A group of North Central student-veterans dressed in their uniforms.

7 Tips to Veteran Success in College

Jacob Imm

Mar 30, 2022

7 Tips to Veteran Success in College

Serving in the U.S. military is an awesome sacrifice and a noble step for anyone to take. The training, discipline, and threat to physical safety involved makes military service both challenging and rewarding. So if you’re one of the many military veterans looking to go to college and get a degree, you are likely used to doing good work to achieve excellent results, and you’re ready to bring a wealth of experience to your campus.

That said, getting a college education represents a whole different kind of challenge to serving in the military. It is a new environment that requires new skills and unique pressures. You should be excited about it because college is one of the great times in life, and it opens up a world of possibilities, but it’s okay to be a little nervous, too.

Hopefully, that’s exactly why you’re reading this. So let’s get started on some important tips for military personnel looking for student success.

Looking to back up a step and get some guidance on how to get into college in the first place? Be sure to check out our guide with tips for applying to college as a veteran.

Making the Transition From the Field to the Classroom

1. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

If you are applying to college as a veteran, one of the first things you’ll notice is how much you need to know and how many choices must be made just so you can be a student. People around you will talk quickly and comfortably about choosing their classes, moving into their dorms, or finding places to eat, work out, and study. You might feel a little behind. 

Rest assured that this feeling is the same for every new student, even if those around you who aren’t veterans seem to have a better handle on things. While you have a lot of details to work out, there’s always someone there to help. 

Julie Carballo, director of veteran and military-affiliated student services at North Central College, has seen the struggle for academic success many times. She says it’s strange enough for military service members to enter civilian life at all, much less higher education institutions.  As she puts it, being a student veteran doesn’t necessarily make you feel like a “veteran student.” 

“One of the most common comments I hear from new student veterans is ‘I bet I'm the only one in my class that hasn't been in school for over four years,’” she said. “Understandably, this is challenging and requires the student veteran ‘get comfortable with the uncomfortable’ initially and know that it will pass.”

2. Get involved.

Walking around a college campus can look strange when coming out of the service. Many of the things military students are used to taking for granted don’t exist outside of ROTC facilities--no uniforms (depending on where you’re going to school, of course), no salutes, no drills. Instead of officers, you’re talking to professors. Instead of ranks, people tend to identify themselves by their year in school. And instead of one large organization where everyone is a member, there are numerous organizations all around you, from majors to athletic teams to groups with common interests and backgrounds.

This can feel overwhelming, but not if you look at it as an opportunity. There is more to college than just the education benefits. Going to college gives you a chance to reinvent yourself. You can think in a whole new way about where you want your life to go, how you want to spend your time, and who you want to meet.

U.S. Marine Officer Chris Walker writes in Veteran Life about how important it is to embrace activities and peers: “So many vets want to take a step back from responsibility after leaving active duty and starting school because they are tired. This does you and your community a disservice because you have a wealth of knowledge and experience that you can share.

“Student and community organizations are a great way to meet new friends, network, and build lasting relationships that could ultimately benefit your career. Getting involved will help develop those community leadership skills and look great on a resume.”

Carballo adds that it helps to think ahead. “Be proactive in utilizing resources and developing study and time management strategies,” she said. As soon as you figure out your course schedule and what you might want to do with your free time, start thinking about what your daily routine will be. Plan out your days and weeks, giving yourself time to get from one place to another and leaving plenty of hours for sleeping and relaxing. This will help you have a plan for each day–and make this different environment and experience start to feel more familiar and, eventually, comfortable.

Potential Challenges

3. Stay true to you. 

The importance of a chain of command and the demands of duty are core concepts to military service. The college environment is very different, but it can be hard to shake those ideas from your mind. That can create difficulties for student veterans.

You may think that in order to fit in, you’ll be expected to turn away from the principles you learned in the service. Or you may go the other direction, thinking everyone expects you to represent a higher standard and be an example to others.

The answer is more likely to be somewhere in between those extremes. You need to be yourself and let others do the same. If your values lead you to make different choices than others about your interests, views, opinions, and subjects of conversation, that’s great. Stand up for what you believe in and let everyone else have that same chance. Just remember to always be respectful.

Walker said that expectations of student veterans might be different than for other students, so it’s key to leave your ego at the door: “Recognize that this is a new arena and you are here to learn. You have probably dealt with a lot more responsibility than most of (your peers), and you’ll probably be made group leader of every project, but that doesn’t mean you know everything. Being a good leader means recognizing each group member’s strengths and values. Peer leadership is the hardest kind, and you can develop it here.” That said, if you’re not comfortable taking on a leadership role or you feel people are expecting too much of you, politely let them know that.

Find out more about North Central College

4. Give yourself a break.

As much as you have to manage as a college student, it’s important to admit it’s a challenge and not try to power through all on your own. There’s no need to try to be an “Army of One.” 

Every college that admits veterans is aware of the challenges they face and makes people available to assist with those challenges. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay to ask for help--professionals at your school are paid to do just that.

For example, Carballo described what she and her staff do for their military student veterans: “Common challenges (for student veterans) include accessing VA benefits, adapting to … academic demands after not being in a classroom for several years, and finding like-minded peers in a new setting. At North Central College, we discuss these challenges with our new student veterans, provide necessary support and strategies, and connect new student veterans to returning student veterans through a variety of initiatives including monthly military veterans’ lunches in the Veterans Resource Center.”

Along with planning out your time, be sure to identify the offices on your campus that are there specifically to help you and other veteran students. They will be a lifeline to not only help you with your workload, but also put you in touch with others who know what you’re going through and can talk with you on your level.

If you’re looking for help as a student of another kind, as well, be sure to read our guide on how to be successful as a first generation college student and our college guide for low income students

Military Advantages

5. Embrace your training.

Working toward college credit isn’t just about challenges for eligible veterans. There are distinct ways in which your military training can help you become successful, too. While the stakes are very different, the preparation you received to be in the service can be applied to the obstacles facing you as a student. Look at it this way: if you went through basic training, you likely thought that after that you could survive anything. There’s no need to shy away from that feeling when faced with midterms or giving a class presentation. 

Natalie Gross wrote in Military Times Reboot Camp about the approach suggested by someone who bridges the gap between the military and higher education. “‘Approach (college) as you did … the military,’ said Jorge Trevino, a retired Navy chief petty officer who is now a professor and academic advisor at Penn State World Campus.

“‘The reality is that the military trained us to learn fast, efficiently, and on a schedule. Students should rely on their strengths and not change it simply because they think that it must be done a different way,’ he said.”

Support Options

6. Find your resources and allies.

We’ve talked about how asking for help is important, but you may wonder what kind of help is available for military student veterans. The better question might be what kind of help you can’t find, because support is in ready supply on any college campus. Remember that a university’s primary mission is for its students to succeed. It’s in their best interest to help you get what you need.

The best colleges will have dedicated staff and resources specifically for building student veteran success. Offices of veterans affairs and similar departments will be familiar with your experiences and what you’ll need to get through school, whether it’s navigating financial aid matters like the G.I. Bill, the Yellow Ribbon program, VA educational benefits, and other tuition assistance; getting help with specific skills like writing, public speaking, and math; or connecting you with a counselor if you just need to talk.

In her article, Gross pointed out an important point student veterans can easily forget. You have as much right and access to your school’s resources as anyone, and you should feel free to use all of those resources even if they’re not veteran-specific: “Use every program the (college or) university offers—tutoring, career support, academic advising, counseling. They will not judge you or put in your records that you asked for help—something a lot of us … have worried about in the military—but they will offer you, instead, a chance to get ahead and do well.”

Choosing the right school

7. Station yourself in the best spot.

As we’ve mentioned, the most important step to success for a student veteran is finding the place to get your degree. You need to be somewhere you feel comfortable, that has the right academic offerings, class and campus size, facilities, programs, and environment for you.

Carballo provides an overview of the kind of things to look for from her own school: “At North Central College, students are holistically supported from application through graduation initially by our admissions staff, and then by our VA certifying official, academic advisors, and myself, who help them access benefits and attend a specialized orientation for new student veterans. Student veterans are supported by North Central's Veteran Success Team. This team of 20 individuals serves as the point of contact for their office/program and are committed to responding to veteran inquiries in a timely manner and through full resolution.”

Check out North Central College to find out more and get your future headed in the right direction.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.