Applying to a top MBA programme is an exacting process for any candidate, but Aaron Perrine faced greater obstacles than most. Two years ago, as he worked on his application essays, Perrine was serving in Afghanistan as a platoon leader with the US Army Rangers.
Each evening, he would lead his team of 35 Rangers out on long combat missions, then return to base and try to fit in some time to finish his applications.
“Depending on the evening, we might come back from a mission around sunrise,” he says. “We would take off our gear, debrief, go eat breakfast, and then I’d work on my Wharton essays for an hour or so before going to sleep. Sometimes we didn’t get back until much later, and the priority had to be getting some sleep before we started over again the next evening.”
In addition to his wife back in Seattle (aka “mission control”), Perrine says a network of veteran friends with MBA experience helped him with his applications.
“Vets read my essays and gave me feedback on them [and] one did a mock interview with me,” he explains.
The hard work and support paid off. Perrine was accepted into the MBA programme at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Now, he is looking to recruit other veterans to his course and give them the same kind of help that he received.
Many thousands of men and women finish military service each year and make the transition back to civilian life. The adjustment can sometimes be difficult, but many find that an MBA education can make it smoother.
Applying to investment banks and consulting firms straight out of the military does not work, says Perrine, who believes veterans are seen as raw material and that their skills may be questioned. But a combination of military experience and an MBA is “very compelling for employers”.
Perrine and his second-year classmate, Joe Kistler, a former US Marine, have been very active in promoting their programme to veterans. The two men, co-presidents of the Wharton Veterans Club, recently teamed up with the school to hold its first MBA recruitment event targeting veterans.
More than 40 people took part in the all-day session, where they learnt about the admission process and financial aid, and attended some MBA classes. Prospective students also spoke with veterans on the programme and heard from an alumnus about his post-MBA work experience.
One of the participants, Scott Quigley, says he was impressed by the event. “Veterans are in a very unique position when applying to these MBA programmes because unlike other applicants who are coming from investment banks or consulting firms … military applicants don’t have a lot of MBA networks. Most guys don’t have support.”
Quigley has leadership and management abilities honed by seven years in the military and four overseas deployments, but he wants to refine his finance and accounting skills.
Also, the MBA is known to provide a strong business network and targeted career guidance. He is expecting to receive tens of thousands of dollars to help fund his tuition and living expenses through the US’s Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, and, hopefully, some outside scholarships.
There is another reason Quigley wants to go to business school. “I’ll miss the shared experience of the military,” he says. While there, Quigley knew that he was part of something bigger than himself. By contrast, civilian life seems lacking.
“During the Wharton military [recruitment] day, I felt as if I found that same sense of shared experience. These MBAs are doing the same great work that they did in the military and transferring those principles, values and leadership experiences into a business school environment.”
Other business schools are also making concerted efforts to recruit veterans, who are widely considered to be ideal MBA material, as they possess proven leadership skills, a solid work ethic and a team-player mentality.
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina has forged a number of partnerships and agreements in an effort to increase its veteran and military student population. Fuqua students with military experience can also apply for scholarships to fund their MBA.
“We’ve had some outstanding [military] candidates, and that really reinforces for us that this is the right thing to do,” says Liz Riley Hargrove, Fuqua’s associate dean for admissions.
These students stand out for their classroom contributions, their academic commitment and their ability to secure good post-MBA jobs, she adds.
At the Thunderbird School of Global Management, which has deep military roots and is built on a second world war airbase in Arizona, Jay Bryant, the director of admissions, says veteran recruitment is very high on the agenda for his team. The school is launching a scholarship programme to ensure that each veteran admitted to the MBA course will receive at least $10,000 in funding.
At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Matthew Gore, MBA student and co-chairman of the Armed Forces Group, says the club and the school’s senior administration are working closely together to ensure Booth reaches out to veterans.
Employers are also interested in former military personnel. Most high-profile banks and consulting firms have formal and informal networks that offer ways for MBA-educated veterans to connect and learn more about prospective employers.
Some of these companies host veteran-specific recruitment sessions at business schools.
Technology giants such as Amazon, the online retailer, and Google, the internet search engine business, are also going out of their way to connect with this group.
Both companies recently hosted veteran-focused recruitment events at Wharton, says Ankur Kumar, the school’s director of MBA admissions and financial aid. Veterans’ analytical minds as well as their leadership and teamwork skills make them very attractive candidates, she adds.
Back in Pennsylvania, Perrine says employers are “ramping up their efforts to get the best vets out of these programmes – not just at Wharton, but across the top programmes”.
He and Kistler, his club co-president, have already been recruited by some of the most sought-after employers.
After completing a summer internship at Morgan Stanley, Kistler accepted an offer to work at the investment bank in New York. Perrine accepted a job with McKinsey, the management consultancy, where he can expect a gruelling work schedule.
But having survived deployments to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – plus a two-year Wharton MBA – the new role may appear less daunting to him than many of his contemporaries.