How to Use Military Life in a College Application

How to use your military life in a college essay

When it comes to your college application essay, you probably are not going to write about the three months you spent "finding yourself" in the Seychelles. The value of your spring break trip through Patagonia seems equally doubtful.

We're guessing you won't even be writing about the 107 cats you saved from that burning building last year.

Why? Because that is not your life. The military is. And you want to know how to use your military life experience in your college essay.

What to write for college essays?

For many prospective students, the essay required by colleges and graduate schools can be the most difficult part of the application process.

"I have no idea what to write about and these suggestions don't make any sense to me," said Rebecca, a college-bound Air Force spouse I met thumbing through essay help books at her local Barnes + Noble.

"If everyone else is writing about priceless, incredible adventures or their plans to free the world from AIDS by 2018, what would writing about military life add?"

We asked military spouses (including some former military brats) for their experience, and we found out that for many, writing about military life added a lot of heft to their application.

Rebecca was hesitant. "What am I supposed to do? Talk about the time I parked in the wrong parking spot? Or didn't know about colors? Or that PCS where everything broke?"

Maybe you are thinking about the deployment when everything went wrong: the washer broke the day he left, and your car died on the way to the hospital with you, in labor, inside it. Or maybe you will be writing about the challenges your family has faced with budget cuts, sequestration and looming layoffs. Perhaps you will even open up about PTSD.

But no matter what aspect of it you choose, leveraging military life in your college application can lift your application from the stacks of mundane, boring essays and bring it to the top.

Open up to stories about your real life

"I applied to a distance learning program at a Boston liberal arts college," says Bethanny, an Army wife. "Writing that application felt like the hardest thing I've done. But I'm pretty sure I was the only one who wrote about dealing with three girls, a PCS, and a husband facing PTSD."

The idea of opening up about her personal life frightened her, Bethanny admits, but her topic was open-ended: Tell us about a moment when you applied something you learned in school to a real-life event.

"I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and the first idea I thought of was persistence," she explains. "Yeah math is hard and you have to stick with it. But learning that in second grade, you don't realize you'll be using it one day in your own family."

This was an early lesson, but an invaluable one. Persistence has carried her through every challenge her family has faced, she said, and it's the hallmark of her experience as a military spouse.

"I try to tell my oldest girl that when teachers say "you'll use this later," it's not about actual fractions or multiplication tables. It's about what you're learning about yourself when you struggle with those."

Bethanny poured her heart out in her application, and when she was finished with her last draft, she knew she had successfully made her point.

"Military life is harder than anybody's summer internship at a hospital or your mission trip to Zambia," she says. "That's pretending to know real life. I'm living it."

Focus on a powerful story

That real-life experience is something that can help you stand head-and-shoulders above the other applicants. But to use it to your advantage, you have to make sure you focus your military experience into a powerful, personal story.

According to the experts, the best way to make your essay count is to focus it on personal experience, keep it unique, and use it as an opportunity to really express your own voice. It is your one chance to tell the admissions committee something about you they do not already know.

"View it as an opportunity," encourages the admissions team at Carleton College. "The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. You've already earned most of your grades; you've already made most of your impressions on teachers; and chances are, you've already found a set of activities you're interested in continuing. So when you write the essay, view it as something more than just a page to fill up with writing. View it as a chance to tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person."

Consider the joys and hardships of military life and how they have shaped the person you are today. Those are not things shared by every candidate in the admissions pool. What kind of experiences has the military granted you that no one else will have had?

"I knew living in Germany was unique, but I know plenty of other kids probably visited in high school on some expensive trip and would be writing about that," says Marine Corps wife Robin.

Robin is as military as it comes without putting on a uniform herself: She and her husband have been together for over a decade, and she grew up in the Marine Corps, too.

"I didn't attend a typical college after graduation because I got married so young," she said. "I did an associate's degree, and I didn't think I would ever need more schooling than that."

Now that she wants her bachelor's, she is excited about school, but the application process has made her more than a little nervous.

"The essay is really scary," she says.

Robin had a travel prompt: Talk about a trip you've taken and the impact it had on you.

"I was afraid if I wrote about military life, they would think it's boring. My mom encouraged me to do it. I think what makes my story so different is it isn't about just taking a trip, it is all about dealing with real life overseas. Not being able to work. Trying to make ends meet without my income. Figuring out I needed to do something for me like going back to school, and that it would help my family too." 

Robin is right: Her essay is honest, personal and tells the reader about who she is as a person.

Sure, her story isn't unique in the military world. Plenty of spouses face these challenges every day and find their own solutions to them. But in a sea of admissions essays, her story does something powerful: It tells you more about who she is in two pages than the rest of her application could put together.

"You don't know I'm a military brat or a military wife. You just know I have a broken employment history and a community college degree," she says. "In my essay, I can tell you who I am. This is who I am, and a lot of its military."

If you are trying to make your military life experience work in your college or graduate school essay, try following these simple do's and don'ts from military wives like yourself:

Do's and Don'ts From Military Wives


Talk honestly about the challenges of military life. -- Army wife Bethanny

Be open about adversity. Sometimes the hard stories are the best stories. -- Army wife Erin

Challenge assumptions about military life! -- Marine Corps wife Monica

Show who you are outside of your husband's job. -- Marine Corps wife Mary


Whine about how hard it is. You have to use a challenge to your advantage. If you are just whining, it should be in an email to mom. -- Navy wife Rachel

Assume they know the lingo. They don't. Take the time to spell things like FRO out. -- Marine Corps wife Robin

Expect them to understand military life is hard. You have to tell them about it. If they aren't in the military world, they won't know. -- Navy wife Christine

Use your thesaurus the whole time! You are smart enough as you are. Use the words you really know. -- Marine Corps wife Barbie

If you have leveraged your military experience in your college essay, we want to know. Do you think it was an asset to your application? What did you write about?

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