Career Benefits

This page is designed for Smith students who are looking to utilize their study abroad experience to enhance their job search.

How to articulate your experience abroad to an employer

You know you experienced personal growth when you studied or lived abroad; maybe you took care of yourself while barely being able to read the labels in the grocery store, dealt with new levels of ambiguity and confusion with grace, made friends with people of different values and histories, and understood conflict in a different way.

But how do you talk to an employer about these skills? Very few employers set out to hire people with abroad experience as their number one qualification – but the way you illuminate the skills you have from your time abroad could set you apart from your competitors; you may well have developed the skills they are hoping for.

Some soft skills honed in a semester abroad could include:

  • flexibility
  • patience
  • maturity
  • decisiveness
  • leadership
  • responsibility
  • self-reliance
  • independence
  • managing, organizing
  • communicating

Before you go abroad

Plan on returning with at least one way you can say you went above and beyond. Some ways to begin to think about this:

  • What are you interested in that you can learn more about while abroad?
  • How can you help or learn more about the local people, even in a short time?
  • What professional connection might you be able to make? Do you have time for an informational interview? Or only enough time to discover an organization, but one that you can contact once back home?
  • What ways can you plan to show leadership or thoughtfulness going into the program?
  • Remember that many employers think that the only reason you’ve gone abroad is to have a good time. Make sure you come back with some serious things to say about how you used your time effectively.

When you go abroad, try to find an internship or other activity (informational interview, job shadowing, or volunteer program) that will:

  1. demonstrate your leadership abilities
  2. show that you took your semester abroad seriously and used it to expand your real world knowledge of international business.

Having experience outside of your university will give more examples to share with your interviewers about your adaptability and your willingness to go above and beyond. This is what most companies want in their new employees. Also remember to provide specific examples- this will give the interviewer a better sense of who you would be as an employee, and will set you apart.

Once you return

Develop three to four stories that you can share with employers. Everyone who has studied abroad has their own list of "wild and shocking" stories to share with friends. These edgy cross-cultural experiences are fun to share, but not with potential employers. You need to modify them or devise a new set of cross-cultural career related stories about your study abroad experience. Craft these stories ahead of time, and build them to reinforce professional skill sets. Here are a few examples:

  • Describe your role when working with student teams while abroad.
  • Describe your encounters when meeting professionals working in your field.
  • Speak about personal encounters that gave you insight into the local culture.
  • Speak about the link between your country and the host country, especially in terms of the workplace.

You only need three or four of these pre-scripted career stories when job searching. One story alone is often enough to demonstrate a whole grouping of your professional skills, maturity, insightfulness, sound judgment, cross-cultural knowledge, etc.

Before the interview

Before your interview, consider whether your potential employer values your experience abroad or does not yet understand the value. This will help shape what you share and how much you speak about study abroad.

If you think your employer already wants to see some abroad experience on your resume, then jump right in with your stories and be ready to tell how you excelled. How did you go above and beyond while abroad? How did you lead cross-cultural teams, informally or in class? Remember that your interviewer may want to share some of his/her experiences abroad – ask them (briefly)!

If you think your employer could not care less about your time abroad, you are going to need to take a few steps back. Remember two things:

  1. They almost certainly have some preconceived notions of what you did – have a good time and backpack around – while abroad. You are going to have to be that much savvier about how to talk about your experience.
  2. Most new graduates will be “domestic internationals” – employees whose international work is based in their home country. Most people continue to live and work at their home base, but with links to the world.

Be prepared to answer questions about your time abroad: "Why did you decide to study abroad?", “How did the experience live up to your expectations?". Remember to use specific examples when you can- this will always be viewed better than general answers such as- "because it sounded like fun", "so I could get away from mom and dad for a while", etc. You might find it helpful to think back to what you wrote in your essays to be accepted into the program, and why you chose to travel to your host country. If you can convey your passion for where you went, and why, your answer will stand out from others who stick to generalities. Also, you may want to think of things that surprised you about your host country while you were over there, however, remember to stick to the positive. You may find it helpful to keep some sort of journal where you can list the things that stood out to you while you were overseas. This will provide something for you to refer back to prior to your interview.

Interviewers may also ask you what accomplishments you were most proud of from your experience abroad. Again, activities outside of class will help you stand out. You can discuss the pride that came from learning how to not only adapt to college life in a foreign country, but also how to adapt to a work culture abroad. Discuss how this has made you a more well-rounded individual and worker. Also discuss how this experience would tie into your abilities at the specific job you are interviewing for. This piece of advice leads into other questions you may be asked- “What did you learn overseas that will help you do this job successfully?”, or “What have you accomplished during your time abroad that you are most proud of?” Again, providing specifics is the key to these questions. Discuss the goals you laid out for yourself prior to going abroad, and how you were successfully in achieving those goals.

Here are some questions to get you started, no matter how long you were abroad:

  • Were you creative in solving problems by applying familiar concepts to unfamiliar situations? How could that help in the job you are applying for?
  • Did you have to be flexible and adaptable? Able to work in ambiguous circumstances? Almost all employers like to see “self-starters” – does this experience abroad prove that you are?
  • Describe your encounters when meeting professionals working in your field.
  • Speak about personal encounters that gave you insight into the local culture.
  • Speak about the link between your country and the host country, especially in terms of the work place. Describe your professional skills through a story about a cross-cultural encounter that went wrong.

Specific tips for those who participated in short-term study abroad courses

Unless you are applying for a position abroad, employers are probably going to be more interested in the actual skills you picked up in your short time abroad and what you learned in the class. You will probably need to be succinct.

  • What was the class topic? Can you develop one sentence about what you learned? Why were you interested in that course?
  • Short-term study abroad is very intense – not much downtime, a lot of together time. Is this of value in the position you are applying for? Think it through and discuss until you distill a good story.
  • What is one good story from your time that illuminates your ability to understand something quickly or adapt.
  • What professional contacts did you develop? How did you make them? What do they offer you and your potential employer?
  • How do you understand the global aspects of the industry now?

Compiled from Jean-Marc Hachey, The BIG Guide to Living and Working Abroad
Short-term study abroad and Effective Marketing of International Experiences to Employers by Cheryl Matherly, Rice University.