During university, many of my classmates chose internships in almost exclusively banking or consulting, but I proudly defied the norm. I spent my summers studying economics in Southeast Asia, hauling water filters, solar panels, and eye glasses into high-altitude villages across Guatemala, and volunteering to run the marketing initiatives of the Ashoka Foundation’s office in Cairo.
When it came time to apply for a job post-graduation, do you think I regretted my decision to forgo fancy, paid internships in brand-name companies? Not for a minute.
It all comes down to how you sell what you’ve learned and contributed in ANY experience -- voluntary or otherwise.
In fact, I scored every single interview I wanted (and still do) and beat out many of those same Goldman Sachs-type classmates to land my dream offer working for IBM Consulting in New York City. I was able to do this because not only did my resume stand out from my peers, but I had learned how to articulate those international experiences in a way that made the skills I gained in my unpaid positions meaningful to the paid ones I wanted during the interview process.
I came to understand that it all comes down to how you sell what you’ve learned and contributed in ANY experience -- voluntary or otherwise -- and how you package yourself to be relevant to the next opportunity you're seeking. So let's look into how exactly you can leverage your volunteer abroad experience while hunting for an actual, paid, job.
Understand the Job You Want
This is a basic best practice for any job, but you need to research the job you want TO DEATH. Talk to everyone you can who works there, read every article published on the company in the past 5 years, virtually memorize their website, and know it as if you were already a current employee!
Read the job description CAREFULLY and tailor your CV and cover letter to address each and every one of their requirements. Don't discount the fact that you may have gained required experience or skills through your volunteer position.
Especially if it was a longer volunteer position (for example, Peace Corps or a year teaching with an NGO), you may even want to consider including it under your more prominent "experiences" rather than a short "volunteer experiences" section at the end.
Speak Their Language
Through the research process, you will see how the company speaks about itself and its work. Adapt all of your application materials to their tone and vocabulary and use them in the interview, too.
For example, because I was applying for consulting gigs, I made sure I talked about doing a lot of analyzing, leveraging, and value-adding, working with a variety of markets, stakeholders, and buckets, and creating plenty of deliverables, buy-in, and takeaways through my volunteer positions.
No need to overdo it like this, but you get the idea. If you're able to tell your story in their lingo, the importance of your volunteer work is less likely to slip past them.
Inventory Your Experience
Make an Excel file (if you can't do that yet, good luck getting hired anywhere) with 15-20 of the most common job interview questions in row 1 spanning horizontally through columns A-S and then populate rows 2-4 vertically with concrete examples and stories that correspond to each question.
No one cares what the organization is responsible for -- they want to hear about YOUR responsibilities and what YOUR impact was.
The result is a pool of 20 questions x 3 examples each = 60 examples/stories (you can reuse some of them) that you have ready to speak about on command. This process not only helps you prepare to articulate your experience but also reduces nervousness by showing you just how much experience -- paid or unpaid! -- you’ve packed into your life to date and how much you really have to offer.
Focus on What You Did, Not What the Organization Does
This is a very common error I even see on people's resumes with 20 years of experience. No one cares what the organization is responsible for -- they want to hear about YOUR responsibilities and what YOUR impact was. As such, focus on the specific skills you gained in your volunteer experience and why the organization benefited from your presence. Therein lies the strength of your self-sales pitch.
Apply the Numbers
How can you QUANTIFY your impact? This takes what you accomplished from subjective to objective, and makes it more credible to an outsider. Did you collaborate on a team of 5, visit 15 villages, lead a group of 20, care for 75 monkeys, donate 400 pounds of medical gear, bike 2,000 miles, raise $25,000, or add 45,000 social media followers? Be sure to say so!
Pay Attention to Your Storyline
That summer gig caring for pandas in China when you are an architecture major was probably just for fun, but try to have it make a bit of sense, like you planned it or something.
We all know that many times we do what falls into our path or because it seems like a good idea at the time, but that doesn't get you a real job. For example, I had a big problem on my resume -- why did I spend a summer working in an Egyptian NGO when I was an Asian Studies major studying Mandarin?
The geography part didn't make sense, so I focused on how I supplemented my internship by doing field research on the Chinese diaspora in Cairo. That way, I conveyed more continuity and intention in my background.
The optimal solution is to think about how your professional goals will be supported by a volunteer position BEFORE you take it, but make sure to at least connect the dots going backwards if need be. Recruiters need a streamlined idea of who you are and why you did what you did.
Know Your Weaknesses and Gaps – and Come Prepared with a Solution
I've been “underqualified” for every job I've ever had, but I get hired because I go in with the right mix of enthusiasm, humility, and realism. I didn't know anything about spreadsheets when I was applying to be a consultant, for instance, so I used past examples where I learned much harder things in an even shorter period of time.
When applying for my current job, I had ZERO sales experience (a solid 75% of the skill set they needed), so I extracted stories from my work at IBM where I exercised skills I thought would make me good at sales: client-relationship building, public speaking, and research.
In both cases, I had to back up my claims in live role-plays and case studies (see below about practice), but I was able to get to THAT point because I proactively addressed why I wanted a job for which, on paper, I wasn’t qualified. As someone who has volunteered internationally, you surely have your own stock of stories to draw from as well.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
You’ve gotten your ticket to the hot seat and more than half the battle is over. Now you just need to WOW them in person. Practice for interviews with someone who works in that company or industry until you are calm and centered and speak with an enthusiastic confidence about all of your prior experience.
When I decided I wanted to do consulting, I bought the infamous “Case in Point” and begged my business school friends to do all the practice cases with me. The first one I ever did was a disaster and my good friend Ganesh, who is now a superstar at McKinsey, told me with the right amount of disgust, “You will NEVER get a job if you do THAT in front of an IBM Partner.”
Because many volunteer experiences foster very close ties between colleagues and supervisors, those relationships can be a huge asset to you in the future.
That tough love kicked me right where it hurt, but it was the perspective I needed to get my act together and practice until I was doing case interviewers even better than the business school kids. Hopefully, you too have a Ganesh to practice with. If not, find one!
Get a Good Recommendation
If you had a particularly good relationship with your volunteer organizer (or even fellow volunteers) who can testify to your work, reach out to them to serve as a reference on your CV and LinkedIn profile.
Recommendations are really important to securing a job, and because many volunteer experiences foster very close ties between colleagues and supervisors, those relationships can be a huge asset to you in the future. Speak with your contacts before leaving to make sure they are comfortable recommending you in the future.
If you need them as a reference later, send them an e-mail to warn them and remind them of your work with them. Especially if they see a lot of volunteer turnover, they may be fuzzy on the details.
Use Your Volunteer Experience to Build Your Network
Don't know where to START your job hunt or you’ve hit a brick wall? Reach out to alumni of the program you volunteered with and find out what they are doing now and how they transitioned into a paid position.
Does the organization you volunteered with offer full-time jobs? What about similar organizations? Don't ignore your volunteer experience itself as a potential source of contacts, ideas, and future employment.
Knock 'Em Dead!
Regardless of whether your past experiences were paid or voluntary, the same overall principle applies: Bridge the gap between the job you want and the job you have now with a proper, well-researched articulation of your skill set, experiences, and enthusiasm that makes you relevant to the new gig you’ve got your eye on.
You have learned and contributed in a way that embodies the kind of energy, motivation, work ethic, and teamwork any job requires.
No matter if you were organizing donations of prom dresses for girls in Detroit or saving the seals in South Africa, you have learned and contributed in a way that embodies the kind of energy, motivation, work ethic, and teamwork any job requires. What’s left is for you to realize that fact and communicate the depth of your own contribution with confidence!
Read more articles on volunteering abroad and post-volunteer resources!Photo Credits: Chris Carruth, Paula HuYong.