A recently returning China Volunteer wants to know how to discuss her experiences during the job search. These are my two cents.
Talking about your experience in a service corps in the first year — or five — after completing your term, you may notice a wide range of responses among your listeners: anything from the dazed-over blank stare, to the nervous, fidgety “please change the subject now” glare.
To avoid either response while you are building your professional network or chatting in a job interview, prepare ahead of time!
Develop an “elevator speech.” A little speech you could make in the amount of time it takes to ride in an elevator with someone you don’t know — who might offer you a fabulous job if you could intrigue them in 45 seconds.
In other words, prepare a short, riveting overview of your service. You can use the speech in a variety of settings (don’t save it for the elevator) but especially any time someone says “How was Peace Corps?” or “What were you doing during your term?” or “Where were you in China?” (Note that nobody who asks that question knows anything about China, so do not bother going into great geographic detail.) Avoid jargon and acronyms.
If your elevator speech is truly riveting and your audience hasn’t heard enough, they may ask for more information. This is not an invitation to open the fire hose. Best bet is to prepare two more sentences. Check out this guide from EnCorps national service resources.
As for how to talk about what you did in the corps for the job interview, focus on the skills you learned and used. For each job you interview for, prepare specific anecdotes about a time you used each relevant skill (you’ll find skills listed in the “qualifications” and the “job duties” sections of the posted job description). End each anecdote with a quick summary of how your skill contributed to the success of the project in question, etc.
Briefly, this might sound like: “In Peace Corps I planned a leadership event for women at the college where I taught; I identified the need among my students, located funding, brought in guest speakers from the local community, and evaluated the event when it was done. As a result of the event, 75 percent of participants said they were more confident in speaking in public and coaching their peers.” These anecdotes shouldn’t sound robotic when you say them, so practice a bit, pause often, and adapt to the conversation.
Feel free to type up these skills and a brief note about each anecdote, and have that cheat sheet in front of you during the interview. You’ll just look more prepared!
Okay so what should you avoid saying?
As you probably did during your term of service, avoid politics in a professional setting. You likely have no idea what the political views of the hiring manager are—no matter what you assume about their organization. (Many people assume Idealist is politically liberal, but in fact we are neutral AND we work with organizations across the spectrum, so keeping your politics to yourself is important in a job interview with us. Not that we are hiring.)
Even if you do know their views, you’d be better off modeling discretion, which you’d likely use with your new organization’s various clients. You are finally a private citizen again, and yet professional prohibitions against partisanship probably still apply.
Also avoid negative stories about your time in the corps or your host country. If the other person goads you with their negative impressions or stories, let them roll off your back. A simple “Oh, I got used to that,” or “I just focused on my service” is probably the best response in most networking or professional settings.
Learn more about crafting an elevator speech, networking for career purposes, preparing your resume, getting ready for the interview and more in the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers. It’s free, completely downloadable, and the advice works for any sector though it’s written from the nonprofit sector perspective. Later this year, look for the Service Corps Companion to the Guide – it will have more specific information about adjusting after a term of service.
NPCA now has a mentor-match program, matching recently returned Volunteers with RPCVs who have been home for a longer time. Sign up for your own mentor.
This post was adpated from the most recent e-newsletter of China Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.