When Andrea Goldstein left her post as a Navy intelligence officer in 2016, she struggled to tell her story — what she’d done, things she’d seen and relevant skills she’d picked up that would look good on an application for graduate school.
“How do you tell a story when you’ve been specifically told not to?” she said in a recent interview. “There was also the added layer of being a woman in the special operations community, where ... our presence was so constantly questioned that there was just some insecurity about talking about it.”
Then Goldstein heard about Service to School, a nonprofit founded in 2011 that offers free college admissions help to service members and veterans. The group assigned her a mentor, who helped Goldstein get her experiences on paper. This ultimately led her to Tufts University, where she graduated with a master’s degree in law and diplomacy last May.
Shortly after graduation, Goldstein, 31, was tapped to lead the organization that once helped her, and she now serves as its CEO, leading nationwide efforts to help other prospective military students tell their stories, too.
“We’re taught selfless service and not to advertise the nature of our work, and so to suddenly have to talk about yourself — and not only talk about yourself but say why you should be admitted to a program — is very tough,” said Goldstein, who has continued her military service as a lieutenant in the Navy reserves.
Yet with Service to School’s help, which includes test prep, resume review, essay assistance, interview practice and networking, more than 1,000 veterans have gotten into selective schools.
Ninety-one percent of students who use Service to School’s resources — a largely enlisted population going for undergraduate degrees — are accepted into at least one school, Goldstein said. Of those, all attend nonprofit institutions with high graduation rates, including Ivy League schools and other top-tier universities.
Service to School encourages applicants to aim high, while simultaneously encouraging selective institutions to take a more holistic approach to their admissions — appreciating the unique life and learning experiences associated with the military, for example, as well as good grades.
The majority of veterans who go through the program are the first in their families to college, and most students end up at a better school than what they originally thought possible, Goldstein said.
Veterans Thomas Johnson, a student at Princeton University, and Summer Lee, a Yale University junior, told Military Times earlier this year that they credit Service to School for their Ivy League education.
Johnson’s Service to School advisor was the first one to tell him about Princeton’s recent transfer policy change, which has opened the school to students like him who already have college credits, he said.
Lee said she’d never dreamed of attending a top-tier school, but with the group’s help, she ended up getting accepted not only to Yale, but two other Ivies as well.
“We screen and prepare applicants, so (schools) know if they are getting a veteran student who is from Service to School that they are highly prepared,” Goldstein said.
The newly-minted CEO spends much of her time traveling these days, talking with schools, volunteers and other organizations about Service to School’s mission as part of her goal to raise the organization’s visibility and expand its reach.
Yet she still makes time to advise and mentor veterans applying to school.
“It’s a process, it’s very hard, and usually the first essay — I do tell them your first essay probably isn’t going to be very good, but it’s going to be done and everything after that is going to be cake,” Goldstein said. “Once you have something on paper, you have something you can revise.”
Essays are as different as the stories they tell, but the best ones showcase “core values, life experiences that exemplify those core values and what about those core values are motivating that person to apply to that school,” she said. “Telling your story in your essay is the most important part of your application.”
Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.