In honor of the start of college admissions season, I’m offering some tips I learned during my time as an admissions application reader and writing consultant tailored to help veterans write college application essays that actually stand out.  

Answer the question

In the military, we’re taught to write memos and SOPs in a straightforward and technical manner. Still, I’ve read dozens of college admissions personal statements from veterans that tell a wonderfully engaging story about their time in the service, but fail to answer the questions asked in the essay prompt.

This issue comes up a lot especially for applicants using an essay template to apply to multiple colleges. Don’t focus on telling me about a personal challenge you overcame while in the military if I asked you to talk about why you chose to apply to X school. As a good practice, go back and read the essay prompt after you’ve written your personal statement or essay, then underline each instance in your essay where you directly answer the prompt. This will tell you if you’re on track or not.

Show, don’t tell

Use every opportunity to tell a story. Admissions staff aren’t interested in reading a list of your accomplishments as if they’re on a promotion board perusing your military personnel file. Instead, tell a story that leaves them wanting to know more about you and what you accomplished during your military service or in your personal life.

As with job interviews, I recommend applicants implore the STAR method – which will provide details about the specific situation, task, action, and result of the story you are telling in a logical order. Reading a list isn’t necessarily interesting, but reading a story can be. Being interesting is what gets you an invite to the next cohort. Give the admissions readers a reason to want to meet you in person by telling them a story that is personal, engaging, and thought-provoking.

Start with bullet points

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to tell your story, I also recommend starting with bullet points. When it came time to write evaluations for my soldiers as a platoon leader, I often started the process by listing 3-4 bullet points under each section on the evaluation form which allowed me to concisely articulate the soldier’s accomplishments and begin to create a narrative about their performance.

For personal statements, outline the story you want to tell from beginning to end using bullet points. Creating an outline will allow you to clarify your thoughts and identify where information might be confusing to the reader (remember most people have not served in the military and have no concept of rank or MOS).

Often, college admissions applications serve as the first-time veterans have an opportunity to write about their service and it can be daunting to get started. The content of the bullet points can become the skeleton for your essay paragraphs and allow you to easily connect ideas and shape your story.  

Don’t repeat information

Admissions readers know you have a lot of awards and have traveled to various countries over your military career because they can easily read this type of information on the resume that is submitted with your application. Don’t repeat it over again in your personal statement and supplemental essays. The admissions staff wants to know how you differ from the other 100 applicants who have also won awards or worked in foreign countries, what makes you unique? Talk about what you can bring to the incoming cohort as a veteran and individual that’s going to make an impact and increase the knowledge base, culture, and prestige of the institution.

Colleges are as interested in what benefits you can provide them as you are about what you will get out of the deal. Communicate in your personal statement what distinctive role you will fill, what value you bring to the classroom and your future profession, and how you will enrich the experiences of your classmates.

Be specific and stand out

Most applicants say at some point in their college application essays that they are “hardworking” or “passionate about making the world a better place”. Neither of these attributes is unique to veterans or servicemembers, nor do they particularly stand out as demonstrative of a person’s character to application readers who are reviewing 1000s of applications. To succeed in college, every student SHOULD be hardworking and passionate about their studies or a broader cause. Instead of relying on generic application clichés, write about your personal motivation for joining the military, how your identity and life thus far have informed your professional goals, or about what impact you personally hope to have on the world around you outside of your military service.

Remember, it’s perfectly fine to discuss your military service in your personal statement despite the stigmas veterans sometimes face in our society today. The important thing to keep in mind is that the application essay is a representation of you on paper and one of the only opportunities you get to make an impression before you arrive on campus. Just like in a job interview, it’s essential you demonstrate your unique value and why you deserve a seat in the (class)room.

This is a part of a series on hacking higher education in partnership with Service to School, a non-profit that provides free college application assistance to transitioning service members and veterans