Peace Corps Interview

Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context.  I don’t really like talking about myself.  I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.  Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession:  this was my second Peace Corps interview.  The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later.  I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true].  Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.

In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.

So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.

So  here’s is what I’ve determined…

Practise is important

Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it.  It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.

I took a screenshot of me before the interview so that I’d know how I’d look on webcam. Was lighting adequate? Did I look presentable?

Display professionalism

From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and prepared. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting.  I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting.  My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to act like its a face-to-face meeting.  Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.

When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.  

Research the country

The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.

Know Your Assignment

My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development?  Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.

While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be their mistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident.  Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.

Print out your resume and aspiration statement

Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and  did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?”  or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.”  On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or  how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.

Pray. Meditate.

Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up up an hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance.  I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Of course you do. Write them down so that  when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”

Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French.  How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions:  If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]

At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.

Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show.  Go to a movie.  Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork  and clearances that you have to complete.

Welcome to the Peace Corps!

Dear MICHELLE,
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.
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