Putting Your Study Abroad Experience to Work

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Faith Lemire-Baeten ’17 in Cork, Ireland

Welcome Back to Harvey Mudd!

Welcome back campus! We hope you had a wonderful experience studying and living in another country. How does it feel to be back? Are you finding that coming home is more difficult than you anticipated, or have you made the transition back with ease? Reentry can be just as difficult as adjusting to another culture when you went abroad, and for some students it may be even more challenging.

You still may be trying to figure out how you can incorporate everything you’ve learned abroad into your life here. Maybe you’ve decided that you’d like to capitalize on your study abroad experience in your job search. If so, the OCS has prepared the following information to help you incorporate your study abroad experience as you prepare your resumes and cover letters as well as prepare for job interviews.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss your return to campus, please don’t hesitate to stop by OCS during drop in hours or schedule an appointment on Handshake.

Put Your Study Abroad Experience to Work

Using Your International Experience to Your Advantage in the Job Market

After spending time overseas where you learned about a different culture, adapted to new ideas and cultural expectations, you now need to apply these new skills to finding a job.

The following general tips may be helpful as you plan your strategy for finding work. Bear in mind that factors such as work permits/visas, language barriers, competitive application processes, and specialized skill requirements may present some challenges to finding work abroad.

Marketing Your Study-Abroad Experience to Employers

Many students describe their study-abroad experiences as “wonderful” and “life-changing.” In addition to sharing your study-abroad stories with friends, family, and advisers, you will also need to reflect on your experience and be ready to speak intelligently about it to potential employers.

Research from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute has found that some employers view study-abroad programs as “academic tourism,” and some students have difficulties communicating the value of their overseas experience. The fact that you spent time overseas is not the key point for employers. You must be able to articulate how your study-abroad experience relates to and benefits them. Through written materials or in conversations, employers need you to clearly and thoughtfully convey how your study-abroad experience has prepared you to be a strong candidate for their organization.

Possible Skills Gained While Studying Abroad

During your semester abroad, you most likely developed or honed a variety of skills and competencies that might be cross-cultural, industry-specific, or transferable.

The list below includes qualities and abilities which students studying abroad frequently develop. In preparation for a job interview, you may want to think of concrete examples from your experience abroad that demonstrate your development of some of these characteristics.

  • Ability to establish rapport quickly
  • Achieving goals despite obstacles
  • Adaptability
  • Applying information to new contexts
  • Assertiveness
  • Awareness of global economic and political issues
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Conveying ideas verbally
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Enhanced cultural awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences
  • Flexibility
  • Foreign language proficiency
  • Independence/Self-reliance
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Open-mindedness
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Problem solving
  • Self-Confidence
  • Taking initiative
  • Time management

Reflect upon your experience and the career-related strengths you may have gained. For example, did you:

  • Work on group projects with students from different cultures?
  • Initiate meetings with professionals at local organizations to gain insights into corporate and industry culture?
  • Actively participate in a student organization?

Through experiences within and outside of the classroom, studying abroad may have improved your abilities to:

  • Creatively solve problems by applying familiar concepts to unfamiliar situations
  • Look at a project or situation from different perspectives
  • Maintain self-confidence while listening and learning from people whose value systems may be different
  • Be flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing situations and new environments
  • Imagine, forecast, analyze or address business situations from a different cultural frame of reference
  • Develop an understanding of global issues in your industry of interest

Which Skills do Employers Value the Most?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has conducted a survey for many years asking employers for the top personal qualities and skills they seek in new college hires. They include:

  • Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  • Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  • Ability to obtain and process information

You possess these qualities to varying degrees and will continue to develop them throughout the course of your life. Studying abroad usually provides additional opportunities for you to hone not only these skills, but other key competencies such as leadership and the ability to deal with ambiguity.

Make time after the study-abroad experience to take an inventory of the skills you possess. How were your existing strengths enhanced by your time overseas, and what new additions might you have made to your skill set?

Take Your Resume and Cover Letter to the Next Level

Creating a Resume

You can incorporate your study-abroad experience into your resume in a variety of ways:

  • List the name of the program/institution in the “education” section of your resume, just as you list Harvey Mudd College.
  • Consider listing coursework if it is related to your internship/job search. You might describe relevant projects or any work, intern, or volunteer experience you had during your time abroad.
  • Depending on the level of detail you want to include, you can list these study-abroad-related experiences in the “education” section, the “related experience” section, or perhaps in an “international experience” section, if you plan on conducting a search with an international focus.

If you are unsure about where to best highlight your program and additional international experiences, bring a copy of your resume to an appointment with an OCS staff member.

You may also be interested in editing and presenting your resume/CV in a format that more closely matches the style and practices of another country.

Remember the goal of a resume is to demonstrate to potential employers that you would be valuable to their organization and to ultimately generate a job interview.

  1. Decide how relevant it is to your resume objective. As stated above, it is most commonly placed in the education section or related experience of your resume.
  2. Highlight accomplishments from your study abroad time if applicable.
  3. Market your transferable skills from study abroad: time management, adaptability, self-reliance, independence, language proficiency.

Tips for Creating Strong Statements

  • Action Verb + Responsibilities + Impact
  • Action Verb + Situation + Results

Format Examples

International Education Exchange, Bangkok, Thailand         August 2015 – December 2015

  • Studied Thailand’s history, customs, traditions, politics, and religion.
  • Performed research regarding public opinion of foreign media influence on national culture.
  • Participated in volunteer activities at local orphanages, homeless shelters, and elementary schools.
  • Wrote a 10-page paper to summarize the experience.

Study Abroad Participant, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaiso
Valparaiso, Chile through Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE)     January 2016 – April 2016

  • Worked with local engineering company to design a water purification system.
  • Built the water purification system with 5 engineers.
  • Enhanced Spanish language written and oral communication skills.

Research has shown that an employer spends approximately 15-20 seconds reading a resume. We recommend that you consult the Job and Internship Guide on the OCS website for some tips on writing resumes.

Creating a Cover Letter

A cover letter is meant to act as a complement to your resume, explaining in a narrative style why you are a good fit for the organization and the available position. If time spent abroad is highly relevant to the position, you can include your overseas experience in both the first and middle paragraphs.

First Paragraph

The purpose of the first paragraph is to introduce yourself to the reader, explain how you learned about the position, tell why you are interested in this position, and convey why you are a good fit for the organization and the position. The first paragraph often ends with a statement that introduces various aspects of your background, which you will elaborate upon in the middle paragraphs. For example, you might say something like “Through my engineering coursework at Harvey Mudd College, study-abroad experience in (list location), summer internship with/as (list organization or title), and leadership experiences on Grounds, I have developed the analytical, interpersonal, and project management skills that will allow me to be an asset to (name of organization/team).”

Middle Paragraphs

The middle one or two paragraphs of a cover letter are the focus of the document. In preparing to write this section, you need to first research the company. Tell the employer why you want to work for them. Then identify the skills the employer is looking for (the job description provides this list). Next, you need to reflect upon your experiences and think of the various ways in which you can demonstrate that you possess these skills. At this point, you are ready to describe how your background matches the employer’s needs. As you consider how your experiences demonstrate your various skills, consider reflecting upon your semester abroad. Are you able to draw upon specific examples from your time overseas to include in the cover letter? How might your time abroad have helped you develop communication, teamwork, or problem-solving skills? If living or working overseas is important to a potential employer, your letter should include more details about your international experiences.

“My experience studying abroad in Germany for a semester has provided me with a cross-cultural perspective of information systems.”

“My study abroad experiencer is also an asset because I learned to view problems from a different cultural perspective. Additional, I am able to adapt to new environments with ease and work with people of diverse backgrounds.”

Concluding Paragraph

Try to secure an interview by telling the contact person that you will call or email on a designated date to set up an interview. You can also state when you are available for an interview. Make it easy for the contact person to reach you – your best phone number and email as well as days and times you can be reached.

Interview like a Pro

In addition to creating strong written materials, you need to be prepared to thoughtfully articulate the career benefits of your study-abroad experience through verbal communication. To successfully converse about your time overseas with networking contacts and employers, you must:

  • Have a clear understanding of the skills and qualities you possess.
  • Identify the skills and qualities in which the employer is most interested.
  • Review your myriad experiences at home and abroad and identify concrete examples of how you have demonstrated the qualities the employer is looking for. Such qualities might have been gained in the classroom, Clinic projects, student organizations, or while working part-time or interning.
  • Using these concrete examples, develop compelling yet concise stories that illustrate how you have developed your skills, and how these skills in turn benefit the employer.
  • Practice, practice, practice telling these stories. Consider scheduling a mock interview with an OCS staff member.

It is recommended to speak in terms that are more familiar to prospective employers, such as using “adjustment” instead of “culture shock” and “interpersonal skills” instead of “cultural sensitivity.” Be prepared to answer the questions “Why did you choose to study abroad?” and “How and why did you choose your program/location?”

The most common type of interview, known as a behavioral interview, is based on the premise that your recent, relevant past performance is the best predictor of future performance in similar circumstances. Interviewers seek specific examples to get as detailed an understanding as they can about the way candidates have responded in similar situations and challenges. They are looking for proof that you can demonstrate the desired capabilities in the real world.

There is a three-step process to answering these questions:

  • Situation: Describe a challenge you faced similar to the example posed by the interviewer.
  • Task/Action: Explain the actions that you took to resolve the situation.
  • Results/Outcome: Detail the beneficial and positive outcomes that came from your initiatives.

You want to interview well, but remember that employers may not ask you direct questions on how your study abroad experience makes you the best candidate for the position, so it is up to you to think of some relevant examples beforehand.

Here are some question prompts to get you thinking about how to include your study abroad experience in your interview:

  • What are some skills/outcomes you gained while abroad?
  • What are the top three lessons you learned from living abroad?
  • How did the experience change your life?
  • What leadership opportunities did you have?
  • Tell me about your volunteer and work experience while abroad.
  • In what ways are you more adaptable, open-minded and observant?
  • How can you spot cultural differences and modify your behavior to accommodate local norms?
  • What language skills did you gain while abroad?

How to Find an International Job

Most careers these days can easily include an international focus or international opportunities. For example, if you are interested in health and medicine, you could volunteer or work with a number of organizations that run public health projects abroad. If you are interested in being a teacher, look into teacher exchanges or teaching jobs abroad.

Many job search engines will have international postings. The internet is also a great, albeit sometimes overwhelming, way to find opportunities. Google the field you’re interested in plus the word abroad or international.

Resources to Help with Your International Job Search

Tips for Making Connections for Finding an International Job

If you’re focused on a field:

  • Conduct informational interviews with people who are employed in the field you are interested in. This helps to learn about the jobs in the field and the possible ways to find a job.
  • Look for any professional organizations or conferences in the field.
  • Is there a professional website or listserv where job openings are posted?
  • Read journals and magazines addressing issues in the field. This will help you to know what’s going on, and later it will help on job interviews.

If you’re focused on a certain geographical region:

  • Work on your foreign language skills required for that region.
  • Look for any local organizations that are working on projects in that region even if the focus isn’t your life-long career choice, having experience working on a project (or even being informed about the project) is helpful.
  • Read, research, and interview people – do everything you can to know as much as you can about the area. Make it your area of expertise.
  • Are there any immigrant groups or expatriate groups from that country/region in your local area? Is there any way to work with those groups?

Get involved locally – look for organizations that correspond with your interests:

  • Student clubs and organizations.
  • Volunteer or do internships with local organizations.
  • Talk to professors who have experiences in the fields or the area abroad you are interested in.
  • Get involved with international students or immigrants living in your area.
  • Write papers on your area(s) of interest.
  • Start networking through alumni networks – through your institution or study abroad program.

Adapted from University of Colorado and University of Minnesota