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Applying to elite schools: 5 things every veteran should know

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1. You don’t need to be a genius.

There’s a special place in my heart for people who say “I’m just not a math/science/studious/academic/athletic/people/outgoing person,” and that place is right below people who don’t tip their waiters. If you’re good at basketball, it’s because you shot hoops on evenings and weekends. If you can bench 300 pounds, it’s because you started with an empty bar and gradually increased the weight over months and years while driving your roommates crazy with your protein powder farts. That’s what academics is like, minus the gas bombs.

I never thought I was a math person either, until, at 26, I started pursuing college as a backup to a military career that was on thin ice. I’d spend 30 minutes every day at the desk I’d scavenged from work watching YouTube math videos and scribbling the solutions on the backs of my counseling sheets, which I never seemed to run out of. Now, when I tell people I’m doing a math major, I hear some variation of “Oh, so you’re a natural,” or “I wish math came easy to me,” but it’s total crap. There are no naturals; you get good at what you practice.

2. You don’t need to be a war hero.

You know who I’m talking about: the ones riding Tyrannosaurus rexes into action, biceps bulging, Gatling guns at their hips, coming back with combat lessons that you can apply to your business, fitness or love life. They have stacks of ribbons that resemble shelves in a candy shop and their stories start with, “So there I was, knee deep in grenade pins…” 

The problem with that narrative is that most of us veterans are just people for whom the military wasn’t quite what we expected. Maybe we saw some stuff, maybe we didn’t; maybe we ate crayons, maybe we drank the Kool-Aid; maybe we were treated poorly, maybe we hoped to do something more meaningful. We smoked a bowl on the day we received our DD214 and started growing a beard (or whatever the girl equivalent is) immediately. Maybe started a YouTube channel, got big into fitness, went on some extravagant quest and hopefully avoided addiction to VA painkillers or psychotropics.

So what’s left to tell an admissions committee? Well, your ugly, no bull, this-is-how-I-got-here story. Did you helplessly watch a Marine die in front of you, when you were supposed to save him? Tell them. Did you cry when you read Malala Yousafzai’s book about getting shot in the head for trying to go to school? Tell them. Were you born into a cult, raised overseas and didn’t learn evolution until you were 25 from watching “Cosmos?” Tell them that too.

They have thousands of applicants listing their violin practices, overseas volunteer trips and startups they founded in high school. They want to know you’re resilient and self-aware and have something to contribute to the conversation, so give them the coarse, gritty sand of your experiences and what you learned from them. Tell them something they’ll have a hard time forgetting.

3. You don’t need a pedigree.

Another myth that gets thrown around is that the only people who go to elite schools are the ones living in suburban castles with backyard pools whose parents can donate a yacht or two to the sailing team. Look, two of my fellow transfers spent time in prison — one of them for 11 years; another sat on a mountain with a rifle and a pill bottle for two weeks; another spent a week in a psych ward; another was abandoned by his parents and had to live secretly in their old house and do his homework by candlelight. Does that sound classy to you?

At some point, one of our sergeants or lance corporals or petty officers or — what does the Air Force use? — told us that all we need to do to succeed in the enlisted military is be at the right place, at the right time, with the right uniform. The same rules apply here. And the world is desperate for people who do. According to one of my professors, “If you can just show up on time and need minimal management, you’re better than 95% of people who apply to my company.” 

4. You do have resources.

As service members, we’re often taught to say, “I got this” — to reject offers of help as slights against our ability to perform. But really, this is where it gets good. Despite what you may have heard in service, the veteran community is strong across the country and there are lines of people and organizations waiting to help us out. Service to School is a nonprofit that helped me. You sign up for a personal profile and get paired with a mentor who helps you navigate the convoluted application process and refine your essay strategies. I’m now one of them. The Warrior Scholar Project is another solid one, as is Stanford’s Veteran Accelerator

Another important thing to note is that for many of these top tier schools, you will qualify for full financial aid. If you’re from a low-income background, (which, let’s be honest, a lot of us are) you will have tuition covered, and maybe housing and dining for you, your spouse and your children if you have any. That means you can save your G.I. Bill for that Ph.D. in Basket Weaving you’ve been dreaming about, or, if you’re a scoundrel and lost some of your VA education privileges, you can still get your degree without going into debt.

5. You do got this.

Of course, all these resources can only guide you and cheer you on. They’re the corner boys in your boxing match — splashing water in your mouth, rubbing your shoulders, smearing vaseline on your face and holding smelling salts under your nose, but at the end of the day it’s you who has to get in the center of the ring and go the distance. Elite schools are not for everyone. How many hours do we spend studying every night? All of them. How many years are we prematurely aging? All of them. How many people from our past lives think we’re crazy? All of them. So why go through all that when you can get the same knowledge with half the hassle at hundreds of other colleges and universities?

Before I got here, the reason was simple: I like challenging myself. Now that I’m here, it’s even simpler: It’s the cross country runner who grew up with 15 brothers on his mom’s side and 14 on his dad’s; it’s the girl who graduated high school at 16 and lived on her own to learn programming; it’s the guy who started a nonprofit in his hometown to feed and mentor at-risk youth.

I’m surrounded every day by curious, brilliant and thoughtful people who care deeply about their communities and are constantly pushing each other to do more and become better. And I can see, now, how the people who are setting policy, controlling industry and defining entertainment today were just like us 20 years ago. The country is desperate for citizens with a drive to serve and desire to learn, who are willing to do the hard work that mostly goes unappreciated and unnoticed. But, as enlisted veterans, we’re all pretty used to that, aren’t we?

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Nestor was born in Bangladesh and raised mostly in Greece. When he was nineteen he moved to the United States to join the Navy, where he served for ten years. He is now a junior at Stanford University, where he is rumored to be the only person in the math department with cut-off t-shirt sleeves. He also dabbles in creative writing.