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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How to Talk About Your Experience Abroad in Your Job Hunt

Recently, I received an email from a friend who had been living abroad:

After three years of living in Cambodia, I’ve decided I need a change, and I’ve been applying to jobs back home. I get the feeling that my resume seems thin, and my time teaching here doesn’t seem relevant to the job posts I am seeing. What do you think I should do?

I get these types of emails often, especially from colleagues who are trying to transition home after living abroad for a few years. They often feel that they had such a powerful learning experience, but that it can’t always be summarized on a resume or thrown into an elevator pitch during interviews. And it’s not just expats who feel this way: I also hear from students who want to frame their study abroad programs appropriately and professionals who have a lot of international work experience but simply don’t know how to market it.

The core of my work, too, usually takes place while I am traveling abroad, and over time I’ve learned how to contextualize global experiences and make them relevant back home. While “World Explorer” may not yet be a resume-worthy job title, here are a few ways to make your skills and experiences from travel applicable to your career.

1. Don’t Downplay Your Experience

I can’t tell you how many times I hear friends say, “I lived abroad, but I was only teaching English,” or, “Oh, I was just volunteering.” But whether you were managing a classroom full of kids or organizing programs, both types of commitments require preparation, deliverables, and a long-term plan of goals and outcomes. Why downplay it, or come off that you don’t take your time abroad seriously?

Instead of dismissing your work, be confident, and know your insight and experiences are valuable. Whatever your job was, it likely had some relevancy to your career goals—so think about key experiences and accomplishments that could translate to future positions. For example, if you were a medical volunteer in India or the Caribbean, you may have been able to work with unique cases such as tuberculosis, malaria, or parasitic infections, diseases that you would have never normally encountered in the United States. This kind of international knowledge and understanding can offer new perspectives and contexts for working in the medical or public health fields.

On Your Resume

Even if you were employed for a short period or you were volunteering, definitely put your position in the “Work Experience” section of your resume. Highlight three or four major accomplishments in your bullet points, using clear, universal language that hiring managers in your field would understand.

In an Interview

Discuss your time abroad in the same way you would as if you had the same job experience in the United States—describing your objectives and achievements and showcasing your skills. Think about your two biggest accomplishments, and prepare talking points about them for the hiring manager.

2. Identify the Skills You Used in Daily Life

If you live abroad, it’s easy to forget that you are constantly learning and picking up new skills, sometimes very quickly. Did you have to learn a different language or business style while you were abroad? Basic things like negotiating prices, navigating bureaucracy, or organizing events or meetings are really important skills, and it’s pretty interesting to have mastered them in a different country. Working in another culture and language shows great strength and flexibility—and you can definitely use that to showcase why you’re a great candidate.

On Your Resume

Add a “Skills” section to your resume detailing any special abilities you’ve picked up. If you’ve gained language skills, include them in a separate section, listing each language you speak and your level of fluency.

In an Interview

Discuss the skills you gained in your daily life and how you applied them to your work. Better yet, explain how you still use the skills you learned abroad today—or could use them in your future workplace.

3. Be Prepared With Anecdotes (But Choose Them Wisely)

Stories and anecdotes are a great way to illustrate your growth and accomplishments during your experiences—saying you know how to plan a curriculum in Cambodia is one thing, but telling the story of how you helped your students and teachers enter essay competitions and find jobs using those English skills really brings it to life.

Do, though, remember that not all experiences will translate. Though we all have funny travel stories and miscommunications, try to avoid anything that might make you come off as aloof or silly, like the time your whole class drew beautiful pictures of you (their teacher) in lieu of doing their homework—or the time you tried snake whiskey. And before you tell a story, make sure you’re giving your audience proper context and can follow the point.

On Your Resume

If it makes sense for the jobs you’re applying to, try using brief and relevant anecdotes that display your skills and capabilities in your cover letter. Frame your experience in a way that shows you deliver (e.g., "My experience in fundraising launched when I raised over $2,000 for a new school in the village I was working in"). Just make sure it's a lead-in to the skills you have—and not the full content of your cover letter.

In an Interview

Prepare a few examples from your experiences that are interesting and won’t require a lot of context to explain to the interviewer. Make sure you can summarize these stories in a minute or less.

4. Link the Global and the Local

Think about what current events, global issues, or local policies are relevant to your international experience and how that links to your career trajectory back home. For example, maybe you saw how the operations of a big multinational company worked in another country while you were abroad, or maybe there’s a link between manufacturing initiatives in your home country and the country you were working in. This is a great way to show how your experience translates (and what you bring to the table above other candidates), so where you can make these connections, do!

On Your Resume

Highlight any writing, lectures, or follow-up initiatives you launched when you got back home, and include any cultural associations, clubs, or societies you are affiliated with that have an international focus. Organizations like the Rotary Club, Amnesty International USA, Oxfam, or United Nations Foundation offer direct country-based issues and opportunities to get involved.

In an Interview

Discuss how your work abroad links to your work back home, and relate your work to current issues, or share how your time abroad has given you the perspective to consider major global problems in a new light. Use examples of innovation, resource use, and funding you have tried in the field (whether they were successes or failures) to discuss your focus and skill set. What strategies worked for you abroad, how they could be successful back home?

International experience shouldn’t be a hurdle in your job hunt—in fact, it can highlight your unique skills and strengths and give you an extra edge in the job search. Depending on how you market your experience, you can stand out from the crowd, add a fresh perspective, and show how your valuable international outlook makes you the right person for the job.

Photo courtesy of GuoZhongHua / Shutterstock.