What did you learn in the military?

What did you learn in the military? What transferrable skills did you learn in the military? One of these questions, or a variation of them, will most likely be asked at every interview a veteran has. I know this question was asked at every interview that I can remember. It is my belief that this question can, and should, set the veteran apart from most other applicants.

Being confident in a job interview is a great way to stand out as a candidate. A veteran will stand out even more if she or he has a good, well-thought-out answer to the question, “What did you learn in the military?” To arrive at a meaningful answer, some reflection is needed. After years of being in one organization, it is always good to reflect on what was learned. After some reflection, your answer to this question may come in one of two forms.

This question can be answered in a technical manner. This happens when the job that is being applied for is very similar to the job in the military. Let’s use a mechanic as an example. A veteran was a mechanic in the military, maybe completed some post-service schooling, and is now applying for mechanic positions. Even though leadership skills are a good thing to have learned, the mechanic skills learned in the military should be stressed in an interview. If you are planning to answer this question in a technical manner, it is important to reflect on all the work performed in the military and how this work will translate to the civilian sector. The second way to answer this question is, obviously, in a non-technical manner.

A non-technical answer is used when the job being applied for is nothing like the job in the military. This was the situation where I found myself. I operated construction equipment in the military – always outside on the job site or motor pool. Now, I am an actuary – always inside, sitting in front of a computer. If I answered this question by talking about all the operating skills I learned, I would have not only confused the interviewer but also reduced my chances of getting the job. If you will be answering this question in a non-technical manner, you should reflect and come up with some answers involving intangible skills. For reference, this is one way how I answer the question. (Eric Wright describes skills that can also be used to answer this question here; although, his example is a hybrid of technical and non-technical skills – maybe the best of both worlds!)

The most important lesson I learned in the military is that the leader must be the hardest worker. The best leaders that I had were the ones who were willing to do whatever job was needed to help the team, no matter how small the task. Those leaders made everyone feel like equals and inspired team unity and cohesion. I wanted to do my best because I did not want to let my team leader down. Whenever I am a leader, I try to be the hardest worker. I also apply this lesson when I am not in a leadership role; I always try to be the hardest worker.

I usually begin with a variation of the above paragraph, and then the interviewer with ask a follow-up question. I have received a few different follow-up questions, so I will not go into details about those here. The main point is to have the initial answer ready. I practice my answers (like everyone should) before my interviews. I will then think about follow-up questions that I have previously received and other potential follow-up questions.

As a veteran, you will probably have more experience than most other candidates who are applying for the job that you want. This is not always true; however, it is certainly true for those of us who are changing career fields, as the positions will be entry level. My goal at every interview was to convey that I have more maturity and leadership skills than the 21 year-olds also applying to the position. I feel that this is how the veteran will stand out.

I definitely did not do this on every interview. It took me a couple of interviews before realizing that my technical skills alone would not get me any positions; the first couple interviews lead to nothing. I decided that I needed to convey my maturity and leadership skills and experienced much more success – two internships and one full time offer.

There are many questions whose answers should be practiced before an interview. For veterans, the question, “What did you learn in the military?” is one of the most important ones.