Helping your students communicate the value of their international experience

 “Despite all the ways an international experience may have influenced their character, many college-aged students struggle to take that last step of weaving their abroad story into their professional narrative”

Studying, working or undertaking an internship abroad can help to equip students with skills and experiences they might not otherwise have had – but the challenge for many students is communicating this to employers. Katie Arango, managing director of Connect-123, considers how institutions can enable their students to get the most out of their international experiences.

International education professionals, students who’ve studied abroad, and at this point, a large portion of the general population are well aware of the many benefits of study, volunteer, teaching and internships abroad. Getting pushed outside one’s comfort zone and being immersed in a different culture presents a multitude of growth opportunities that enrich students personally and eventually, professionally. And in this highly competitive work environment, time spent abroad can certainly be a point of differentiation from other candidates.

But despite all the ways an international experience may have influenced their character, many college-aged students struggle to take that last step of weaving their abroad story and their newly acquired skills into their professional narrative. And in failing to do so, they are missing a key opportunity to get an actual return on their international investment. Whether a student’s next step involves a job hunt, graduate school, medical school or beyond, being able to articulate the effects of their trip in a meaningful way is an essential element in capitalizing on their experience.

Here are some practical tips to help students to communicate the value of an international experience.

Understanding Future Employers

The skills that employers are looking for in recent grads and the skills likely to be acquired or enhanced during an abroad experience overlap quite a bit. Some of the most highly sought after traits in new hires are creative problem solving skills, communication skills, flexibility, initiative, teamwork, adapting to situations of change, being able to interact with a variety of people and undertaking tasks that are unfamiliar – just to name a few. An abroad experience, by definition, is an exercise in many of these. The sooner students make that connection, the easier this part of their journey will be. In short, students should never underestimate the skills that living abroad has taught them.

Carefully Crafted Cover Letter

A cover letter is one of the most convenient platforms students have for illustrating how their time abroad has made them excellent candidates for a given position. When students draft a new cover letter for each position they are applying for, they should draw a direct connection between each aspect of this position and lessons learned during one’s international experience (as well as any other relevant experiences they’ve had).

The Devil’s in the Resume Details

Encourage your students to be specific on their resume. They can either use this valuable space to write “had a research internship” or they can elaborate and share the title of the paper contributed to, where it was published, and give a quick overview of organization where they worked and context for how that organization fits into the larger society.

Back to Basics

Often, students believe that just because they lived through the experience, they’ll automatically be able to speak eloquently about it. But all too often students find themselves tripping over their words with questions like, “So I see you studied abroad in Cape Town. What’s South Africa like?” In addition to their personal ‘elevator pitch’, students need to have a concise but insightful summary of the city/country/region where they’ve traveled. It’s important that students don’t make assumptions about the interviewer’s understanding of their abroad destination.

Practice, Practice and then… Practice

Interviews are the ideal opportunity to put all the skills they’ve gained from their time abroad on display. Students must prepare to strategically answer common questions and prompts, such as:

  • What was your biggest challenge during your abroad experience?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to changing circumstances?
  • Why did you choose to undertake an international internship/volunteer position/study abroad?
  • Why did you choose [insert your destination country here]?

And even if not specifically asked about their time abroad, students can always answer the following questions highlighting their international experience:

  • Tell me about yourself or walk me through your resume
  • What are your greatest strengths / weaknesses
  • Why are you right for this job?

Accentuate The Positive

Life abroad can be challenging at times. Students shouldn’t dwell on the negative but rather highlight the learning and growth from each difficult situation. A misunderstanding with a colleague can demonstrate awareness of cultural differences. An internship supervisor that only checked in once a week is a testament to a student’s ability to work independently.

Do you have any additional tips for helping students capitalize on their international experience and use it to achieve their professional goals?

Katie Arango helps create customized international internships and meaningful volunteer programs with Connect-123 in Buenos Aires.