How to Land a Job with Your Study Abroad Experience

Writer-In-Residence, Pennsylvania State University

Perhaps you spent multiple weeks on an ecosystem service project in Peru, attended lectures at a foreign university on social policy, or tested your physical limits by trekking to remote scenic wonders. You may have practiced language skills or gained new confidence and poise as you tested your leadership abilities under dynamic conditions.

You’ve told your family and friends about these amazing experiences, but if you want to use them to advance your career prospects, you need to know how to tell prospective employers about them too. How can you translate and articulate your study abroad experience into meaningful workplace skills to use on your résumé?

Rest assured: studying abroad is an ideal way for you to enhance your marketability for employment. Here’s a specific method to sharing your experience on your résumé and in interviews that will help you open doors to internships and jobs.

Start with action verbs

If you’re still in school or a recent graduate, your education is still a powerful selling point to a prospective employer. Studying abroad is part of your educational experience, so include it under the section in your résumé labeled “Education” or “Academic Preparation.” Because education is one of your key benefits to an employer, you should place this category at the beginning of your résumé.

As the writer-in-residence of a college at Penn State University, I help a lot of students with their résumés. Many of my students list their study abroad experiences but do not develop them adequately to be of interest to a prospective employer.

Consider this example from a student who went to South Africa to participate in a program we have called Parks and People. It is an undergraduate study abroad program related to the management of protected areas using both the natural and social sciences. Here’s how she originally presented it on her résumé: Parks and People, South Africa, Spring Semester 2014.

“Ho-hum” is the likely response an employer will have to this underdeveloped presentation. Never make prospective employers do the work of figuring out why they should care that you went abroad. Keep in mind that on average recruiters skim a résumé for 30 seconds. If the relevance of your experience is not obvious, chances are they won’t care. I call this the “so what” question, and you can bet that recruiters are quickly glancing through your résumé with this question in mind.

Instead develop a description of the experience. You can do this by beginning each entry in the description of the study abroad experience with an action verb. Plus, consistently starting your list with a verb uses the principle of parallelism to aid to the quick readability of your résumé.

Here are some categories and examples of action verbs:

  • Accomplishing: achieved, added, built, demonstrated, exceeded, increased, resolved
  • Communicating: composed, demonstrated, explained, surveyed, tested, taught
  • Creating: began, designed, directed, fabricated, illustrated, performed, shaped
  • Financial and Quantitative: budgeted, calculated, compiled, forecasted, reconciled
  • Helping: aided, assisted, continued, enhanced, provided, saved, served, tutored
  • Implementing: acted, administered, distributed, handled, performed, proofed
  • Leading: directed, encouraged, fostered, guided, led, managed, promoted, trained
  • Managing: adjusted, compared, established, maintained, oversaw, revised, supervised
  • Organizing: assembled, assigned, collected, coordinated, implemented, scheduled
  • Planning: administered, determined, developed, prepared, researched, revised
  • Problem Solving: analyzed, debugged, investigated, repaired, resolved, synthesized
  • Researching: collected, critiqued, diagnosed, evaluated, examined, gathered, measured

These are just a few of the many action verbs you can use. Notice too that I’ve listed these verbs in the past tense. You can use present tense for descriptions that are ongoing and past tense for those you have completed. More examples of action verbs can be found on my blog or by searching the Web.

Include a skill relevant to your audience and position

Your study abroad experience has given you transferable skills: ones that are applicable from one position to another. Living abroad may have improved your communication skills because you overcame language barriers. Your cultural awareness and tolerance for differing customs may have increased as you examined your own frame of reference and actively sought to broaden it. Your coping skills, such as how you deal with stressful situations, may have improved because you had to travel and organize your itinerary, adapt to crisis situations, and problem solve. Now you must translate these skills into ones that are useful to the workplace.

Begin by recognizing that many transferable skills fall into the following categories: communication, intellectual, interpersonal, organizational, physical, personal, and creative. Here are some examples.

  • Communication: foreign languages, global perspective, intercultural awareness
  • Intellectual: gathering and interpreting data, research, synthesizing and summarizing
  • Interpersonal: leadership, diplomatic, rapport with diverse audiences, perseverance
  • Organizational: time management, punctual, prioritizing, coordinating among groups
  • Physical: stamina, travel and navigational skills, operating machines and tools
  • Personal: achieve goals, open-minded, respectful, self-motivated, quick learner
  • Creative: photography, design, illustration, visual representation, innovative

Let’s come back to the example of my student who participated in Parks & People. As part of her experience, she collaboratively wrote an in-depth, multi-paged analytical report to the South African National Parks staff. To do this, she and a team of students collected information on how best to educate local citizens and tourists on managing and mitigating human-baboon conflicts. They studied current communications strategies and based their recommendations on field work and interviews at multiple nature reserves and relevant locations throughout South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

A great experience, for sure, but how can she take this experience and make it relevant to her prospective employer? First, she should pay particular attention to the specific job description. Suppose three of the job duties that are listed for the position she is seeking are as follows:

  • Prepares reports by collecting, analyzing, and summarizing data and trends
  • Markets programs by preparing informational brochures; writes and positions all advertisements
  • Resolves customer concerns by investigating and locating solutions; recommends policy changes

Can you see how all three of these job duties may fit into various transferable skill categories? For example, the first job duty listed is report writing—the exact skill she practiced on her study abroad experience! Plus she had to collect the information in ways that went beyond a mere visit to the campus library. She’s golden for this job, but she still needs to communicate this message.

Bring it all together with specific tasks

Caution: don’t just list a bunch of transferable skills. You have to connect the skills to particular tasks to boost the power and credibility of your résumé. Students often come to my office for a résumé critique and have listed their skills like this:

Foreign Language
Global Competency
Public Speaking           
Diversity Awareness

Your reader is speeding through your document and may have a stack of over a hundred or more résumés to get through in an hour. Make it easy for your reader by connecting your transferable skills to specific tasks you have completed, and always relate what you include on your résumé to the job description. This list doesn’t connect any skill to something specific the résumé writer did.

To see how this can be improved, consider how the Parks & People student might combine action verbs, transferable skills, and specific tasks to describe her study abroad experience on her résumé for this hypothetical position? Here’s an example:

Bachelor of Science
, Environmental Systems Engineering
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA                   
Summer 2011– Present

Relevant Educational Experience
Parks & People Field Intern

South Africa
Spring Semester 2014                                     

  • Demonstrated effective communication skills by collaboratively writing extensive report to South African Parks board recommending strategies for designing informational brochures and posters for diverse audiences of local residents and tourists

  • Expanded world-view and gained multi-faceted understanding of problem solving by recognizing and overcoming language and cultural barriers and collected data through field interviews of residents, park rangers, business owners, and tourists

  • Developed creative solutions to key stakeholders’ concerns through active listening and meticulously organizing data to synthesize diverse viewpoints to use in policy changes; presented them to the Board and received positive feedback and evaluation

Compare this more developed example to the one line: Parks and People, South Africa, Spring Semester 2014. It does the work for the prospective employer and is tied to the skills sought in the job description.

It’s often said that studying abroad is life changing, but it’s up to you to articulate it effectively to employers so they can offer you more life-changing career opportunities!


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