How Should I Present My Military Service in My Applications?

Anna, I am an Iraq veteran and I have read that military service is anywhere from "extremely valuable" to law school admissions to something akin to any other job.  What is your take?  Is there anything I should do to highlight its strengths while also countering its possibly negative connotations?

As for another, more specific question: I am struggling with whether to include my platoon's "number of enemy captured/killed" on my resume.  It's a metric we use to gauge efficacy, and it conveys the gravitas of my deployment.  However, I can also see how it would be inappropriate for a resume as well.  Help!

Thank you for all of your efforts in facilitating law school candidates' applications and enabling us all to strive for acceptance to better schools.

Well, thank YOU for your service. I have the much easier job here.

You've asked a great question. In the Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, I advise applicants to quantify their work experience as much as possible. What's the impact you've had in your role? How can you best capture that impact in a bullet point? Your situation is a great reminder that guidelines are not gospel truths, and applicants should exercise judgment when it comes time to apply guidelines to their individual fact patterns. You are smart to wonder whether quantifying makes sense in your situation, so here's how I would think about presenting your work experience in the application process:

DO include your military experience in general. You were employed during that time, doing meaningful work, and you should get credit for that. A gap in your resume wouldn't help you.

DON'T be in any way defensive or apologetic about your military experience. Even people who are anti-war or anti-military can still be pro-soldier. To answer your question about how law schools view military service: All the admissions officers I know have great respect for it. They understand the gravity of being deployed, so your gravitas will almost certainly not be in question. Ex-military applicants are much loved by both law school (and business school) admissions officers, especially those service members who had increasing responsibility during their time serving and/or who graduated from the military academies. Ex-military students are nearly always hard-working, smart, disciplined, responsible, unflappable, and very happy to be back in school. And they bring a very interesting perspective to class discussions. Any school that would reject you because of your military experience (are they even out there?) is not one you personally would want to attend in any event. Ditto for applications to future employers. That being said...

DON'T quantify the number of enemy captured or killed. While most admissions officers will have great respect for you and the hard work you've been doing, there are many people -- even among those who are sympathetic to service members -- who don't want to be reminded that the military's job is to kill people and break things (as someone once said). Admissions officers, too, can be subject to cognitive dissonance.

DO quantify the kinds of successes or list the kinds of metrics that don't make people uncomfortable. Examples:

  • Commanded 153-man rifle company in combat
  • Managed $20mm budget and care and maintenance of $50mm aircraft
  • Obtained Silver Star for Combat Leadership

DO include relative rankings or metrics. In your case, is there a way for you to convert the number of people killed/captured into a relative measure of platoon efficiency? Maybe, for example, your platoon was in the top 10% of your division.

These exceptions might apply in some civilian contexts as well. For example, one would say, "Led consolidation of two corporate divisions, cutting costs by X% and increasing profits by Y%" WITHOUT tacking on " laying off 1,500 employees."

So my big-picture advice, for both military and civilian applicants alike, is to quantify with hard numbers EXCEPT when the harsh realities of a job might make people squirm, in which case it's best to take this softer approach to quantification.

Please check in and let us know how you end up deciding to present your military experience, and keep us posted on your admissions success.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).