Returning Veterans Need Early Counseling on Choice of College Major

By Kathryn Troutman and Lisa Andrews

The painful truth is that about half of returning veterans who use their GI Bill benefits to embark on, or complete post-secondary education, fail to obtain a diploma or certificate within a decade, according to a 2014 report by Student Veterans of America. Only approximately 52 percent of post-9/11 veterans using these benefits completed an associates, bachelors or graduate degree or a vocational or technical certificate program within 10 years, the study says.


Why do returning vets have so much trouble crossing the post-secondary finish line? One big reason is their sometimes haphazard choice of college majors. Like many students, veterans can be too quick to choose a course of study thats popular with their peers, even when a little research would show that related career opportunities are very limited. Other returning veterans sell themselves short by assuming that they should prepare for the civilian career that is most closely related to their former military occupation, even if they disliked that work. All too frequently, a less-than-optimal choice of a course of study and career leads to underemployment or unemployment, and financial and family problems follow.


However, there is plenty of hope for better outcomes, especially for veterans who connect with career development practitioners early in their college experience. Proactive career counselors can help student veterans avoid mistakes in the choice of a major and a career. Steps veterans and student service members can take to be proactive and make effective decisions.


Step 1: Investigate How a Military Occupation Can Translate to Various Civilian Careers

Student veterans need to analyze how their military occupations can translate to the world of civilian work. College counselors can help student veterans break down military experience into skill areas, translating military occupational jargon into language that will click with civilian hiring managers and HR staff.


Step 2: Help Your Student Veterans ‘CLEP’ as Much as They Can

Career development counselors should be sure they're up to speed on how CLEP (College Level Examination Program) can be applied to military experience; these exams can give many returning veterans a leg up on credits needed for an academic concentration or broader distribution requirements. High performance on CLEP exams -- on subjects from American government to calculus to psychology -- may be a strong indicator for both a career direction and a college major or vocational program.


Step 3: Uncover Aptitudes and Interests that Returning Veterans May Overlook

Assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory can help returning veterans understand their own personality types, interests and skills. These instruments don't make career decisions, but they can be very helpful to returning veterans who are open to finding out more about themselves.


Step 4: Help Student Veterans Explore Labor-Market Factors in the Career Decision

Career counselors may need to show their student veterans how to research the marketability of various majors and the projected demand for the corresponding career fields. Like many other students, returning veterans may need reminding that while earning potential is an important consideration, it should not be the sole basis for a career choice.


Step 5: Encourage Veterans to Choose a College Major As Early As Possible

Post-secondary counselors should encourage returning veterans to promptly settle on the optimal college major, given their choice of careers. The earlier veterans elect a major, the sooner they will be able to graduate and get on with their career.


Step 6: Help Veterans Find Internships Tied to Their Major and Choice of Occupation

Student veterans can benefit from guidance on how to present themselves for internships. Avoiding military jargon in the resume and speaking up to ask good questions in the interview; these skills may not come naturally to those who recently left the military. Vets may also benefit from encouragement to interact with their professors and seek their input on internships and careers.


Step 7: Prompt Vet Students to Start Early on Their Job Search

Early in the final year of their post-secondary education, veteran students should begin working with their counselors to line up a well-chosen post-graduation job. Career counselors can help with resume, interview, and job-fair preparation. They can also point soon-to-be-grads to the people, jobs databases and other resources that will be critical to finding an opening that aligns with their college major and career choice.



Lisa AndrewsLisa Andrews, PhD, was formerly the Director of Career Services at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, MD. She has 19 years of experience in the career development field. She received her BS in Psychology from Elizabethtown College, her MS in Counseling & Human Relations from Villanova University, and her PhD in Higher Education from the University of Arizona.lisa_andrews_phd@yahoo.com


Kathryn TroutmanKathryn Troutman is a leading expert in federal jobs, a hot topic with the change of administration and the current downturn in the economy. She brings over 30 years of experience in this unique marketplace and has the ability to take the complex subject of federal job searching and break it down into understandable steps. She is the author of the recently-released Second Edition of Ten Steps to a Federal Job: How to Get a Job in the Obama Administration, which is updated from the original 2001 issue. The first Ten Steps book was honored as the Best Career Guide of 2002 by the Publishers Marketing Association. Troutman wrote the first book on the federal resume format in 1995 in response to the government’s move to replace the cumbersome SF-171 form with the resume. These days, she is known as the “Federal Resume Guru,” and her book, The Federal Resume Guidebook, is a best-seller and in its 4th printing. Over 100 US government agencies hire Troutman to speak as a master trainer each year, and her presentations on writing federal resumes are popular. kathryn@resume-place.com


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Karen Francis   on Wednesday 10/01/2014 at 07:40 PM

I saw this when I worked with veterans - I asked one former Marine why he was taking IT classes, when he had very little passion or interest in them. He said "well, it's a good field, right?" He decided to stop taking those classes and go back to what he enjoyed, and promptly found a job that he loves. I am hoping to work for local colleges or tech schools to do just this - to help them figure out WHAT they really want to do, not just what they read in USA Today is a good future profession.

Michelle Borst Polino   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 09:06 AM

good information, and much can also be utilized in working with older adult students who have extensive work experience and now need to change careers. As counselors, we need to use eclectic methods to engage these students and have them become more involved and accountable for their choices to improve odds and options for viable employment opportunities

Susan Whitcomb   on Saturday 10/04/2014 at 03:45 PM

Thanks, Kathryn and Lisa. True on all counts. Internships are particularly important because people's conception of what a career is often isn't accurate until they're "in the trenches." An internship also helps with Step 7, start early, as it expands their network easily/comfortably.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.