting firm, and I learned a lot in the process. And when I was getting out, I got out of the Navy in 2012, left active service then, and there wasn’t really that much information out there. And so, what I did was, I set out to write the book I wish I had, had in 2012, which really gives the whole start-to-finish process of business school in terms of what careers can you get with a full-time MBA, what you’ll be competitive for, especially as a veteran where you can really put your best foot forward, what it takes to get into particular schools, and then the differences between part-time degrees, full-time degrees.

And really, then once you get to school, what to expect and how to succeed once you’re at business school, because that’s a very important variable, because just because you get into a top business school, does not mean you’re going to get that top job. You have to be very deliberate when you get to that school, be focused, set your target, and prepare for your job interviews. And then it closes out with, once you’ve already got that job offer, how can you really maximize your experience while you’re there at that school? And one of the big things there is becoming a Service to School ambassador, and paying it forward.

What question would you like to answer that I haven’t asked? [44:58]

Sydney Matthes:

Yeah, I think the question would be, why not go after some of these top schools? Why not put yourself in the ring to be admitted to the top business schools or the top law schools in the country? We’ve worked with an applicant. She used to work here on staff, Service to School. She’s enlisted Navy, started undergraduate at Yale, and is now in law school at Yale. So to sell yourself short and not to give yourself the best opportunity after your time in service, why not?

Alec Emmert:

This is one is, how old is too old for an MBA?

Alec Emmert:

Because there was so much bad information about this, and there’s this myth going around, I remember. So when I got out, I was 30, and I actually thought I was too old to go to business school.

And there’s this bad information that circulates around where I think I’d heard a few people say, oh, you’re not competitive for a top program if you’re in your 30s. Or things like, Wharton only wants people that are in their late 20s at the oldest. And I said, “Well, I’m 30, I’m not going to be competitive, so I’m not really going to waste my time with it.” And the reality is really that you set your own pace.

If you are at a point in your career where you think an MBA, a full-time MBA I’m talking about, is the right move for you, if you want to take two years off, hit the reset button, pursue a different career field, then a 100%, go for it. And don’t really listen to the rumors that are out there, because there is an exception to every, quote, unquote, rule out there. And so, at the end of the day, you figure out what you want, reach out to Service to School, and we’ll help you get there.

May I ask, would you mind telling us how old you were when you got your MBA, when you started your MBA? [46:59]

Alec Emmert:

Yeah, I was 35 years old. Graduated when I was 37, and I was not the oldest person in my class.

I will say, my experience is that sometimes older MBA applicants that are coming from the military, and less so coming from the military, sometimes have a harder time, because they have a harder time justifying the time off from a career, but it is not impossible. We have worked with people also in their mid 30s, I think even 40s, who’ve gone. 

Alec and Sydney, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve enjoyed chatting with both of you about Service to School. And Alec, thank you for your service, and Sydney, thanks to your husband for his service. [47:11]

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