Deciding among attending college and living in dorms, joining the military and living in barracks, or doing nothing and living in your mom’s basement is a choice every high school senior faces. For those who decide that the military is the right choice, college is still a great option after serving in the Armed Forces.

I graduated from a public high school at the bottom of my class. College was not a practical option for me. Joining the Marine Corps, however, was an option, so I enlisted while I was a high school senior. When I left active duty four years later, I had acquired many experiences that most people my age did not, and I had proven my ability to work through challenges.

College admissions officers saw more than my (very sad) high school transcript when they read my application. As a result, I was able to go to college. In fact, I recently graduated from an Ivy League law school. If my high school guidance counselors could only see me now!

Unfortunately, not every veteran fares as well. It is important to know how college admissions officers respond to military applicants.

When asked whether the military applicant was perceived negatively or positively, Jerry Ripke, Purdue’s assistant director of admission responded, “Purdue is not affected by veteran admissions. They must still meet regular admission requirements.”

Similarly, according to Barb Schneider, the executive director of admissions and enrollment management at the University of Colorado, CU looks at a military applicant the same way it would look at any applicant. “Admission is based on the academic record of the student,” she says.

At many schools, however, military experience can be an advantage. Leadership, diversity, community service, interesting life experiences and goals for the future are commonly desired traits in applicants. Military service can help you develop all of those characteristics. The key, according to a number of admissions officers, is not the experience but how you apply it.

Stanford University, for example, notes military experience in an applicant’s file, but does not flag military applicants for special consideration.

“Military service is one of the many factors that we would recognize as a unique life experience, but having the experience is not as important as what is made of the experience,” says Christina Wire, the associate dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford.

”In short, one’s military involvement is neither an advantage or disadvantage in admission to Stanford, but that experience, when combined with everything else in the applicant’s file, may make for a competitive applicant.”

Many other schools, including Grinnell College, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania, take similar approaches.

“Military applicants are considered as adding to our campus diversity,” says Chris Lucier, assistant director of admissions at the University of Michigan. “We feel their experiences, as well as their levels of discipline, maturity, and time management, will help ensure their success.”

On the other hand, military service alone will rarely win you admission to an exclusive school. Grades and academics can still make or break an applicant.

According to Vern Beitzel, director of admissions at the Virginia Military Institute, applicants still need to have a strong academic record to receive an appointment to VMI.

“We like for students who have served in the military to have completed some type of college level work rather than just spending time in the military,” he says.

Ultimately, military service can help you get into the college of your choice, but it is only one dimension of your application. It is a powerful tool, but you have to show admissions officers that in addition to everything else you may be, you will be a productive student on their campus.

The ROTC Deal

Thinking about doing college and the military at the same time? Consider the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, aka ROTC. As a member of ROTC, you’ll take classes and participate in campus life just like any other student—including joining athletic teams, Greek organizations and clubs. In addition to your major’s classes, you’ll also take ROTC classes, for which you may receive college credit—for example, leadership lab, where you’ll learn military history, customs, courtesies and culture.

If you are awarded and accept a ROTC scholarship, you aren’t committed to serve in the military in return for the scholarship until the start of your sophomore year. Even if you haven’t received a ROTC scholarship, you may still be eligible for a monthly stipend while you’re in school. At graduation from a ROTC program, you’ll be commissioned as a second lieutenant. You’ll then enter the job field you requested.