From Soldier to Student: Tips for Surviving the Transition to College

By Douglas Fehlen

back to school

1. Choose a military-friendly college.

Not all institutions are created equal when it comes to meeting the needs of military students. G.I. Jobs magazine compiles an annual list of schools that honor GI Bill benefits, provide academic credit for military experiences, offer flexible academic programs and make efforts to recruit and retain military and veteran students. Learn about military-friendly schools and get tips for making the right college choice.

2. Find the right education program.

Consider your career interests, skill aptitudes, personal interests and school commitment to choose an academic program that's right for you. If you're currently unsure about what you want to study, connect with an academic advisor at your school. As you prepare for that meeting, research majors that are great for students with military experience.

3. Be informed about GI Bill benefits.

The recently passed Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act has resulted in significant changes to GI Bill benefits for military and veteran students. Make sure you're not missing out on any of your hard-earned and well-deserved education incentives. Understand and get the most from your education benefits. Also be sure to take advantage of scholarships for students in the military and higher ed opportunities for military spouses.

4. Talk with other military students.

It can be hard to know what you should expect when it comes to college. It's a big step for anyone, and transitioning from the military presents its own set of challenges. A good way to help prepare yourself is to talk with other GIs or veterans who have gone to college themselves. One way to connect with other students who've served is through the Student Veterans of America.

5. Expect some rough exchanges.

It's likely that many of the people in your school won't understand your service. Some may even openly disapprove of the idea of military force. Try to remain levelheaded if you are ever challenged for your military service. Respect others' opinions and reserve the right to decline entering any contentious debates. It might help to talk with other military students, including any members of the Student Veterans of America.

6. Fully engage in student life at your school.

Even if people in your school are not openly hostile, you may perceive some distance between you and them. They may be intimidated by your military experience or not recognize that you have a lot in common with themselves. Counteract these challenges by getting involved in student organizations and engaging in campus activities. Embracing college life in this way can add immeasurably to the experience.

7. Connect with professors.

Another way to feel more a part of the college community is to maintain strong connections with your instructors. You might share with them information about your experience, letting them know if you have any areas of academic concern. Foster relationships with professors by participating in class and taking advantage of office hours. This will allow you to promptly address any issues you might have with the material.

8. Feel free to start small.

Even those who do everything 'right' while transitioning from the military to college often experience difficulties in the classroom. If you're worried you may struggle, you might start out by taking only a class or two rather than a full course load. This strategy can allow you to get a feel for the college environment and give you insight into what you can do to be successful there - without feeling overwhelmed at the outset.

9. Take care of yourself.

While occurring late on this list, this suggestion is more important than any other. Getting adequate rest, exercising frequently and having a balanced diet are all important to college success. Additionally, find ways to relax so that you can avoid getting burned out at school. If you feel yourself becoming overly stressed, tired or distraught, access services on campus to get the help you need. (See #10.)

10. Utilize support services on campus.

Adults who enroll in college later in life or return after an extended break often struggle academically. If you're finding it difficult to complete your coursework - or having any other problem in school - reach out for help. Your institution should have academic support services like tutoring. Also pay attention to how you're feeling, accessing available counseling. Take advantage of the veterans affairs office, which can provide helpful advice on all kinds of issues military students face. The career services center can of big help as you near the end of your time at college and begin a job search.

Look for additional guidance at online college resources for military and veteran students.

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