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A Veteran’s Ultimate Guide to Applying to College

If you’re a veteran and considering going to college, the process may feel overwhelming at first. How do you choose a college? How do you apply? And how will you pay for it?

Sit back, relax, and read through this guide to get the answers to all your questions. You’ll see that the process isn’t as complicated as you think.

Consider Your Future Career

Before you make your next move, it’s important to look to the future. You need to know where you’re headed before you start off on your journey.

So, what career(s) are you interested in? If you aren’t sure yet, consider your talents, interests, and factors such as salary and career outlook. 

There’s also a great resource for veterans considering their career options: My Next Move for Veterans. Explore information about specific careers, browse careers by industry, or even find careers related to your military job.

See Best Colleges by Major

Make a List of Colleges

Once you’ve decided on a career field, you can choose the best route to achieve your goal. Research the degree you’ll need to land a job in the career you’ve selected. Then, look for schools with strong programs for that degree. Pay attention to career resources offered by the school, as well as career placement rates.

Next, consider factors such as:

Another consideration is whether the schools on your list accept the GI Bill. The GI Bill finances all or part of college tuition and fees for qualifying veterans, but you can’t use the benefits at every school.

See which schools are specifically great for veterans

Consider Your Chances of Acceptance

You should also consider your chances of acceptance. Niche has a handy College Admissions Calculator that helps you determine your chances of getting into schools across the country.

The best strategy is to apply to safety schools, target schools, and reach schools – this is your college list. Safety schools are schools where you’re almost guaranteed to be admitted. Your numbers are above average based on the statistics you’ve reviewed. 

See your chances of getting in with our Admissions Calculator!

At target schools, you’re right on target and likely to be admitted. At reach schools, your numbers are below average. However, it’s worth applying to a couple of reach schools that interest you because numbers aren’t the only factor that colleges evaluate. You never know what might happen!

In total, apply to 7-10 colleges. This gives you plenty of options without spreading yourself too thin. Narrow your list down to 2-3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools.

Explore Financial Aid Options

Now that you know where you want to go to college, you’ll have to determine how to pay for it. In addition to the options available to all prospective college students, there are financial aid options specifically for veterans.

For veterans, there’s the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program. The GI Bill pays tuition, a monthly housing allowance, and an annual stipend for textbooks and school supplies. To qualify, you must have served a minimum of 90 days of active duty in the military. 

Based on how long you served, you can qualify for full benefits or a portion of the benefits. If you qualify for full benefits, the GI Bill will pay up to full tuition at an in-state public school. The national maximum for a private or for-profit school for the 2019-2020 school year is $24,476.79. Typically, this amount slightly increases each year.

The VA provides a search tool to help you search for GI Bill approved schools. You can also call a school’s admissions department and ask if the school accepts the GI Bill.

Some schools, especially private schools, also participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Through the Yellow Ribbon Program, schools agree to waive all or part of the tuition not covered by the GI Bill. Use the VA’s interactive map to see which schools participate in the program.

You may also qualify for fee waivers or tuition discounts at certain military-friendly schools. Finally, look into traditional financial aid options like:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Work-study programs
  • Loans (as a last resort)


Once you’ve finalized your list of colleges, it’s time to complete and submit applications. It’s critical that you don’t miss your deadlines, so create a calendar to help you keep track.

Many colleges accept the Common Application. It’s a standard application that you fill out once and send to several colleges, saving you valuable time. For other colleges, you’ll have to complete an individual application through the school’s website.

Application requirements generally include:

Colleges conduct holistic evaluations, meaning they consider the “whole person” in reviewing applications. Numbers are important, but so are personal characteristics, values, diversity, and other factors. Colleges want to admit students who will make valuable contributions to campus and who align with the school’s mission and core values.

After applying, you’ll stay up to date with admissions decisions through your email and the applicant portal of each school. Pay attention to ensure that you don’t miss any important communication. 

Weigh Your Options

Once the acceptance letters start rolling in, it’s time to weigh your options and decide where you’d like to go. 

Consider the factors mentioned at the beginning of this article again. Evaluate your financial aid packages and how much each school will cost you. If possible, visit campus. Seeing the school in person and imagining yourself living and learning there for four years is one of the best ways to make your final decision. Talk to students and alumni, stop by popular locations, briefly sit in on a class if you can, etc. 

If you’re having a hard time deciding, make a pro/con list of your top schools. Remember to look for a school that’s truly friendly to the needs of veterans. Do they provide access to mental health and medical support? Veteran programs? A central point of contact to help veteran’s navigate the college experience?

When you’ve made a decision, you’ll have to decline other offers and send the winning school your decision and enrollment deposit. There’s a deadline for this decision too, so don’t miss it!

Final Thoughts: A Veteran’s Ultimate Guide to Applying to College

Hopefully, reading this guide has eased some of your concerns about applying to colleges. Start by determining your destination: What career do you want to pursue?

Then, find colleges that appeal to you and will help you reach your goals. Explore traditional financial aid options and financial aid options specifically for veterans. Start applying, receive your decisions, and weigh your options. Finally, make a decision and send your enrollment deposit by the deadline.

Once you’re in college, there are plenty of resources to help you through it. There are advising offices, career resource centers, tutoring centers, and departments and services in place to assist veterans through the process. It may seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll find that you have support every step of the way.

Explore top colleges for veterans

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.