How your year abroad can help you in interviews

Interview time by Fellowship of the Rich

This article was written by Anna Perkins, published on 9th April 2012 and has been read 6979 times.

Anna studied French at Nottingham University and spent her year abroad as a Language Assistant at a school in Lyon. She also worked as a private English teacher in her free time, and spent the summer working in an international breakdown call centre. Here she describes how her year abroad helped her to get a job, and passes on advice about how best to sell your year abroad in an interview.

After spending 12 months in France under the pretext of 'University course requirements', coming back to England was an enormous shock. Not only because I kept bumping into people at service stations on the way home and mumbling "Pardon...", but also because I was thrown back into my final year at University, which accounts for 80% of my degree. No pressure.

Worse still, I had also forgotten that the end of uni was imminent, meaning one thing: (un)employment.

Deciding what you want to do and where you want to go in life is obviously a personal decision depending on multiple factors. Whilst I won't bore you with my thought process, I will quickly mention that my long-term goal is to live and work in France, permanently, after loving every minute of the past 12 months. For now, I decided I wanted to consolidate my arts degree by finding a place on a graduate scheme.

Everyone knows that the graduate job market is hard. There is a certain cliché that has echoed around my University's lecture theatres for my past 4 years, and was even drilled into me on the very first Open Day I attended, way back in 2007.

"A year abroad will make you more employable."
I've heard various forms of the same phrase but they all amount to this. And while you might nod in agreement, I'm not sure that I totally believed it. Surely everyone thinks that 12 months abroad on your CV is nothing more than an extended holiday?

I have had my fair share of job rejections. Okay, LOADS. But eventually you learn to refine your applications and find jobs you are actually interested in, and you progress a little further. Then there are telephone interviews and assessment centres, sitting alongside a bunch of other slightly worried-looking graduates.

I remember one particular assessment centre, feeling ridiculously out of my depth. My peers studied management, marketing, maths – one was doing a Masters in Business and another a PhD in Economics. Merde. How does someone studying a BA compete? I just about kept my head above water in group tasks discussing profit margins and investment, but it was short-lived, and I was like a rabbit in the headlights when assessors quizzed us on certain areas of our presentation with terms that I didn't understand and picked out areas I'd overlooked. Awkward.

All assessment centres also include an individual interview. For competency questions, I found that my year abroad acted as a library full of responses. Examples of the weirdest, funniest, most problematic and fantastic moments of 12 months in France, neatly reconstructed in to several lines of 'This is how I solve problems/lead a group/adapt to change/stay motivated.'

And finally, after four difficult exercises that day, there was one left: an individual presentation, to prepare 15 minutes in advance and to present to two assessors. The title was handed out to each candidate and the countdown began.

"Describe the biggest challenge in your life so far."
To this day I am amazed that my head did not explode at that moment. I was grinning so much, that I'm pretty sure everyone else in the room (most of whom who would later admit to having struggled) absolutely hated me. To be honest, I even hated myself. I was ridiculously and uncontrollably smug. I didn't need notes, I wasn't blagging, and all the time I had that massive, stupid smile, immovable on my face.

It may be a cliché, but spending time abroad does really help once you've got past the 'upload your CV' stage. Well, it did for me. (In case you're wondering, I got the job. Yippee!) I'm not saying you need to spend time abroad to get hired; what I am saying is this: language students, gap year veterans: have faith in yourselves. Graduate employers aren't always looking for a PhD in Economics – sometimes they're just looking for someone a little different from the average.

You could say they're looking a certain 'je ne sais quoi'.

Top Tips for Selling Your Year Abroad in an Interview:

1. Seek out new experiences and pick up new skills.
Make the most of your year abroad while you're still there! Try new things, meet new people, look for opportunities to go above and beyond! Not only will this help you to get the most out of your year abroad, you will also develop skills (e.g. confidence) that will speak for themselves in an interview situation.

2. Don't overlook the obvious.
Finding or starting a new job, opening a bank account, making friends, using public transport, dealing with bureaucracy, managing your finances and befriending the locals - these things can be difficult in the UK but if you have mastered them abroad then you can demonstrate adaptability, organisation, problem-solving and self-motivation.

3. Keep a diary, journal or blog.
Employers often ask you to recall precise situations where you had a problem/showed teamwork skills, etc. A diary acts as a useful logbook of your more interesting experiences (and is also a great souvenir!). For example, I used my blog about taking jelly into work with me as an example of creativity when planning my lessons! Before your interview, check some example competency questions (you could try WikiJobs) and consider different elements of your year abroad which you could adapt to each question. Don't neglect other experiences you've had in internships, work experience placements and university, etc.

4. Turn problems into positives.
Many of us face some tricky situations when abroad. Whether it be a language blip (we've all been there!), culture clash, cancelled flight or even homesickness; show your interviewer how you overcame these problems and the lessons you learned in the process. For example, did you handle the situation calmly and professionally? Did you show initiative in finding another way to get back home? Did you push yourself to make friends to combat your homesickness? Employers don't expect you to be perfect, they just want to see that you can learn from negative experiences.

5. Show your enthusiasm!
Often employers will simply say 'tell me a little about your year abroad' or 'how was your year abroad?' This isn't a trick question, so don't be afraid to show your enthusiasm - which will make you much more interesting to an employer who has already conducted five interviews that day. Just make sure you don't overdo it - maybe stop before you reach your 'naked sangria' story...

6. And finally...
The year abroad is a great selling point when you're looking for a job, so make sure you use it! Languages are already recognised as a benefit to businesses, so don't panic if you're the only language graduate in the room. Just don't forget to do your homework on the company before you show up!

Anna writes a blog called La Vie en Praline, so you can follow her latest adventures...

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