The Peace Corps Lottery

This year, Obama’s words and actions have inspired many people to serve their countryEvery day a new article appears in the press about the surge in Peace Corps applications. But given budget constraints and the nomination system, who gets in and who doesn’t is a bit of a lottery. And not just because the applicant rolls are swelling.

J. Scholes, Peace Corps Haiti

J. Scholes and a little friend, Peace Corps Haiti

Peace Corps’s funding has been challenged in recent years due to the falling value of the dollar and rising expenses — so fewer Volunteers are invited. And the qualifications for Peace Corps assignments are narrowly drawn. The net effect is that “generalists” — well-educated people who could learn to do many things effectively — compete against each other for fewer and fewer Volunteer positions while demand for Volunteers is growing around the world.

Peace Corps assignments each have their own very specific qualifications attached. For any given assignment it’s all spelled out — the degree you need, level of language proficiency in specific foreign languages, amount of time in relevant volunteer or professional experience. The requirements are there because host countries invite Peace Corps, determine the mission of the program there, and request specific skill sets among incoming Volunteers.

In the past, if you were an accomplished college grad with varied volunteer experience and few medical complications, your chances of getting into the Peace Corps were solid and fair. You could vie for one of a few generalist assignments — Community Development, Health Extension, or English Teaching, for example. Once in-country you’d be trained with all the specific skills you’d need to complete your service effectively.

Problem is, Peace Corps wants to place all of its talented generalists in these same assignments. That’s because the qualifications are broad: its nominees must have a Bachelor’s degree in any discipline, and three to six months volunteer experience. For a Community Development assignment, you could volunteer in any field to qualify. Or you could volunteer for three to six months in a specific field, like health — educating people about HIV/AIDS prevention, for example — to qualify for a Health Extension assignment; or English-language education — tutoring recent immigrants in English language — to qualify for an English-teaching assignment overseas.

The reason getting an invitation to Peace Corps becomes such a problem now is the way the nomination process works. If you aren’t familiar, it may help to know that after you apply and interview, you can get nominated to join the Peace Corps from your local recruiting office. Then your application travels to the headquarters office in Washington, D.C., where your placement officer considers whether you are a good program fit for a specific country assignment, and invites you. (In the mean time you undergo a medical and dental examination to be deemed physically fit to serve in a developing country where medical care isn’t always on par with that of the United States.)

Sounds easy, right? Well the problem is that Peace Corps regional recruitment offices throughout the country race against each other once, quarterly to get all their applicants nominated through an online system—and because the number of applicants has far outnumbered the openings, within 15 minutes of opening the online process, one day every three months, the generalist slots all get taken up.

If generalist positions made a small percentage of Peace Corps openings, the problem wouldn’t be so dire. But generalist positions make up about half of openings. Not only that, but the generalist contribution to Peace Corps is important. The power of the Peace Corps is that it not only provides needed technical assistance to developing countries, but it also transforms people who don’t necessary have a lot of prior international or development experience, who may otherwise never have the opportunity to live oversesas for that length of time, and to learn another language.

If you wanted to leave for Peace Corps in the summer of 2010, and applied in March 2009 (the current recommended 13 months ahead of time), for example, you may not even make it into the online nomination system this May. Not because of something you wrote in your application. But simply because on nomination day, your file is sitting underneath a stack of other great applications. By the time your recruiter reaches for your file, she sees that the generalist nomination slots have all been filled — by applicants all over the country, whose recruiters at other regional offices have also been typing furiously to get their applicants into the system.

The process doesn’t reward the applicants who are the best-qualified generalists in the pool. It’s a numbers game, a game of speed — can your local recruiter type in all of her applicants sooner than a recruiter sitting in a Peace Corps regional recruitment office in another city? Unless your recruiter pulls some strings for you (at the expense of other applicants), it would be a roll of the dice whether you’d get in.

Before the recent funding woes, this same nomination system worked much better — there were enough spots available for all qualified applicants. The new scarcity of Volunteer openings and the recent onslaught of applications has made the system impractical.

Hearing the disappointing news that you haven’t gotten nominated, you can choose to stick around and hope for better luck next quarter. But then it might be Thanksgiving 2010 before you ship out for your assignment.

To make yourself more marketable to Peace Corps, you could also work on your Spanish (they are looking for people with intermediate-level Spanish), or you could take a year of French. And if you have made a good impression as an applicant, instead of applying as a generalist, your regional recruiter may be inspired to write something called an “almost match” letter of appeal on your behalf. An “almost match” means that your qualifications come close to those required by another assignment, but they don’t meet the letter of the law. So if your degree isn’t exactly right, and your experience isn’t exactly relevant, you could compete for other assignments against other specialists, rather than all of the generalists.

Before his election, Obama called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps, which would offer more qualified U.S. citizens a chance to serve overseas in a life-changing two years, among communities who value the skills the Volunteers bring with them. He and Michelle Obama have inspired countless Americans of all ages to serve locally and abroad. What’s sad is that for many people ready to enter the Peace Corps application pipeline, that opportunity’s just not going to be there. And his budget, sadly, doesn’t do anything to change that.

So as to avoid ending on such a sad note, let’s say you could make it into the online nominating system. You’d still be competing with all the other nominees for even fewer invitation slots since more people are nominated than can be invited.

While waiting for your invitation to come through, it behooves you to keep volunteering and practicing your foreign language skills so, when you check in with your placement officer at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, you can let them know you’ve been working hard and deserve to serve your country as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If you can show you’ve been working harder than the other nominees, you might just have a chance of squeaking in.

If you are considering applying to Peace Corps, don’t let the complications detailed here prevent you from trying. Contact your local recruiting office and talk with a recruiter about your specific skill sets. Ask the recruiter to recommend what you need to do to make yourself more competitive.  Recruiters are genuinely willing to provide that kind of personalized attention. The phone number to reach all Peace Corps offices is 800-424-8580 — follow the instructions to dial through to your regional office.

Peace Corps is a two-year international service experience for U.S. citizens and one of the best opportunities the U.S. government offers its citizens. Assignments vary widely. Volunteers earn a living allowance and receive comprehensive medical care, technical and language training, and two-way air travel.  To learn about other international service and volunteering opportunities, check out the Corps and Coalitions list on the right-hand side bar of this blog.

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    • Diana A. Gomez
    • April 24th, 2009

    Very well written, great information.

    • Elyse
    • April 24th, 2009

    Makes me truly proud and excited to be one of the few invitees!! :)

    • Just Call Me Peachy
    • April 24th, 2009

    If the Peace Corps is mostly looking for mroe specialists, they should just offer an extended training period – perhaps six months instead of three – where the most talented and bright generalists can acquire the technical capacity needed to fulfill more professionally demanding positions.

  1. That’s an interesting idea — I wonder what the costs would be of three to four more months of training.

    • Environmental Ed Nominee
    • April 24th, 2009

    So if you’re an “almost match” and have to gain additional experience, does it increase your likelihood of actually being invited? If you do gain the additional volunteer work they require, is it enough or can they still reject you?

  2. First of all, congratulations for getting nominated.

    It’s the generalist nomination slots that are the quickest to fill up when the online nominating system opens.

    That said, once you are invited, you are still competing against other nominees — and that is more true than ever now, since the application pipeline is just packed with people at every stage. But the more in-demand your specific skill sets are, the better your chances of ultimately getting in.

    It’s good (probably especially as an “almost match” nominee?) if you can show that you have been working to prepare and to improve your skills at the same time you’ve been waiting for medical clearance and jumping through the other hoops. Enthusiasm goes a long way. It also might be that you have to wait a bit longer to get an invitation, or to leave for your service. And of course Peace Corps can choose not to invite any nominee, for medical or other reasons.

    (I know this all sounds exhausting, but it really is worth it all. Once you are in-country, it’ll all be a faint memory.)

    For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet been nominated, it’s my understanding that if you are qualified for, or an “almost match” for, a more specialized position, your chances are better for getting nominated sooner because those nomination slots stay open longer, and also you are competing against fewer people (but there are also relatively fewer specialized positions).

    It definitely benefits you to work on qualifications that help you stand out from the crowd. The assignment descriptions on the Peace Corps website are pretty clear about what you need to qualify. As I mentioned in the blog, you should also have a frank discussion with your recruiter sooner rather than later.

    • suze
    • April 25th, 2009

    Who is this author and how do they have such insider knowledge? This article just sounds like a compilation of rumors on the PC boards.

  3. Hi, Suze,
    I am an RPCV. For the record, I don’t publish rumors on the blog. I wanted to shed light on a subject of much confusion among our readers. Thanks for being among them!
    -Amy

    • Jack Ferrebee
    • April 25th, 2009

    I am a 64 year old retired attorney. My wife and I have applied for a Peace Corps assignment. After temporarily withdrawing our application for the birth of our first grandchild, we renewed our application. Since that time, we have been put through expensive medical examinations and follow-ups for an array of things, including very minor ones, in our medical histories. We have also been required to submit second resumes and second motivation statements, for reasons that are not apparent. While we have been put through this lengthy and, on occasion, unnecessay and duplicative paperwork, we have been able to volunteer on separate dates in 2008 and 2009 with an NGO serving the needs of the victims of natural disasters in Haiti. Each time, the process has been easy and inexpensive, bringing immediate assistance to people in need. It is also mystifying why the Peace Corps has chosen to exclude volunteers who have not graduated from college. Although I have a B.A. and law degree, I know that there are many more talented people than me without degrees who can bring tangible assistance to people in need.

  4. Thank you so much for your service. I’m so glad and your wife have persevered, and I hope you are able to join Peace Corps in the end.

    You actually don’t have to be a college grad to serve in Peace Corps — some assignments require a number of years of relevant professional experience in lieu of a college degree. My own recruiter (in 1998!) had participated in Peace Corps as a high school grad, because the skill set he had — digging wells — was the skill set he needed for his Peace Corps assignment. So I know it’s been done.

    Anyway I am really impressed with your service, and congratulations on your first grandchild. That’s worth delaying anything.

    • Soon-To-Be-Invited
    • April 28th, 2009

    What I don’t get is this: Why don’t the recruiters just select the best of those “generalists” and put them on the top of their stacks of files? That way on nomination day once every three months, the “best” have the best chance of getting in and the worst (weakest) have the worst chance of getting in? I would assume they prioritize even within the generalist pools right? Makes sense to me.

  5. Mm, that’s a good question. I think the problem is that the current system is based on having plenty of slots available for the number of qualified applicants that Peace Corps usually works with. The system doesn’t work the way it was designed to, because the number of applicants (and therefore also qualified applicants) has skyrocketed while the number of available Volunteer positions has simultaneously shrunk.

    As for your suggestion about alternatives to the current system, I would invite people who are directly involved with the process to comment.

    • Elizabeth
    • April 1st, 2010

    I know this article is a little old, but If I apply, and am qualified and am in that nomination stack, can I count on eventually getting a nomination and an invite, or is it a possibility that I never be placed? Also, how long might that eventual nomination take?

    I’m graduating with my Bachelor’s degree soon, and I finally made the decision that I would really love to do this, and am ready. I’m concerned though about whether or not I should pursue a job. I don’t want to commit myself to a company and then find out 6 or 7 months later that I have an invitation to serve. I couldn’t leave a company or people that invested their faith and time in me. I also don’t want to apply and hope and wait and never be placed. What would you suggest?

  6. Hi Elizabeth, What you are describing is always an issue for Peace Corps applicants who apply at the same time they are undergoing a broader job search. If you are qualified for a Peace Corps assignment, and you are patient, the chances are good that you’ll eventually be placed. Because recently Congress increased funding for Peace Corps, the chances are also good that the number of Volunteer positions will increase, accommodating more applicants, and that therefore the wait-time from application to arrival in-country will shorten for Peace Corps applicants who are qualified and invited to serve. I suggest applying if you genuinely want to serve—work with your recruiter to tailor your application for specific assignments you’re qualified for, and if you speak Spanish or French, be clear about that in your application too. These will both strengthen your application and possibly shorten your wait-time.

    As for accepting a position with another organization during the interim, you have a few options. First, the Peace Corps application should ask when you are available. Giving yourself a more distant availability date may help you plan better — so if you gave them a date two years from now, it would give you time to start a new position with a clear conscience, knowing you’d be able to dedicate two years to the job. Next/alternately, find out from your PC recruiter what is a logical estimated time frame for your departure for Peace Corps if you were available sooner (say 12-18 months from now) — and then be honest with the Peace Corps recruiter about obligations at home. You then could search for Stateside openings that are time-limited such as a term of AmeriCorps service (10 months to a year) that you could complete by the time your Peace Corps service were to begin. Alternately, you could simply accept a regular position with an organization, without knowing for sure what the Peace Corps outcome would be, and letting the chips fall where they may with Peace Corps service.

    The Peace Corps application process is rigorous and time consuming, and if you’re serious about serving, I would err on the side of applying and being realistic with Peace Corps about your availability.

    Good luck!

    • Elizabeth
    • April 2nd, 2010

    Thank you so much! That helped a lot.

    • Brandon
    • April 3rd, 2010

    Thanks for all the great info Amy. I just had my interview on friday and my recruiter was awesome. She told me she would be back to me within a weeks time to inform me of possible nominations. Much to my delight she called me back just a hour later and said that she was nominating me for a position in Africa.(the position i was nominated for was a community development position) So being the internet bug that I am I started looking around for an answer to a certain question and I cant seem to find the answer anywhere. I understand that I am still in competition with other nominees and I am taking steps to make myself more competitive. (i.e. looking for additional volunteer work) My question is baring any disqualification due to medical or legal reasons how likely is it that a nominee would receive an invitation? Are most nominees usually placed or is it still a “up in the air” type of situation. I am hesitant to tell members of my extended family about my decision until it is a certainty. Thanks again for the great info.

  7. Hi Brandon,
    Congrats!! That’s really exciting. The short answer is, you should be able to celebrate with family and friends that you’ve been nominated, especially if you think they will be patient and supportive as they wait with you for an indefinite period of time for the final invitation (country of service, time line for leaving) to come through — and/or if family and friends can be supportive of you if for some reason Peace Corps ultimately does not invite you, or if you decide to withdraw your application because of some other opportunity. If your hesitation to tell extended family members about your decision is because there are antagonists among them, you may choose to keep quiet a bit longer till you know what country you are heading for, and when you are leaving — two of the major questions people will have. Or you may choose to keep quiet if you think you’d turn down an invitation if it’s not ideal (country or time line) for you.

    To get to your broader question about where you stand right now…

    Normally, what Peace Corps is going to look for in nominees includes:

    • Medical clearance — any medical conditions you may have should be manageable in-country
    • Legal clearance
    • Professionalism in all interactions regarding your application.

    Knowing that not every nominee will be medically and legally cleared, Peace Corps nominates almost twice as many people as are needed to fill open Volunteer positions. As part of making your case, it’s important to keep up with all requests for information, physical and dental exams, etc. — the more thorough and responsive you are, the better your chances.

    And similar to grad school admissions, it’s never okay to be unprofessional on the phone or in person with anyone at Peace Corps who is involved with the process. Being professional includes a wide range of behaviors from being respectful and efficient, to not speaking unpleasantly, not getting your parents actively involved with your application, not enlisting a congressional representative to contact the head of Peace Corps in an effort to strong-arm your placement officer, etc.

    Right now, while the agency is emerging from a period of belt-tightening (including cutting 400 Volunteer positions), nominees may also face additional formidable competition from each other. Peace Corps therefore may be looking for nominees who are better suited for specific assignments than other nominees, and placement officers in Washington may request a second interview from you and other nominees to help determine who ought to be invited. What you’re doing — continuing to volunteer in your field — is a great idea. Anything you can do to demonstrate your ongoing commitment to succeeding as a Volunteer will help you.

    • Eva
    • April 23rd, 2010

    Hey,

    I also have been recently nominated for a Community Development position in Latin America. I also have a very exciting offer form another organization that I am more than willing to turn down for PC service, but obviously don’t want to turn down for naught. What is the timeline to wait, on average? I was told I have a possible departure date of January 2010, but how realistic is that? And how do I make myself more competitive of a candidate?

    Thanks, Eva

  1. May 22nd, 2010

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