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Dual Mission: Destroy the GMAT and Find Military-Friendly MBA Programs

By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., Nov 11 2015 09:00AM

Happy Veteran’s Day! I consider it to be one of my profession’s highest honors to serve those who serve our country. As a teacher, I am always impressed by the high degree of dedication my military students show in their GMAT studies, and apparently business schools are impressed, too. This year, according to the Military Times, almost 13% of students at MBA programs and other graduate school business programs came from the military.

That said, the MBA admissions process remains incredibly competitive. If you’re applying to business school while still in the military, your two main obstacles may be 1) achieving a high GMAT score in a non-academic environment not conducive to study, and 2) finding the business school that is the right “fit” for your non-business background.

With that in mind, we asked three former military students for their advice on tackling these two challenges.

“Treat preparation for the GMAT as you would treat preparation for major endurance events.”

Victor, a former U.S. Army battalion commander who will join Duke’s Fuqua School of Business (“Team Fuqua”) in Fall 2016, reflects that when he first started coming to Austin GMAT Review from Fort Hood, he had no idea the effort GMAT prep would require. He did not have a math-focused undergraduate degree, and he had been out of school several years. His prediction for someone just starting out, as he was: “In the first couple of months, they're probably going to do significantly worse than their worst expectations.”

Adopt the same mindset as you would for a physically demanding course such as Air Assault, Airborne, Special Forces tryouts, or Ranger School, Victor recommends. In other words, make GMAT prep the main priority.

“A lot of smart guys don't do well at Ranger School, but the guys that put their heart and soul into it, and don't give up, usually pass. Usually,” Victor says. Having a skilled GMAT instructor helps, but in the end it’s your commitment that makes the difference. “It's as if you want to climb the toughest mountain there is. You can hire the best guide in the world, but ultimately you have to get your butt up that sheer cliff with your own two hands.”

“Team up. The GMAT is a crazy test.”

Victor found that studying in groups of 2-4 people could be helpful. Each person naturally understood certain topics better, and could contribute that knowledge to the group. Group members also held each other accountable. “Those text messages at 5-6 p.m. from others who want to study act like Jiminy Cricket” – your conscience will guide you to not slack off.

Make sure that the people who surround you – family, significant others, bosses, and co-workers – also understand your goal, and enlist their support in your effort.

“The GMAT obviously tests quantitative skills and logic. I may be wrong, but I think that they test perseverance, too.”

Complaining about the exam accomplishes little. “The fact is that it's an obstacle to that goal of you becoming an X, Y, or Z. If you really want to reach that goal then you need to get over, around, under, or ram right through the obstacle,” says Victor.

“Most business schools are friendly to military veterans, whether it is tuition funding or valuing our experience.”

Joe, who was a U.S. Army infantry troop commander before joining MIT Sloan School of Management in Fall 2014, says that “most schools are pretty friendly to the military, or at least put some type of value on the skill set we have (leadership, working under pressure, etc.).”

For Joe, seeking a military-friendly school was a consideration, but just one of many. “Fortunately, the ones that I thought were military-friendly also possessed a lot of the other qualities I was seeking, so I was able to easily align them. Some of the other factors included collaborative culture, excellent brand, good people, employment stats, location, and likelihood of getting in.”

“It's sometimes hard to tell, and can sometimes be summed up as a 'gut feeling,' but I believe there are differences between the schools.”

Joe recommends connecting with the veterans clubs at each school to gain true insight into a school’s value for its veteran students. “For instance, I almost did not apply to MIT Sloan because my original perception was that it was not military friendly (thankfully, I changed my thinking on that one).”

He had visited several business schools, all of which were recruiting veterans. Although some schools had active veterans clubs with members who welcomed potential candidates, were involved in the admissions process, and were clearly supported by the administration, surprisingly, others didn’t.

Sometimes a school’s marketing did not match reality. And sometimes the military-friendly reality was not particularly promoted by the school.

“I really enjoyed the veterans at MIT Sloan, which was a deciding factor for me. Overall, I felt that Sloan was friendly to the military, and we are making a push to reinforce and expand that notion (increasing Yellow Ribbon, more admission events, etc.). I felt that the administration valued veterans during the admissions process, and since I've been here, there has been a tremendous amount of support from all facets of the program (staff, faculty, fellow students, and alumni). I am very happy I chose Sloan, and being friendly to the military is a factor in that.”

“There are going to be veterans at every school and some type of Veterans Network. I think the schools that are truly military friendly have two key components for which military members should be looking.”

Marshall, a former operations flight commander for the U.S. Air Force, joined Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Fall 2015. He had looked for a business school that understood not only the strengths of the military candidate – for example, leadership experience and global perspective – but also typical areas of limitation. “For the most part, military officers are going to be very linear in how they problem solve. That is how we have been trained to think from the second we stepped into an ROTC program of a service academy. Schools that understand that will be able to speak to this very point … and be able to speak to how they can bring you away from that style of thinking.”

School costs often outpace veterans' Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. About 70% of the highest cost schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon program to help make up the difference. Most (but not all) offer additional financial support to cover the rest of the cost. For Marshall, financial support was a strong indicator of overall support. “The ‘military-friendly’ schools will most likely have some type of scholarship specifically for military that is not Yellow Ribbon. Rice, for example, has a Military Scholars program. They have lots of money from private donors specifically for military candidates.”

Victor, Joe, and Marshall (combined) took away good impressions of the following schools: Columbia Business School, Cornell Johnson, Dartmouth Tuck, Duke Fuqua, Harvard Business School, Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Rice Jones, SMU Cox, Texas A&M Mays School of Business, Vanderbilt Owen, and Wharton. However, if their experiences tell you anything, it should be this – do not rely on a “military-friendly” reputation. Go out on your own reconnaissance mission.

You should also prepare to crush the GMAT with the same focus that you prepare to take on a difficult military challenge. If you made it through military training, you can get through this, as long as you have support and expert training behind you.

Read more on the process of preparing for business school applications in Military to MBA: How to Pursue GMAT Preparation and Applications While in the Military. Then check out Military GMAT Prep: How To Vanquish the GMAT when You're on Active Duty.

Austin GMAT Review is the premier GMAT preparation company in Central Texas, offering structured GMAT courses to professionals preparing to enter full-time MBA or executive MBA programs. Austin GMAT Review caters to busy professionals who don't have the time to sort through masses of generic study materials. Meeting with an experienced professor face-to-face in limited-size GMAT classes, students receive the personalized coaching that they need and strategies to excel on the GMAT. Austin GMAT offers excellent GMAT prep for military personnel, as well as flexible scheduling and a military discount.

As a current member of the military, you may also be eligible to be reimbursed for the GMAT fee through DANTES (Defence Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support). Find more information on Military.com Education.