My TCK client Eliza had one of the best resumes and cover letters I have ever seen. She did a spectacular job clearly describing her responsibilities and accomplishments and she had tons of relevant, solid experience. I was so impressed.
She had amazing experience in countries like Nicaragua, China, and South Africa. Eliza clearly articulated all the skills she had gained in terms of working effectively in fundraising and across cultures. I could tell that she would be a standout candidate for any international job.
But, that was the problem. She wasn’t necessarily looking for a job that required international experience. Like many TCKs, Eliza’s resume painted her as “the international one” but the problem is that international experience is not always what employers are looking for.
In Eliza’s case, she was looking for a job in public policy in the United States. Some of the positions she was applying for did have an international component and others did not.
With an average of 300 applicants for every positions listed in the US, Eliza couldn’t risk potential employers tossing her resume aside because she didn’t look like she fit their bill. She had to figure out how her international experience could be translated (from English to English!) to fit the positions she was pursuing.
Before I go any further, I know some of you are screaming at the computer screen right now. “But I DO have international experience, I don’t want to hide that! It’s part of who I am.” Don’t get worked up quite yet. I’m not going to tell you to take your international experience off your resume. For some of you, that would be erasing everything on your resume. But I am going to tell you how to shift and reword these skills and experiences so that people can understand what you have to offer, regardless of your geographic location.
You probably want to know why it’s a problem if you are viewed as the “international one” when the job doesn’t require that type of experience explicitly. Here’s why:
1. Employers get intimidated too. Like it or not, people are quick to compare themselves to others. Not all employers, but some, will look at your resume and get intimidated by all of your international experience. They will think that you are “worldly” and “know everything.” Some will also decide on your behalf that you would be bored in the position you are applying for.
2. It’s easiest to look at the headings. When someone reviews your resume, they spend 60 seconds or less deciding whether you go to the next round or not. That means that they cannot read every word on your resume and oftentimes they just read the headers (position, company, location, years) quickly to see if what you’ve done is relevant. If every position, location, and company on your resume is unknown to them, they cannot get the information they need quickly enough to make a decision. So, what do they do? Spend the time to read further or call you to ask for more info? No, they don’t have time for that. They put you in the “no” pile.
3. We like people who are like us. Ever heard that saying that “people are attracted to people of similar attractiveness”? People like people who are like them in some way. It gives them a point of connection. So, if your resume makes you look like you are really different from the people you are going to work with, they are less likely to want to know more about you.
So, then what do you do? Your resume is chock-full of international experience and you would like to settle down and work in a position that doesn’t necessarily require this.
Here are a few strategies that you can use to make sure you get noticed for the excellent candidate you are for the position, not just for your international background.
Strategy 1: Make sure they understand who you worked for.
So, let’s say you worked for Arete Youth Foundation located in Sofia, Bulgaria. If I read those three words, I know that it’s a foundation and that it does something with youth. I also know it is located in Bulgaria. (If I’m a US employer, I may or may not know where Bulgaria is.)
You don’t want to take a lot of the space on your resume in explaining, but it is worth it to summarize what Arete Youth Foundation is in two lines. These two lines should appear after your heading and before your bullets. In these two lines, make sure to highlight any similarities between Arete Youth Foundation and the organization you are applying to work for.
Strategy 2: Use their language.
A lot of times, we have to translate from English to English or from the way you speak about a particular topic to the way someone else speaks about it. For example, let’s say that you wrote grants to get money to provide a free breakfast at schools in Nicaragua.
But your potential employer is looking for someone who can manage school feeding programs in inner-city Chicago. On the job announcement they use the term, “school feeding programs” and your resume says, “grants for funding to provide breakfast.” Change your language to match theirs. You want to make it as easy as possible for the employer to see that you have the experience they need.
Strategy 3: Define yourself before they can.
Begin your resume with a Key Qualifications section that is three to four sentences describing who you are professionally. In this section, you can tell your potential employers who you are so that they don’t scan your resume and decide for themselves. A great key qualifications section for someone who has a lot of international experience but is now focusing their search in one country is to highlight your substantive experience instead of all the countries you’ve worked in.
You’re applying for a job in the United States to work for an NGO in New York that provides free after school activities for kids attending public schools in Harlem.
Old Key Qualifications Summary: International professional with 10 years of public policy experience in Asia and Australia. Excellent at handling cross-cultural communication and building teams across borders. Speaks fluent English, Mandarin, and French.
This summary clearly demonstrates that you are a great candidate with a lot of good experience but I would not interview you for the position in New York. Why?
1. I don’t need someone with international experience.
2. My target population is not Asian or Australian.
3. I don’t need someone who speaks Mandarin or French so this info is wasted on me.
4. Cross-cultural communication could be important if we consider that there are multiple cultures in New York City.
5. Building teams is also important but not necessarily across borders.
New Key Qualifications Summary: Public policy professional with 10 years of experience serving underprivileged populations. Excellent communicator, able to connect easily with any race, income, or age group. Thrives when building teams and consensus.
This summary is very similar to the first but it highlights the elements that may be relevant to the position instead of the elements that are relevant to you as the applicant. I’ll call this one for an interview because:
1. I need someone that is a good communicator and my NGO frequently has to meet with people of different races, income groups, and ages (young people in the programs and their parents).
2. I also see that you have experience serving underprivileged populations and our target group falls into this category.
3. Team building is important so I like that too.
Strategy 4: Don’t include foreign words.
You would think this would be obvious, but I see the names of organizations, universities, and programs in foreign languages all the time. Make sure you translate the names. Most frequently, I see this in Spanish for people who are applying for jobs in the US. People who speak Spanish assume that others understand basic Spanish words. Like everyone would know that “Universidad de las Americas” is University of the Americas. I so want that to be true, but it is not. Translate!
Strategy 5: Don’t list your address and phone number in a foreign country or faraway location.
We’ve moved past the days when your physical address needs to be at the top of your resume. But some people still like to leave it on and there’s really no problem with that unless you live far away. Employers don’t want to deal with the hassle of calling someone internationally or worrying about time zones or whether that person is going to want them to pay for their travel to an interview.
To avoid that, make sure you don’t list your address if it’s far away. This also applies to your phone number. If you are applying for jobs in the United States but you currently live in Mexico, get a US line through Skype or another service so that you are easy to get a hold of. If you and another candidate are both equally qualified and you live in Mexico and she lives down the street, you can bet they are going to call the one who lives down the street.
Anna Sparks is a Career Coach who helps professionals create attention-catching resumes and prepare for successful interviews. She works with people with international experience and those who need help fitting a unique job or employment gap into their work history. Her clients express their skills and prior experiences clearly and confidently to show that they are the best choice for the job. Anna has lived in six countries including the US and worked in every single one of them. Snag Anna’s free resume guide and learn more at anna-sparks.com.