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Veterans at MIT Sloan on How Their Service Prepared Them for Business School

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Kirk concurs. “Many of my colleagues, if they have led anyone, it’s been groups of one or two,” he says. “It’s a little different when peoples’ lives, no kidding, are on the line—when the reactor shuts down and you are 700 feet below the surface.” As a result of these types of leadership experiences, Kirk finds that he often offers a slightly different way of looking at problems in the classroom. “I am more prone to think out of the box,” he says, which he thinks is often true of people who have been in charge in high-stress situations. “You are more prone to make decisions that are the right decisions independent of the artificial constraints that are put on you,” he says.

Pushing the Execution Envelop

Another difference is being more prone toward action. “Something else I have noticed from my veteran classmates—we are far more likely to begin to just act,” Kirk says. “We’re more likely to get 90 percent of the way to a solution and execute on that, iterating until we get it just right.” This is in contrast to someone coming into business school from an analyst role, who is more likely to be looking to reach the 100 percent solution all the time. “I do think veterans tend to push the execution envelop a bit more,” says Kirk. “Our classmates choke us back, grab us by the scruff of the neck and keep us from moving too fast,” he says, adding that he has learned from his classmates when to go slowly. “There is a great synergy there between what vets can offer and have offered and what we, in turn, learn from our business school teams.”

veterans at MIT Sloan
McGovern, MIT Sloan Class of 2016 and Veterans Association Co-President

McGovern, for his part, confesses that he is a bit more preoccupied with promptness than his civilian classmates. In fact, it’s been something of a joke and his classmates have even voted him “Most Likely to Be on Time for an Event.” When a meeting or class is supposed to start, he’s there ten minutes beforehand, sitting in his seat, ready to go. “In business school, I’ve learned it is sometimes okay to be late,” he says. “In the military, people run late and bad things happen.” That is not to say that everything is late in business school, he is quick to clarify. “But it’s definitely a more relaxed atmosphere.”

A Challenging Transition

All jokes aside, the transition from military service to business school can be challenging for veterans. In a post to the MIT Student Voices blog, Kirk shared that he had lots of self-doubt at the start, writing that he felt grossly out of place and like he might have been an admissions mistake. “I remember sitting at orientation and they rattled off the statistics for the class—there are 400 of us, 40 percent are female, we came from 50 different countries and the average GMAT was 718,” he recalls. “I figure I am probably in the bottom five percent of GMAT scores,” he reveals. “I did not do so well on that test.” Of course, it could have something to do with the fact that he was working 120 hours a week while studying for it.

But it was more than that, he continues. “The social awkwardness of being trapped under water with 150 dudes for I don’t know how many months—when I got here it was almost like trying to be human again.” All the while echoing in the back of his head was the thought, “You are on the bottom floor of intelligence here.” As he settled in, though, he realized that probably wasn’t the case—that he was on an intellectual par with his classmates and had lots to offer.

McGovern faced his own struggles as well. For him, the biggest thing was getting up to speed on the hard business and technical skills. “I was sitting in a finance theory class and I had no idea what bonds were, what a balance sheet was,” he says. Many of his classmates had been exposed to that and more in their pre-MBA jobs. “I also thought I knew how to use PowerPoint and Excel,” he adds. “In the Army, Excel was a nice way to make lists and spreadsheets—nothing like being able to use that program to create a complete, dynamic model with equations,” he reveals. “I have had to work very hard to bring myself up to speed.”

Another challenge has been learning to toot his own horn a little. Asked for his advice to fellow veterans thinking of applying to business school: “Don’t be afraid to highlight your personal achievements and your impact on an organization—take credit for what you have done,” he says. “In the Army you are taught to be humble and give credit to the team—veterans can struggle with that in interviews, essays, even on their resumes.”