How to Answer 'Tell Me About Your Military Service' in a Job Interview


Military veterans often encounter versions of the open-ended interview question, "Tell me about your military service." Similar inquiries include, "So why did you join the Army?" or "What did you learn from your time in the Navy?" Although the question sometimes stumps job seekers who are afraid to offer too much or too little detail in response, in practice, the question is a wonderful invitation to summarize your personal brand and to underscore the qualities and experiences that may land you the job. A simple list of dos and don'ts will highlight the opportunities and pitfalls that accompany your response. Outline your ideal response and then practice it with friends, during informational interviews and during actual employment situations.


Most responses to "Tell me about your military service" will include:


Why Did You Join?


Since most interviewers have not served, many are curious as to what motivates people to join the military. Do not assume from their question that they are hostile or condescending. Usually, there is a small or large dose of respect akin to asking someone "Why do you run marathons?" or "How do you find time for 10 hours per week of community service?"


Your response must be authentic, of course, but including your ideals and personal goals will usually be well-understood. "Growing up, I was always proud of my family members who had served, so I wanted to do my part, too. More practically, I wanted a bit of adventure, to see the world, while learning some technical skills and how to lead people." Notice how this veteran's response underscores that she is idealistic, family-oriented, respectful, practical, technically curious, trainable and knows something about leadership. Are there many companies that can resist such an applicant?


What Did You Learn?


Implied in "Why did you join?" is a "What did you learn?" question. Even if not asked, it is good to explain that you were grateful to learn something you might not have expected. For example, "I joined out of a sense of national service and to obtain leadership skills and technical training, but one of the most surprising extra benefits of serving was the exposure I gained to all types of Americans. I have heard a lot of colleges and companies talk about 'diversity,' but we really lived it every day and I would not trade that for anything."


How Does Your Service Experience Apply to Our Needs?


This is a question that is not always asked directly, but you should answer it all the same. An essential element of your personal "elevator pitch" is how who you are and what you can do will solve the employer's needs. Use specific examples to highlight that you "get it" when it comes to their needs. This insight comes from your aggressive networking campaign of informational interviews where you have learned what problems the employers are trying to solve and how you are the solution.


Be Positive About Your Experience


Most employers know that candidates who complain about prior positions and bosses are likely to do the same if they come to work at their organizations. Even if your military experience was less than you might have wished, no employer wants to hear your grumbling. That said, you can mention challenges to show growth, maturity or insight. "My first platoon sergeant was very demanding. He was obsessed with the cleanliness of weapons which at first I thought was a bit excessive. But I must tell you that it was a great source of comfort to know that our unit never experienced malfunctions in the field as a result of dirty weapons. Staff Sergeant Gomez and I may never be close friends but I respect the way he taught me how attention to detail and discipline can save lives in the military and save costs and drive efficiency in the private sector."


Do Not Apologize


Ban the phrase "I was just a ..." from your repertoire. Some veterans want to apologize for some element of their experience. Phrases like "I wasn't Special Forces, I was just regular infantry, you know, nothing special" are not only self-defeating, they are inaccurate! Most civilians don't know about the various military occupational specialty differences and sometimes their first encounter with the terms that describe your military job will be in their interview with you. Be proud and reflective about your experience. "I thought that I was going to be an Air Force fighter jet mechanic but they assigned me instead to HVAC technicians school. Honestly, I was disappointed at first but then I realized how mission-critical my job was and that I had a real knack for solving technical challenges. That is why I know I will excel at your company."


It is frustrating that most citizens know so little about their nation's military. For each veteran job seeker, however, it is a great opportunity. It is up to you to tell your personal veteran story in the context of solving that employer's needs. "Tell me about your service" is an invitation to show just that.