Why RPCVs are the best candidates in job interviews

By Anna Sparks
Sept. 11, 2015

Yeah, I know there are a lot of RPCVs and I know we’re all different but I really do genuinely believe that returned Peace Corps Volunteers can be the best candidates in job interviews. Why? 

Because we have stories to explain just about everything and the stories are Interesting. Yes, I wrote Interesting with a capital I on purpose. RPCVs blow away most other candidates when it comes to bringing something up in an interview that is truly memorable (in a good way!) to the interviewer.

But don’t pat yourself on the back quite yet. Just because you are an RPCV doesn’t mean that you know how to tell these stories in a way that makes employers offer you the job. And that’s where I come in.

Recently Nik Crain from the RPCV Career Center wrote a fascinating article on the importance of grit in job applicants and how tough it can be to communicate. He gave some excellent examples of how RPCVs have demonstrated “grit” during their service.

I want to take that one step further and get you ready to talk about “grit” and your Interesting stories in an interview. Here’s the tricky thing: RPCV stories are awesome but often hard to relate to. You’ve probably had the experience of trying to explain something funny or profound to your non-Peace Corps friends only to be met with polite laughter or questions that show they don’t really get it.

That’s normal but if you want to get hired, you’ve got to learn how to tell those stories in a different way. So here we go…

#1 Use language that people get.

Most of us spoke a foreign language during Peace Corps and that language permeated our souls in such a way that we cannot remember certain words in English or those words just make more sense in the other language. Like it or not, everyone doesn’t understand that language or use those words.

When you are prepping for an interview (please tell me you prepare! If not, see #2 for how to…) practice the stories you’re going to tell using the right words.

This means not only words in English but also the vocabulary that your target field uses. Let’s say you organized neighborhood clean-ups during Peace Corps. You had to talk to a lot of people in the neighborhood, convince them to rally around a cause, they didn’t show up the first time, you tried again with a different tactic, and finally you succeeded (or you didn’t). If you tell the story just as I did here, your interviewer’s eyes are going to glaze over because they weren’t there and they don’t get why people would be okay living somewhere with garbage in the streets that causes disease.

You are applying for a position in community organizing and basically what you did was community organizing but you have to use the words of your target organization and highlight the similarities to make your skills really stand out.

You could try this:

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, I worked with a neighborhood with these characteristics. (Figure out which characteristics of the neighborhood are similar to the characteristics of the community organizing population.) I faced a particular challenge with this neighborhood because I was an outsider. (You may say this because that’s exactly the situation you will be in as a community organizer.) As an outsider, first I had to gain the trust of my neighbors which I didn’t realize at the beginning. I thought everyone would agree with me about the need to clean up garbage. The neighborhood had been suffering from X disease and the need to clean up seemed so clear to me. But… And you go on from there.

Imagine what you are going to do in your future position and overlay that on to your Peace Corps experience to see where it matches up. Then think of a story that illustrates your point.

#2 Prepare with a non-RPCV for the interview.

It’s unlikely (but possible) that an RPCV will interview you. So when you prepare for the interview and practice your answers to common questions ahead of time, practice with someone who is not an RPCV or someone who is trained to help you.

You’ll specifically want to practice your common interview questions (see #3 for one that’s really important) and figure out which questions you can weave your stories into. We all love stories much more than we love corporate speak so tell your stories like a real human being.

In your prep for any interview, you should know how to answer the following questions:

  • Tell me a little bit about yourself.
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • What is your weakness?
  • Why are you the best fit for this job?

All four of those questions give you a great opportunity to connect with your interviewer by using an example. If the interviewer asks you “What is your greatest strength?” you can provide you answer and then tell a short story to emphasize this point.

Remember that the answers to interview questions should be about one minute or less otherwise you’ll likely lose the attention of your interviewer. Practice giving your answer in a concise way.

#3 Nail it when you answer “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

If you don’t prep for anything else, make sure you know exactly what you are going to say when the interviewer opens with “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” I have never heard of an interview where the candidate was not asked to give a brief overview of his or her qualifications. Unfortunately, I’ve seen far too many interviews where the candidate repeats exactly what is on their resume or talks about aspect of themselves that have nothing to do with the position they are applying for.

Your response for this “question” in an interview should be one minute or less and is the perfect time to highlight professional characteristics you have that demonstrate grit. Don’t limit yourself to your experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer when responding to this question, even if you are applying for your first job after your service. You are not applying for the job of Peace Corps Volunteer so there is no need to define yourself exclusively in that role. Here’s an example of a spectacular, knock-it-out-of-the-park, nailed-it answer to “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Most of my experience thus far has been in economic development either in the United States or in Bulgaria where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I have worked with diverse populations including artisans, high school students, and small business owners. I excel in a coordination role. I love to strategize, plan, and organize to make sure we achieve results. The best example of this is when I organized the first national craft fair ever held in Ukraine which showcased the work of 20 artisans who I handpicked after traveling around the country for three weeks. As a result of this craft fair, the UN Development Programme funded the capital’s first high-end craft shop, about a quarter of the artisans signed contracts for export, and the remaining artisans accessed new markets that made them more profitable than ever before.

 The responsibilities of THIS POSITION align very well with my experience and my genuine desire to contribute to POPULATION. I am incredibly organized, able to manage multiple projects simultaneously, and I try creative strategies to get the job done when the first one isn’t working. When I lived in a foreign country I was an outsider and I hit roadblocks over and over. Sure, it was frustrating, but the very best thing it taught me was that there is always another way. I look forward to bringing that attitude to YOUR ORGANIZATION.

Notice in that answer that I did not say “I have grit” or “I try multiple ways to get stuff done.” I explicitly stated what happened. I also made sure to highlight a major accomplishment in the beginning of my intro. At the end, I told them exactly why they want to hire me.

Anna Sparks