When interviewing for jobs and for grad school, I faced the same challenge every service member or veteran faces: how to make a civilian understand your military experience. When I interviewed with defense contracting firms it was easy. Many of the individuals conducting the interviews were veterans, and in several instances we had common acquaintances from our time in the military. With ease I articulated (in military speak) the numerous roles and responsibilities I held as a junior officer. Too easy… or so I thought.
Grad school interviews were much more difficult for me because now I was speaking to individuals with little to no understanding of the military. When chatting with prospective students before the interviews, I often received a fascinated expression when I explained that I am a veteran. Inevitably the student asked me what I did in the military, and when I delved into my experiences, the fascinated expression often turned into a blank stare, followed by a sincere, “Thank you for your service. I couldn’t have deployed to Afghanistan.” They didn’t understand my experience, but wanted to show support nonetheless.
Then I figured it out. I needed to anchor my experience to a context or situation which my audience would understand while avoiding military jargon or acronyms. The most effective method I found was to use pop culture references. During my Wharton interview when I described my responsibilities as a threat weapons and tactics instructor for a Navy squadron, I pulled out a reference the interviewer could understand: Top Gun. Admittedly, when I blurted out this reference I was somewhat embarrassed, but instantly I could see the interviewer connect the dots. She could visualize my role and better understand what I was describing. Yeah, I know it seems corny, but it works! People need a way to relate.
Bottom Line: Think about how you can relate your military experience in an analogy or pop culture reference that your audience will understand. Don’t be afraid that doing so is too informal. It may actually help you to better connect you with your audience!
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