The ultimate year abroad debrief for your career

This article was written by Global Graduates, published on 31st July 2015 and has been read 8371 times.

The No. 1 complaint from employers is that graduates don't know how to represent their year abroad experience properly on their CV and in interviews. We've put together this breakdown to help you identify and understand the skills you've acquired so that you can present yourself in the best possible light.

Fetch a pen and paper and sit down somewhere quiet. Take a deep breath. I know this looks like a lot of information, but it could be the thing that clinches that dream job!

Ready? Here we go...

1. Think of 3 words to describe yourself BEFORE you left for your year abroad.

Think back to the person you were before you started your international placement. Perhaps you were shy or hesitant, or maybe you were comfortable and confident. Choose three words to describe the person you were then*. These can be positive or negative - or a mixture of both. Write them down. We'll come back to them later.

*If you're just about to leave, write down 3 words to describe yourself now and come back to this article in a year!

2. Think of a time when you overcame a challenge abroad. 

e.g. Your apartment flooded and a lot of your possessions were ruined or damaged.

What were you most proud of, in terms of the outcome?
This could be anything from the way you used your language skills to explain the problem to insurers, to your patience as you dealt with a difficult landlord.

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Resilience; Perseverance; Negotiation skills; Drive; Ability to take constructive feedback on board; Communication skills.

3. What bureaucratic hoops did you have to jump through during your time abroad?

Did you set up a bank account? Did you purchase a foreign SIM card or set up WIFI for your new apartment? Did you obtain a national insurance number, a tax code or a visa?

Which part was the most challenging?
e.g. The frustrating cycle of needing a permanent address to set up a bank account, and a bank account to pay the deposit on your new flat!

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Organisation; Thoroughness; Attention to detail; Ability to stick to deadlines; Patience

4. Have you ever done paid work abroad?

This can be anything from an internship to tutoring.

What did you learn specifically because you were working in a foreign environment?
This could be practical skills, like how to use particular software that is popular in your year abroad country, or cultural skills, like the polite way to answer the phone in Spanish.

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Ambition; Multicultural awareness; Patience; Resilience; Good manners; Adaptability; Punctuality

5. Did you ever have to think on your feet while you were abroad?

Try and think of an exact moment when this happened.

Are/were you a Language Assistant? Maybe your supervising teacher never showed up and you had to teach a class on your own.

Studying abroad? Perhaps a tutor asked you a question and you had to come up with an intelligent response in a foreign language.

What did you learn about yourself from this experience?
Are you more capable than you thought you were? Did you rise to the challenge or do you struggle under pressure?

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Decisiveness; Ability to take initiative; Confidence; Independence; Quick-wittedness.

6. When did you use your communication skills to get a point across during your international placement?

This could be anything from arguing your case in a seminar or a meeting to trying to teach a difficult linguistic concept to a class of Spanish students.

Were you successful? 
If you didn't manage to communicate your point, can you identify what went wrong? If you communicated successfully, which technique served you best?

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Creativity; Verbal communication; Intuition; Optimism; Perseverance; Patience

7. Think of a specific moment when you were out of your comfort zone.

It could be your very first day in a new city, or it could be a moment a little further into your placement.

What were you struggling with? What were you proud of?
Was it the language barrier that left you feeling overwhelmed? Did you feel unprepared for extra responsibilities at work? Did you travel somewhere off the beaten track?

When you reflect on that moment now, what makes you most proud about your behaviour? It could be that you kept an open mind, or that you were able to admit that you were struggling and ask for help.

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Self-belief; Flexibility; Determination; Ability to thrive under pressure; Open-mindedness; Adaptability; Multicultural awareness

8. When did you feel fully comfortable with the culture of your year abroad destination? 

Can you pin it down to a specific moment? It could be a comment on your perfect accent, a stranger asking you for directions (and you recognising the place where they want to go!) or the first time you showed a guest around your town/city.

How long did it take you to reach that point? How did you change as a person in the months leading up to it?
Perhaps you became more flexible and relaxed, or maybe you stepped your organisation skills up a level.

Now, let's think of that in terms of soft skills that you could use in business.
e.g. Multicultural awareness; Adaptability; Flexibility; Empathy; Discipline; Organisation; Perseverance

9. What surprised you most about yourself while you were away?

Think of some things that you discovered about yourself during your time abroad. Try to choose at least one positive and one negative trait.

How has that self-knowledge affected your actions going forward?
Maybe you realised that you struggle with timekeeping in the world of work (as opposed to a more relaxed university environment). You can use this knowledge to work on your punctuality in the future. Maybe you'll even choose to pursue a career in a company with a more relaxed approach to office hours in the future.

Now, let's think of that in terms of strengths and weaknesses.
Your strengths may be: Self-awareness; Positivity; Adaptability; Resilience; Communication skills; Drive

Your weaknesses may be: Disorganisation; Poor timekeeping; Tendency to take things personally; Inability to compartmentalise; Tendency to take on too much at once

10. Let's move away from soft skills for a moment and think about hard skills.

What practical skills did you learn while you were away?
This can be anything from doing a TEFL course to getting to grips with social media. Write down a list and put these in a 'Skills' section of your CV.

Now have a think about the fun skills you picked up abroad!
Did you take up flamenco or do an Italian cooking course? These are the things that add personality to a CV and help an employer to get a sense of what you're actually like as a person. Pick a few of your favourites and add them to a 'Hobbies' section of your CV.

11. Right. Remember those 3 words to describe yourself BEFORE your time abroad?

Now choose 3 words to describe yourself POST-year abroad. 
It could be 'creative, adaptable and culturally aware' (we'll count that as one word), or it could be 'quick-thinking, ambitious and independent'. 

Use these words at the start of your CV in a short 'About Me' section.
e.g. 'I am a driven, approachable and flexible graduate with excellent written and verbal communication skills. I studied French and Spanish at the University of Exeter and spent a year abroad teaching English in Aix-en-Provence and volunteering in Peru.'

TOP TIP: Your year abroad makes you stand out from other candidates. It is an asset. Don't hide it away at the bottom of your CV!

12. It's interview time! Imagine an employer asks you what you did on your year abroad.

Remember, every employer just wants to see an enthusiastic and happy person that they'd be happy to sit next to at work, so think about the parts of your year abroad that make you smile.

Choose 3 aspects to sum up your year abroad. Try and choose one to cover the cultural experience, one for the professional experience and one for the immersive experience. 
e.g. 'I spent my year abroad as an English Language Assistant in Madrid (professional). While I was there, I travelled extensively across Spain and Europe (cultural). I kept a year abroad blog and wrote articles about my assimilation into the Spanish lifestyle for various websites and digital magazines (immersive).' 

TOP TIP: You may want to vary these aspects, depending on the role you're applying for. For example, if you're applying for a role that requires excellent written skills, you can big up your year abroad blog. If the role asks for a confident manner with people, you can mention that you made lots of foreign friends and are happy to strike up a conversation with strangers.

13. Think about the 3 aspects of the year abroad that you're most proud of.

How could they inform your career choices in the future?
For example, if you absolutely loved meeting new people from around the world, maybe you should consider approaching a company with broad international scope.

14. Now let's look at how you can use all this in interviews!

Your year abroad can help you to come up with an engaging and innovative answer to the most stereotypical interview questions.

For example...

1. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
If you've been playing along with us during this post, you'll have a dozen strengths written down, along with concrete examples to back them up.

e.g. 'My strengths are that I have great communication skills (honed after a year of communicating with Erasmus students from around the world!), am very independent (I set myself up in a foreign country on my own) and am driven to achieve my goals (I became comfortable living abroad within X months).'

As for weaknesses, glance back over the things that surprised you about yourself while living abroad. You should have written down at least one weakness.

Now think about how you can turn that weakness on its head.
e.g. 'At the start of my year abroad, I got some bad news from home and it affected my performance at work that day. I realised that I struggle to compartmentalise. I had to learn to accept that I couldn't impact the situation at home at that point in time and that worrying about it wasn't going to help. Since understanding that, I've been a lot better at separating my professional and personal life.

2. Where do you see yourself in five years' time?
Remember when we asked you to choose 3 aspects of your year abroad that you're most proud of and think about how they could inform your career choices? Those will come in useful here.

For example, if you loved keeping your year abroad blog, you might say that you would love to be progressing in a career that allows you to use your writing skills. If you want to live abroad again or use your language in your career, count that amongst your aims for the future.

The interviewer doesn't need you to be super specific about the exact role you hope to fill in five years time. They want to know that you're thinking about the future and to see what you're looking to gain from working for their company.

3. What sets you apart from the other candidates?
This is where all those soft skills you listed throughout this article really come into their own!

e.g. 'Having lived and worked/studied abroad, I am confident taking the initiative, have excellent written and verbal communication skills and am highly driven to achieve my goals.'

Did you learn a language or two while you were abroad? Mention that.
e.g. 'I can use my skills in Spanish/French/Arabic to help the business to take full advantage of opportunities overseas.'

15. One final piece of advice...

After you've listed all your soft skills and spent hours preparing for your interview, here are a few general tips to see you through the process!

  • Practice a firm handshake 
  • Make sure you look your interviewer in the eye - but don't stare them down!
  • Research the company you're applying to while writing your cover letter, and again before the interview. Do they have a website/Facebook/Twitter page? Make sure you check it out!
  • Tailor your CV and cover letter to the company and role you're applying for. There's nothing more embarrassing than sending off a cover letter and then realising that you referred to the wrong company!
  • Be aware of your body language when in the interview. Try not to fidget or cross your arms around yourself - it gives off the impression that you're self-conscious and on edge, and will put the interviewer on edge too.

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