As an enlisted soldier in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, Spc. Sang Ra never dreamed that he would soon be attending a college in the Ivy League.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Ra enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotic duty and served as a ceremonial casket bearer for fallen service members. A self-professed “poor test taker,” he had never met anyone who attended a prestigious college, but his unit executive officer recognized his potential and referred him to the nonprofit organization, Service to School. Service to School, which was founded in June 2011, provides free admissions assistance and coaching to veterans applying to college through the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Counselors at Service to School opened Ra’s eyes to the opportunities that awaited him. He didn’t have to resign himself to attending a small community college or online school; with Service to School’s help, his military experience could make him a competitive applicant for the best colleges in the country.

“First, Service to School listened to my story and analyzed my experiences, skills, and academics. They then gave me an outline of what is required for the application process; everything from transcripts to personal statements,” Ra told Task & Purpose in an interview. “They gave me a mission, and I executed. Without Service to School, I would be in a very different situation right now.”

Sang Ra (second from left) is a former enlisted soldier who now attends Columbia University in New York City after receiving admissions help from Service to School.Photo courtesy of Spc. Sang Ra
Sang Ra (second from left) is a former enlisted soldier who now attends Columbia University in New York City after receiving admissions help from Service to School.

Service to School was founded by a group of veterans who realized that transitioning from service member to student successfully requires more than simply learning how the G.I Bill benefits work. While traditional high school student applicants benefit from a massive culture of college admissions counseling, including test preparation, essay advice, and interview coaching, similar advice is not as easily available for the thousands of servicemen and women transitioning out of the military each year. This puts veterans at a strategic disadvantage. As a result, very few veterans are admitted to the nation’s best schools. According to an annual survey of highly-selective colleges conducted by Bunker Hill Community College Professor Wick Sloan, only 596 out of 158,000 undergraduate students were military veterans. Instead, more and more veterans find themselves sucked into predatory for-profit colleges, earning degrees of dubious quality. Many veterans don’t even realize they could aspire to anything better.

In the summer of 2014, after months of working with Service to School counselors, Ra was accepted to Columbia University in New York City, as well as American University, George Washington University, and Amherst College.

This month, Service to School released a free, comprehensive guide to applying to college as a military veteran. The guide, written by military veterans who graduated from top schools such as Stanford and Yale, contains essay-writing advice from a Stanford creative writing professor, admissions process advice from a Yale admissions officer, and tips from a former University of Chicago law school dean of admissions, as well as well-known professional admissions consultant Anna Ivey, a co-founder of Service to School.

Service to School pairs veteran applicants with a mentor who is an active student veteran attending the schools they are targeting. This enables veterans working with the organization to get a better perspective on whether they would be a good fit for a particular school, and learn more about the school’s culture and admissions process from someone who has actually gone through it. Now at Columbia, Sang Ra hopes to expand this network on his new campus to help more veterans follow in his footsteps. This peer-to-peer mentoring has enabled the program to expand and successfully place more than 200 veterans in their target schools.

“Service to School provided me with more than just guidance. They gave me direction,” Ra said. Through the program, Ra was connected with Zach McDonald, Service to School’s director of undergraduate operations. McDonald worked with Ra “patiently and methodically” to help him develop and refine his application essays. “Then I applied, and here I am. Without Service to School, I would have missed this golden opportunity.”

Ra was among the first enlisted veterans whom Service to School’s nascent program has helped, but the nonprofit has since assisted veterans gain admission to other top schools, such as Wesleyan and Stanford universities. The program has also helped many former officers and other veterans who already have their bachelor’s degrees to successfully apply to top graduate schools.

Separating from the military can be a challenging adjustment for many veterans because it requires adaptation to a whole new set of expectations and challenges. But veterans are highly motivated and persistent in pursuing their educational goals. Ultimately, organizations such as Service to School can help level the playing field and provide the support needed by thousands of veterans around the country to find success after the military.