Military service gave us a lot of unique skills, allowed us to lead people in extraordinarily difficult situations, and exposed us to more cultural and socio-economic diversity than most other people in a lifetime. We volunteered to do what very few of the American public was willing or able to do, and that is pretty exceptional. However, when you’re applying to medical school, everyone else is pretty damn exceptional, too.
Many of us are told that, simply by virtue of serving in the military, we’ll forever have a foot in the door to whatever career we wish to pursue. It’s absolutely true that certain industries are more military-friendly than others—business school, in particular, works hard to recruit veterans—but medicine is not one of them. This isn’t because the medical field doesn’t recognize the unique strengths and talents that veterans bring to the table (because it does), but the field of applicants to medical school is a uniquely competitive bunch.
The way I like to think of it is this: military service is not a Nobel Prize. Having served implies a lot of things, but it does not imply that you have any experience in science or a certain level of education. It does not imply that you have done anything medically related or have any understanding of the American medical system. Military service is kind of like like running your own business or having climbed Kilimanjaro three times–these experiences clearly set you apart from your peers, but they don’t automatically imply that you’d be any good at taking care of patients.
It’s also incredibly important to understand whom you’re up against. Med school applicants are a young bunch, sure, but that doesn’t meant they haven’t been hard at work their whole lives. Maybe they haven’t had as much “real life experience” as we have—most may not have had to be part of the workforce or support families (though a lot of them have)—but they’ve been working their asses off, too. They’ve been volunteering in the community, working on medical research, spearheading public health initiatives, helping to run nonprofits…I could write volumes on what some of my classmates accomplished before they were old enough to drink.
All that being said, military service is incredibly valuable if you leverage it the right way. While it may not be a shoo-in, it gives you the chance to craft a really strong personal narrative. You may not have any experience in medicine or research, but you HAVE done plenty personally and professionally that most others will never have the chance to do. There are some things that may seem obvious, but there are plenty of thing you’ve done that you may not think much of that do, in fact, set you up to succeed in a patient-centered environment and put you way ahead of your competition:
-Being part of one of the single most diverse workforces in the country. I’ll bet you worked over and under folks of every race, gender, orientation, socioeconomic background, and political leaning and had to get along. Even some of your woke-est civilian friends probably can’t say that.
-Being responsible for the work, training, and personal welfare of large numbers of other people…remember all the times you got a call in the middle of the night to bail one of your guys out of jail?
-Having to confront some unbelievably difficult ethical issues. Have you ever had to deal with a great soldier who got a DUI or lost a $5M piece of equipment? Ever had a commander you felt was making a decision that might be putting lives at risk? Ever had to sit on the board of a court martial?
-For my fellow ladies out there: having to work in one of the most notoriously male-dominated environments known to mankind (no pun intended). If you’re like me, you probably had peers or superiors who tried to undermine your efforts and success, or times when you had to carefully measure if and when to stand up for yourself…and you probably dealt with all of this and still managed to be a total boss.
I could go on and on. My point is that there’s so much more in your resume than the technical description of your duties. However, you’re facing a higher level of competition than you ever have before, so you can’t rest on perceived laurels. You need to be able to express to an admissions committee why they should accept a non-traditional candidate based on the strengths you bring to the table, while simultaneously putting to rest any doubts about your weaknesses. They will appreciate your service and the lessons you learned, but it’s your responsibility to translate your accomplishments into language the AdCom will understand. Ultimately, whether your military service is a net benefit or a net detractor largely lies with you.