Whether you’re on active duty or have already transitioned out of the military, chances are you have some good education benefits at your fingertips.
So how do you make sure you don’t waste them and become a college dropout?
We asked college professors, advisors and others who work with military students in higher education for their tips to success. Here’s what they said.
1. Make a plan.
You’d never walk blindly into a firefight without a battle plan, right?
Sure, the stakes aren’t as high on a college campus, but you’ll want to have the same mentality before you get started.
Bruce Vasbinder, public relations coordinator for Central Texas College, one of the most popular destinations for active-duty students using tuition assistance benefits, recommends that prospective students contact their schools of choice for academic advising. Advisors can help answer questions about a particular area of study or set you up with a degree plan.
“This will help make sure the proper classes are taken so money is not wasted on unnecessary classes and, if starting at a community college, classes that will not transfer to a four-year school,” he said.
Andrew Sonn, director of military and veteran services at The George Washington University, said rather than selecting courses and professors on an ad-hoc basis, a successful college student discusses their course options with advisors, professors and classmates before registering for classes.
2. Develop good study habits.
Some people are lucky enough to ace a test without studying. Others, not so much.
Harold Martin, a Vietnam veteran turned college professor who heads the “Boots to Books” transition program for student veterans at Pasadena City College in California, said it’s best to study with others who will keep you grounded and help you study.
Another good tip is to keep your mobile devices off and out of reach.
“Get a watch. People who use their phones to tell time (will) waste time because they can’t resist checking their messages,” he said.
Also, “don’t pull all-nighters,” he said. “Study and read as you go.”
Approach it as you did in the military, said Jorge Trevino, a retired Navy chief petty officer who is now a professor and academic advisor at Penn State World Campus.
“Those who struggle will try to change the way they know how to study, thinking that it must be different somehow. 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.
3. Stay organized.
“From boot camp, we are trained to fold our clothes and keep ourselves well organized,” Trevino said.
For online classes especially, you’ll need to remember that training and stay organized. Read the syllabus to know when your assignments are due, and create a printed calendar with the information — just in case your computer crashes.
Martin suggests getting a white board for this and putting it in a conspicuous place, where you’ll see it and be able to add and remove things as they come up.
“Things are more likely to be done, and prioritized, if a schedule is made,” he said. “The military schedules everything; veterans seem to operate more on a whim or when they feel like it.”
4. Go to office hours.
Going to office hours — that magical time your professors are available outside of the classroom to go over the material and answer questions — is another mark of a successful student, said Sonn. Those who don’t, and just wait until the professor requests an appointment, could end up at risk of dropping out.
This goes for online students, too. Trevino said students should be on discussion boards and schedule meetings with their professors.
“Do not wait on this,” he said. “Send out an email and ask questions. Your grade will be the better for it.”
In other words, don’t just gloss over the part of your syllabus where your professor lists his or her availability. Why?
“When life happens — and it will — professors are much more willing to work with students that they know,” said Larry Braue, director of the University of South Florida Office of Veteran Success.
5. Use resources available to you.
When you’re in the military, you have career counselors, medical doctors, family support centers and other resources at your disposal — plus supervisors, who are often willing to give advice based on their own experiences in your shoes, said Bill Brown, executive director of military education at the Virginia-based ECPI University. Similarly, colleges want you to succeed, and they may even have more resources than you had on base.
“Most schools offer free tutoring, have math and reading labs and study sessions that are provided so that you can get some extra information so you do well in your classes,” he said.
“They will not judge you or put in your records that you asked for help — something a lot of us many have worried about in the military — but they will offer you, instead, a chance to get ahead and do well.”
Braue also recommends taking advantage of every resource that’s available to you as a student at your school, even if it’s not veteran-specific.
“Use every program the university offers — tutoring, career support, advising, counseling,” he said. “Well prepared students rarely drop out.”
6. Get used to group work.
“Group projects are the best thing ever!” … said literally no one ever. Still, you’re going to have to get used to them in order to succeed in college.
“There will be no getting around doing group work while you are in school,” said Brown. “Just about every one of your classes will have some type of group project that you will have to complete, but getting the group to work on your timeline may not be the easiest thing you will ever do.”
Brown said most veterans will find that some of their younger, less experienced classmates may not be as motivated to get projects in, or even started, on time.
Remember: It’s not a military matter of life or death, and you can’t treat it as such.
“You will have to work with the students at your school, and the sooner you realize they may not have the drive and motivation that you do in approaching projects, the better you will be able to work though it and keep up the high standards,” he said.
7. Get involved.
Don’t let those group projects be the only time you interact with other students.
“You need them, and they need you,” Brown said.
In addition to organizations, such as Student Veterans of America, there are sports leagues, fraternities and sororities, honor societies, civic groups and cultural groups that offer a little something for everyone, he said.
“School will be challenging and take a lot of your time, especially if you have a family and/or a job, but we all need an outlet and connections that can help lower stress and provide some fun along the way,” he said.
8. Knock out credits early.
Sonn suggested taking a few courses online or at a community college to keep you from feeling “rusty” once you’re ready for full-time education.
Valerie Perry, director of the Central Texas College site at Fort Stewart, had similar advice.
“If you know you are getting out in a year, start taking classes now. Get your English, history, government and other basic degree plan requirements out of the way now so you will be that much further ahead when you leave the military.”
And don’t forget that you also have a Joint Services Transcript from your time in the military that can show schools what you’ve already learned in exchange for college credit, saving you time and money as you pursue a degree. Schools like CTC have advisors who can help you figure that out before you start.
9. Have a back-up plan.
A successful student will create a financial plan for tuition, fees and living expenses, as opposed to taking the attitude that you’ll cross that bridge when you get to it, then taking out a loan as your first option, Sonn said.
Calculating all of this ahead of time lets you know if there will be a financial need in the last semester, for example, and gives you time to talk with your school’s financial aid office and pursue scholarships to help bridge the gap, he said.
This can happen if you change your major halfway through your education and realize you need to take more classes than your Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover, Brown said. But don’t be alarmed; there are other options out there for getting your college paid for through benefits such as Pell Grants, if you qualify, and scholarships.
He recommends filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, every year to see what you are eligible for.
“There are a lot of options to help you if you run short of your GI Bill, so do not let that be a reason to end your college studies,” he said.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.