Things I Wish I Knew Before I Tried My Hand at College

Updated: May 15, 2013


By Mad Medic

Almost every enlisted Joe can’t wait to get out and go to that magical land called “college” where they can get a degree and make the big bucks. It’s the American dream, and the GI Bill is one of the few entitlements you can honestly say is earned. The fact that all the girls walk around in yoga pants doesn’t hurt. It’s like a Mecca of the young and restless, where you can sort of fuck off, have a good time, and get career training for the future, right? Well. . . no, not really. College is almost exactly not at all what you were expecting. There are some things I wish I had known before I started college that I now know a bit too late to help me. Rather than sit there and bitch and moan about my lot in life, I’d rather pass on the things I’ve learned so you don’t end up making the same mistakes I did.

Know what you want to do: this may sound simplistic and even stupid, but coming to college with no idea what’s involved in your degree path, or even what the hell you want to get a degree in is not a good idea. In my case, I thought a BS in Biology was “pre-med.” By the time I realized this it was a *bit* late to switch my majors. My current degree path started off as a minor, and I spent three semesters trying to get a BS, not the BA I’m trying to get now.

My advice is to pick out a job that is somewhat similar to your interests. Keep in mind your limitations. If you suck at math, getting an engineering degree is probably not a good idea. Even if you pick the “wrong” degree, don’t worry; as long as it’s not something really stupid like Fashion Marketing, you’ll probably be able to pull down a decent job even if that career field isn’t in your degree path. Switching majors often is not a good idea.

Have your finances in order before you show up: I love that the Post 9/11 GI bill came with a living stipend. That really saved my ass. There’s just one teeny tiny problem with the Post 9/11 GI Bill; you have to go through the VA. If you don’t have your ducks in a row before the first day of school, then you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Expect delays. Look for a part time or full time job before you start college. Trust me when I say that it’s far preferable to be a part time student than to be broke, starving, and having creditors calling you every day with an overdrawn bank account. This has happened to me.

You may not like it, but seriously considering taking out a student loan for your first semester. If you don’t need it no harm done, but it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have. Dipping into the credit cards is a big no-no, especially if you’re a college student.

Find a social outlet ASAP: You’re probably not going to fit in with your typical student, that’s just a fact. Most of the graduates are 23, and if you’re getting out after a 4 year enlistment, you’ll be starting at 23. Your maturity level will be way different, especially if you’ve been to combat. You’ll have a different way of talking and acting, the things you value are different. You’re going to be an oddity for most of your classmates. You’ll need a place to vent and keep you from becoming isolated. I’m not going to recommend Fraternities (though if you do join one, Kappa Alpha is always good!) or that you join/start a Vet Club. I’m going to tell you find a club, a sport, something you can do that will get you with likeminded people that you can vent with. This can be a great support system if you’re having issues, and often times if you’re having trouble navigating the bureaucracy, having someone else that’s been in a similar situation helps.

No one cares: This is one of the hardest things to square up about the college environment. They go on and on about how inclusive, caring, and insightful they are but at the end of the day unless you’re a very specific type of person, no one gives a flying fuck about you. “Oh you served in the Army? That’s cool, I was thinking about joining then I got into college. . .” Yeah, I shit you not people have said those exact words to me. People will ask you about your service out of curiosity, but they don’t actually want to know. As far as they’re concerned, you’re ripped right from Full Metal Jacket, the Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. If Iraq of Afghanistan ever do come up, that Abortion that Lived (ATL) “Hurt Locker” will be taken at face value for how it really is.

The truth is, you could have been anything from a shit-shoveler to Sal Giunta, and most of them wouldn’t have a clue or care. The only people that do will be people with a veteran advocacy background or fellow veterans. You’re not alone, but don’t expect anyone to know or care what your badges mean or what your MOS was. You need to understand that from the outset. You have to understand, you’re coming to them—not the other way around. The military is a pretty exclusive club; there’s only .45% of the US population under arms. You’ll have to find your own path, but for four years (at least) you’d better know how to differentiate your military world from your civilian world.

Know which habits to keep (and which to get rid of): There are some things that you learned in the military that are actually a good thing. Being on time (see: early) is a very good habit. Knife-hands…less so. You’ll also have to come to grips with the fact that the very blunt way you address people—especially when addressing their failures—won’t work. The civilian world actually does have Hurt Feelings reports (they’re called law suits), and you can pay dearly for suggesting someone needs to remove their cranium from their rectum ricky-tick before you rip off their skull and defecate down their throats. In some states, “verbal assault” (what you might call getting chewed out) is actually a crime, and you will actually go to jail. Until you get the lay of the land it would behoove you to shut your mouth and keep you head on a swivel.

Another habit you may find doesn’t translate well is your work ethic. In the military you stay until the job’s done. In some civilian jobs not only is that a bad thing but you could potentially get fired for it. College too has similar problems. Perfectionism, which is absolutely essential, may actually get you into trouble. You’ll need to learn when to go all out, and when the teacher just wants something in their hands. Knowing which assignments require attention to detail and which are filler will help you budget your time.

It’s ok to have fun, but it’s easy to have too much: There are no formations. There’s no hit times. No NCOs that will shit bricks if you miss movement. In fact if you do a shitty job, no one will really care. The best/worst part is that there is always a party going on. You can find a house party, a frat party, or hell “it’s Wednesday” party. There are drugs, loose women (and men), and more alcohol than you can drink in fifty lifetimes, and that’s just at one party. You can have so much fun, or get into so much trouble, it’s not even really funny. Be careful. Chasing tail and drinking till you were blacking out was fine when you were in the barracks, but this is nowhere near that. You have no chain of command to call. Strange as it may sound actually having a repetitive safety brief is a good thing. Being in college and being a know-it-all smart ass veteran you might think “I’m still good to drive” and get a DUI. Forgetting to wrap it up is also a very bad idea.

The GI Bill is there for you. You earned it. Use it. I want you to succeed. I want to see you get elected, run your own company, be a millionaire. If you’ve gone downrange, if you’ve had your ass nearly shot off or survived some harrowing tale of incoming, you deserve to have a shot at success. I can’t guarantee that this will work out for you, nor even that you’ll enjoy your time at college, but I can guarantee that you above all your peers at college have earned a little Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Go forth and kick ass.





  1. JoeC

    May 15, 2013 at 8:50 am

    I’m not a veteran and still wish I had known all of these things when I started college. The only thing I disagree with is picking a degree within your limitations. I suck at math and I still got an engineering degree. Let’s face facts, mixing numbers into the alphabet is an act of communism. But if you want something bad enough you will find a way to overcome and get it done. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

    • C. Bristoe

      May 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      “mixing numbers into the alphabet is an act of communism.”

      Truer words have never been spoken by a mortal.

      • FWYSGT

        May 23, 2013 at 5:03 pm


  2. ET1(SS) Princess

    May 15, 2013 at 9:02 am


    You could not have said it any better. I just passed my 2 year EAOS anniversary and finished my first year of part time online college and I have experienced almost all of the issues you described, with the exception of the GI Bill paperwork (I completed that over a summer and let it kick in for the fall as I knew it would take some time). I was also lucky enough to know that I love engineering and I love electricity. That helped narrow down my degree field.

    You seriously could not have written it any better. I have experienced everything in full force and I can whole heartedly say that it is very stressful to go from being an E-6 in the Navy to Joe-schmuckatelly in the “real world.” It is very stressful, demoralizing, and depressing actually to see that no one gives a shit about who you were, what you have accomplished or how good your grades are.

    Breeching the social gap and behavior adjustment is also a to-do. In the last 2 years I’ve managed to change my tone and communication skills from the five finger point to a much more professional aspect. I was lucky though in that I asked my bosses what I have to do to succeed and what my flaws were before they became a major issue. It sucks but there is really no other way around it. I currently work full time with a guy who has the negative attributes you described and he is currently in a position to be let go if he doesn’t change soon. This also applies in college as you are dealing with many people who barely have pubes on their crotch let alone moral life shaping skills and maturity to boot.

    This is no disrespect to the other Armed Forces, but I have even found it hard to bridge the social gap with AD warriors and veterans of other branches. I’ve realized that the Navy is essentially on its own when it comes to social norms. I always feel awkwardness when in an online discussion or when speaking in person between other branches. This is all my opinion and perspective though so please don’t take it out of context.

    Seriously though brother, expert advice from the horse’s mouth. You hit the nail on the head! Everyone should be able to take heed to your post.

  3. Joe

    May 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    I definitely agree with this article, and I just finished my first academic year at my university literally two days ago after having gotten out August 2012. Veterans definitely need to realize that, just as if some boot checked in to his first duty station with a ‘civilian’ mentality, if you are going to college with a ‘military’ mentality you need to unfuck yourself. It also is not wise to let people know you are a veteran, particularly your professors, until at least a couple of months into each semester. Sort of feel out how your professor feels about the military in general, and make sure you don’t let them know you’re a veteran until you at least know they will judge military service in a generally positive light. A few of my professors know about my service, but only those for whom I have a friendlier relationship.

    In addition, at my job at the university library I rarely bring up my military service, and only then to relate a funny anecdote (telling ‘war stories’ makes you a douche). I also never mention that I find most of the belly aching that goes on at my work to be completely unwarranted. People take things too personally, talk back to supervisors, and generally ignore directives. I just do my job well and never mention how I feel about the complaints, and my supervisors appreciate it.

    Also, I definitely agree with ‘nobody cares’ when it comes to military service. Too many guys, especially guys that I know who are Marine infantrymen with combat experience, get out with a chip on their shoulder as if the world owes them something. Never forget what you did, the brothers you have for life, or those that gave everything. However, civilians will never understand or care and nor should you expect them to. Don’t mention it, and act like a professional and college will work out great.

    • ET1(SS) Princess

      May 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      You said it Joe. Everything you just wrote is 100% true and accurate. I do the same at my work and when I’m in classes.

      • Pat

        May 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm

        That’s the way I approached school. Too many civilians have preconceived notions about Veterans and it is best to keep quiet until you know who your supporters are and who thinks we’re all crazed characters out of Apocalypse Now.

  4. leftoftheboom

    May 15, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Outstanding advice.

  5. TCHAll

    May 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    As an old timer that’s been retired longer than I served I can STILL agree with everything you advise…

    Got my degree at 50, after a couple of post service careers…

    Fortunately I was living near an Air Base and spent most of my classroom time with other military types…

    Students who were pretty focused on getting all they could out of every minute spent in the classroom, and teachers that called time when they were done instead of drawing out the process.

    Just like the students around me, I knew what I wanted, applied most of the credit hours earned while active duty and finished a nominally 5 year program in a little over three years of evenings spent away from the family… (or a total of 30 years since starting college if you want to look at it that way)

    Having taught college courses as well I can assure you that the classrooms full of “non-traditional students” were a whole different world from the main campus and the attention deficit teenagers of the freshman class…

    What I’d advise where you can make it happen… is taking evening courses with other people equally dedicated to getting through the process and bringing home value from their time investment…

    At 60, when I choose to take a consulting job I get paid about a dollar a minute for my time… AND leave customers smiling as they write the check…

    I’ll add that waiting till you’re 50, own your own business, and have kids… is NOT NECESSARILY what you might want to consider for yourself if you’re under 30…

    For me; though, it fit pretty well

  6. Pat

    May 15, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    The only things I’ll add is while it may seem like ‘no one cares’, there are Veteran advocates on every campus. Seek them out. I also highly recommend Student Veteran Organizations, and do not be a stranger at the Military Services Office on campus. If your campus doesn’t have a Military Services Center, I recommend going to a different school.

  7. just another Dirt Bag

    May 15, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Outstanding. Now lets hear three sustains and three improves for this past academic year. Something else to think about is the impact of going Guard/Reserve while trying to go back to school. I truly wish someone would have given me an honest perspective a year ago on trying to do both school and still be “in”…wait they did and I didn’t listen! FML. Going Reserve after being Active Duty is its own culture shock btw.

  8. Murphy

    May 19, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I truly wish I had read this article when Fall Term started. I have had to learn many of these things for myslef, and it was sometimes easy, but sometimes rather difficult.
    I found that telling 19 year-olds that they need to “calm the fuck down, or you are going to Lose Your Shit on them” is actually frowned upon.
    Also, telling people that you are in the service is very well received in most of Portland, Oregon; regardless of how hippie a town it is. Except that one teacher, who will treat you like utter shit all term long. Keeping the mouth shut is pretty damn fine advice.
    The biggest real problem I have had has not been the culture shock (Portland is a VERY weird town. Most vets just let it all hang out and folks are good with it. Mostly.), the biggest problem is finding a methodology that works for you. The methodology used in the Army (Don’t know the others, sorry) is top-notch for the missions assigned. The things I learned in PLDC (now WLC) are not really that useful on campus though. Time management is dependent on values that are never defined. No two teachers are ever the same with their desires, and the skills you have worked long and hard to attain are suddenly contra-indicated.
    I have been in discussion with some friends in our Vets Resource Center about a little class about “College Methodology,” and we are a bit hopeful.
    Also, we are working on a “Battle Buddy” program for vets on campus, which I would encourage on EVERY campus. Based on the amount of times I get called during the week to cart home a campus Battle from the bar, this alone can help out a TON.

  9. Raquelle

    May 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I think it’s only partly true that nobody cares… colleges do have military advocacy facilities and groups and such, but I think I understand the point he’s trying to make: Don’t go around thinking that because you served, that everyone’s going to fawn over you. But, I go to USC, and we have a whole curriculum (Military Social Work) to help this population. I think the other part of this perception that “nobody cares” is that the military is misunderstood. When the author says that .45 of the population has served, well, there you go. That means that only .45, and their 10 foot surrounding circle of people, understand what it means to serve. And then, yeah, some people simply don’t care. But again, I think that comes from not understanding or not being educated enough on military service.
    Very good article. Thank you, I will save it and pass along when appropriate.

  10. Gerry

    May 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Mad! Oh how true! Man you nailed the whole college experience after serving in the military. The thing that is scary to me is you described my whole experience with college after I served in Vietnam 40 years ago. Good to know that times haven’t changed much. The big difference for me was none of the movies had been created so people based their ideas on what they saw on television or heard from other unreliable sources. More importantly we really couldn’t talk about Vietnam much for fear of being persecuted on the spot. Having some idea as to what you want to do is imperative so you don’t spin your wheels through countless classes only to find out that isn’t the career opportunity you were shooting for. The same with finances, as I had to struggle with the VA to get them pay me anything until I joined a veteran’s organization that could represent me. I was a co-op student so I worked part of the school year while going to school at night. I went to school full time only one semester each year. Once the VA turned on the faucet I had a hell of a time getting them to stop or recalibrate to fit the circumstances. When they overpaid me I just put the money in the bank because I knew they would eventually come looking for it and I was correct. Having a job and some sort of income stream during the full time semesters was critical to my financial survival so your advice is excellent. Also employers look at your work record so you don’t want to have gaps where you were unemployed and it is always more impressive if you worked even while going to college full time. Knowing which habits to keep and keeping a handle on having fun are indicative you are wise beyond your years Mad. Good counsel.

    U.S. Army
    1st Aviation Brigade
    Phu Loi, RVN
    12/69 to 7/71
    Call Sign Hexmate

  11. Tyler Sentz

    May 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Great article. I just fished my first semester. Being a freshman with 18 year old kids is pretty horrifying. Kids with no idea about basic American history (to include basic facts regarding GWOT and it’s causes). Kids that think that having to wake up at nine in the morning is akin to torture. In my opinion it helps to get into a more conservative private school if you can. A lot less of the crazy liberal dogma, and a lot more appreciation for veterans.

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