What to Expect from this article:
• How I went from being a college fail-out to a student at an Ivy League institution
• The actual path and decisions I made to get here
What not to expect from this article:
• A sob story
• How to navigate the Post 9/11 GI-Bill, Montgomery GI Bill, or Vocational Rehab. I’ve never used any of them! (I used the California Promise Grant for community college and Princeton gave me a full-ride grant.)
• Personal details that led to my failures at college before the military
Here it goes…
Failing out of college hurt. I was never an outstanding student or athlete in high school, but I was decent—I was good enough to get by. Never in a million years did I think that one of my semester GPAs would be 0.5. (No, that is not a typo.) Looking back, I did everything wrong, and I know it. My priorities were in borderline reverse order, I went to class maybe five times a semester, and I could not have cared less about my career. You get the picture.
Sometime after failing out of college, however, I remember having some sort of weird epiphany. I just woke up one morning and decided that I wasn’t going to be that person anymore. I wasn’t going to fail; I wasn’t going to mope. So, I searched the internet for how to basically turn my life around. Ultimately, I decided to join the military. You veterans and active service members know that this decision and process took a little while, but for the sake of this article, just know that I enlisted in the Marine Corps in the pursuit of personal redemption.
My Marine Corps experience itself, well, we could write books about that. Again, for the sake of this article, I think it’s just important to know that I took it seriously. I took my job seriously; I took promotions seriously; I took the people seriously. I definitely tried my hardest to be the best asset that I could be, and I’m very proud of what I accomplished. For those who don’t know, life in the Marine Air Wing is all about qualifications, and with the help of some solid mentorship, I succeeded in acquiring qualifications that gave me quite a bit of responsibility. This rapport that I built with some of my peers and superiors helped me out immensely down the road, which brings me to my first point. Your decisions while on active duty can and will help you in the civilian world, especially in college admissions.
No, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I really did hate many aspects about the lifestyle, but sometimes you just have to suck it up. If you’re reading this while in the barracks, in the field, or on a ship in the Persian Gulf, know this: if you want to complete your service and get out, that’s fine, but even if it’s for selfish reasons, give your enlistment your best effort. You’ll see why in a bit.
As I approached the end of my contract, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. Honestly, I never even debated reenlisting. I wanted to go finish what I had started and prove that I could hack it. The only problem though, was that my college GPA from before the military was so bad, that I knew that no respectable university would give me a shot. So, once I completed my enlistment, I began taking classes at Saddleback College, a community college in Orange County.
Saddleback was great. They give service members and veterans priority registration, so I was always able to enroll in whichever classes that I wanted. This leads me to two key points here:
Ensure that you know exactly which classes you need before each semesters’ enrollment.
• The classes you need will depend on what your goal is. If you are trying to transfer to another college (i.e., community college to a university), you must look up what classes that university wants or requires. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, just call the university to which you plan on applying and ask them for help.
Perform immense research on which professors and classes to take.
• Rate My Professors is a website that allows you to basically crowdsource how previous students feel about various professors and courses. Consider it Yelp but for professors. This is extremely useful. After all, if your goal is to transfer to a top university (or really any university), you’re going to want the best GPA possible. Rate My Professors can help you achieve that goal.
I’ll quickly summarize how I approached community college. I wanted to get in and get out. So, I packed my schedule. I took 10 credits over summer (my first term back in school), then 18 credits in the fall, 19 credits in the spring, and then 17 credits the following fall. Yes, I know that’s a lot, but it was worth it to me. I prioritized school over everything else, and all I wanted to do was earn admission to the very best university possible. Ultimately, I completed associate degrees in both economics and business administration with a 4.0 GPA through 64 credit hours. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a veteran trying to go to a reputable college. Thus, I put my stats in here so as to be transparent—just as I was with my failures—not to show off.
The summer after my first year at Saddleback, I attended the Warrior Scholar Project (WSP). WSP is a phenomenal nonprofit organization that allows veterans to take one to two-week-long “academic bootcamps” at some of our nation’s most prestigious universities such as Cal Tech, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Penn, etc… for free. WSP is simply fantastic, and I cannot recommend them enough. If it weren’t for having attended the Warrior Scholar Project, I’m not sure if I would have applied to any top-tier universities. They gave me confidence and showed me that I could succeed in a rigorous academic institution.
Around this time, I also started working with Service to School (S2S). S2S assigns you a mentor (they often use the term, “ambassador”) who is there to help you with the college application process. S2S also has a program called VetLink. Generally speaking, VetLink gives you the opportunity to fill out their “Veteran Addendum,” or template which allows you to thoroughly explain your military career. You define your jobs, responsibilities, billets, deployments, awards, etc. It is your way to separate yourself from the general population. (This is one of the reasons why your actions in the military are so important for college applications.) Then, they take this document and send it to the universities with whom they partner. These universities include Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Brown, and many more. If you are a veteran or active service member and want to apply to college as either a freshman or transfer student, you should 100% sign up with Service to School.
**Learn more about the Warrior Scholar Project, Service to School, and other free resources on our Free Veteran Resources page.
Just a year after being in community college, I began my college (transfer) applications. I put an absurd amount of time into these applications and asked for criticism from a plethora of individuals—to include individuals I had met at the Warrior Scholar Project, friends, english tutors, and family members. Just make sure to take every piece of criticism with a grain of salt. I highly recommend checking out my friend and colleague’s videos that provide a great example of how to approach the Personal Statement process.
The first video in the series is below, but there are plenty more on our Personal Statement Tutorials page!
Ok, so remember how I told you that your actions in the military would be important for the college application process? Well, besides being able to include all your accolades on your S2S VetLink addendum, you are also going to need letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation (LORs) can make or break your application, and if you were a solid asset to your unit in the military, you should ask your former or current military supervisors for an LOR. Make sure to ask someone who actually knows you and can speak to your definitive actions or roles. Higher rank does not equal higher notoriety. One of my LORs came from one of my former Captains (O-3), a pilot with whom I flew many hours in the mighty UH-1Y Huey helicopter. He knew me well, and we had a great NCO ↔ Officer relationship.
**Make sure to check out our complete advice on Letters of Recommendation!**
**Note: There are many other aspects of the college application such as extracurricular activities and standardized test scores, but I only wanted to focus on my path in this article, as I have learned that there are many enlisted veterans with pre-military academic histories similar to mine. Make sure to check out those links and educate yourselves on how we at Next Step Inbound tackled such topics.
Based on the title of this article, you likely know what came next. I succeeded in earning admission to a handful of amazing universities, and I ended up choosing Princeton. It still feels surreal, and it probably always will. If you take but one thing from this article, let it be this:
I neither consider myself smart nor stupid. I’m working with the same brain now as I was when I failed out of college. The only difference now is that I focus on my priorities and hold myself to an extremely high standard. I dedicate my time and effort accordingly. I am not the individual in class who understands everything at face value, but I do commit an immense amount of time to put myself in the best possible position to reach my goals.
You can do this too. There is nothing stopping you from raising the standard to which you hold yourself. This isn’t some farfetched piece of motivational garbage. As a veteran, you have more or less given yourself a clean slate. Take advantage of this opportunity to start over. Make yourself better, and surround yourself with those who will push you. Reach out to our associates—veterans like you, who currently attend some of the top universities in the world and are ready and willing to help you out, 100% for free. This is the best time in history to be in your shoes. Take advantage of it.