As many of you well know, transitioning out of the military and into the civilian world can be a daunting task. Military members work in a variety of complex fields, but it can still be hard to go from warfighter to full-time student. You may have been an Army combat engineer, with experience building bridges in combat and under fire. Alternatively, you might have been a Navy independent duty corpsman, serving as the sole medical provider for the entire crew of a ballistic missile submarine. Even with these outstanding experiences, transitioning to the civilian world and continuing to progress in your field can be difficult. Many vets choose to pursue higher education to bolster their career prospects, and the GI Bill allows you to return to school and receive the education that you need.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just as simple as signing up for classes and showing up. Returning to the boring classroom after numerous years of field experience can be a challenge in itself.

I am currently a third-year medical student at the University of South Carolina and an ensign through the Navy’s Health Professions Scholarship Program. I have spent the last two years studying 12 hours a day, six days a week, and I have learned a lot about studying efficiently and successfully in the process.

Here are a few tips to help you become successful in school, and achieve your career goals in the civilian world.

Related: Why An On-Campus Experience Is More Valuable Than You Think »

1. Make sure you’re motivated before you start.

This is toughest part. Trying to find motivation to sit and stare at PowerPoint presentations for hours a day sucks, but it’s essential. The rest of this article doesn’t matter unless you put in the right amount of effort. It is also impossible to gain motivation just because someone tells you to, so here are a few reasons that can help get you there.

One cool thing about going to school is that it is one of the rare times in your life when you get to actually work for yourself. You get a lot of influence on your schedule and every extra bit of work that you put in comes back to you directly. In the working world a lot of your success depends on the subjective manner that your supervisors feel about your work. In school, it’s all about your objective grades on tests. So it is very easy to see the benefits of any extra work that you put in.

A poor GPA can follow you for the rest of your academic career. The grades that you make in your courses at the beginning of your education are just as important as the grades at the end. I have a lot of friends who didn’t put in as much effort as they should have during their freshman year of college, or took too many classes and tried to work full time at the same time. Even though they are putting in maximal effort now, their poor grades from early on are dragging down their GPA, and making it difficult to get into graduate school. Make sure you are serious about doing well when you decide to start taking classes again.

2. Use both active and passive studying techniques.

Active studying consists of creating tables, drawing sketches, or making flashcards. These are the most time and effort consuming methods but they are the best bet for retaining information. I absolutely hate doing these things because they require a lot of work. I only use these methods for the most detail heavy sections, but they are effective.

Passive studying consists of listening to recorded lectures or reading. I try to read or listen to every lecture twice, and then use more active methods for anything I might be having trouble with. There is one caveat, if there is a lot of new vocabulary in a lecture, you should use more active studying techniques to memorize those terms first, then get back to reading through the concepts later.

3. Use flashcards efficiently.

I used to be pretty big into flashcards. I still use them occasionally but I found that I was spending a ton of time making cards and very little time actually reviewing them. Sounds pretty dumb right? It was. The only time I’ve used notecards recently was for pharmacology. They were helpful for learning the names of over 150 drugs on each test. Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your cards are short on both sides. If you have a paragraph written on the back of a notecard, it’s not serving its purpose.
  • Go over them repeatedly, and in different order.
  • Don’t make a card for every slide in the PowerPoint. Just use them for the toughest topics.
  • Some research has shown that handwriting flashcards is more beneficial for retaining information. However, that can also get messy when you have a 1,000 flashcards on your desk. I use It’s free, grades your progress, and helps you stay organized.

4. Use outside resources.

I am a big fan of using outside resources for my classes. YouTube will teach you in 15 minutes what it took an entire hour for your professor to explain. Khan Academy can teach you almost anything about science that you need to learn at the undergraduate level.

5. Make the most of the last few days before a test.

In the last couple days before a test make sure that you come back to the original material if you decided to make flashcards or a note sheet at the beginning. Your understanding of a topic may have changed since you first went through that PowerPoint. Also, practice questions are crucial. Find a good practice question book for your class if you can. If your teacher gives you a practice test, make sure to do it and then do the problems that you missed over again. Read through the answers if they are available! Sometimes I think I learn as much from two days of doing practice questions as I have from two weeks of listening to lectures.

As a last word of advice, be careful what college you choose. There are many for-profit schools out there that exist to make money off of veterans. Not all for-profit schools are bad, but be careful. A great option is to take classes at a community college, and then transfer to a large state university to finish your degree.