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Applying to the Peace Corps: A Think-It-Through Guide for 20-somethings Interested in the Peace Corps

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This article was written primarily for people either considering the Peace Corps or those who may have already applied. It is based on my observations and experience as an applicant. This article was written from the point of view of a person who is actually still in the application process; it is an instructional guide, and one that I hope will dispel some common preconceived notions about the application process.

I am writing this article, firstly, because I feel that just being accepted into the Peace Corps is an accomplishment in itself. The Peace Corps application process is not linear. Often, as I have learned from experience, many things happen that make the application process less straightforward than 1-2-3. Sure, PC administrators are very clear about their expectations and what they’re looking for in a candidate, and there are definitely clearly defined protocols that the Peace Corps follows when determining whether an applicant is eligible. However, the straightforwardness may end here for many of you. Consider this: As of December 2013, I am being considered for a post as a co-teacher to begin in 2014. I had applied to join the Peace Corps in 2011, right out of graduate school.

According to the Peace Corps website, there were 15,386 applicants in the year 2009, which was an 18% increase from the year before. Data is provided on the Peace Corps’ website, but on average there are some 2,860 posts available around the world. In other words, about 19% of applicants are invited to serve in the Peace Corps from one year to the next (Peace Corps 2013; see website for details). While articles have already been written about whether the Peace Corps should expand the Corps while streamlining the application process, none of this has yet occurred nor may it occur: hence, the reason for this guide. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll be more aware and prepared for what is to take place in submitting your application, and hopefully in a better position to determine whether or not you are prepared for the rigorous process.

I applied in August of 2011 and was first told in September that I didn’t have enough volunteer experience. I was advised by a representative over the phone that I needed more teaching experience because the credentials that I had didn’t satisfy the requirements for placement overseas. Basically, there was hardly a thing they could do with my criminal justice BA and psychology MA degrees. Most of what they needed was far more practical, for example carpentry or someone who knows the principles of business and can communicate this in another language, and/or someone one who can teach English. So I guess my first lesson for you, if you are considering the Peace Corps, is to get a skill that people will need. If you’re inclined toward business, you may want to start a business, or major in business. Or do some volunteer work for a business. If you’re a horticulturist… well, you get the idea.

I was initially advised over the phone to do some volunteer work for a minimum of 30 hours. I wasn’t quite sure how I would pull this off, since getting volunteer work is becoming more and more difficult to find, at least where I am from, and for a while, it seemed like I would have to give up on the Peace Corps entirely. However, it was a stroke of good fortune that after only a month I had found an opportunity to teach English as a second language at my local library. It appeared as an ad in the local newspaper, advertising free training to be followed by actual opportunities to teach students. Depending on where you live, I suppose there would be few, some, or many opportunities like this. I come from a small town, so the classified ad seemed like a boon at the time. This was back in 2011 when I still had my mind set on the idea that if I finally qualified and just submitted an application, I would be considered right away and be able to teach English overseas.

I started getting to know the library staff who allowed me to volunteer, and accrued hours so that I could eventually re-activate my application (you can re-activate your application for up to one year upon receiving your waitlist notice, last I checked.). One month passed, and then another, and then another until eventually I re-applied after four months. I called a representative, told them my story, and was astonished to discover that they had transferred to a new application portal system and that I would have to re-apply. The time it took for me to gather all of my materials and re-submit took maybe one week, plus another week to obtain a recommendation from my supervisor.  I am not going to harp on the whys and wherefores of what you’re expected to submit: all of this information is available on the PC website and is fairly straightforward. I’m just giving you a sense of what you may experience.

Once all of my files had been submitted again, in 2012, I was ready to wait… and then wait some more. Months went by, and I would receive emails here and there about getting my application processed or some information they were requesting. At one point, there was some concern about my school loans, and I had to clarify with the rep that I did in fact intend to pay them off upon returning from service. I have saved several emails from the Peace Corps with the following dates, just to give you a little sense of the timing here: 9/4/2011, 10/4/2011, 8/6/2012, 8/23/2012, 8/24/2012, 9/6/2012, 9/26/2012, 11/14/2012, 11/28/2012, 12/11/2012, 1/4/2013, 12/17/2013. As you can see, the process is spread out. So if you’re considering applying to the Peace Corps, do it early, preferably around the beginning of your junior year if you’re inclined to go when you’re still “young” (operationally defined here as 20s and early 30s, although subject to change). With the way current policies are now, I can only imagine that the process will become lengthier.  As it is, you could be earning a four-year degree while you wait for the Peace Corps to come back with an offer.

In any event, once all of my paperwork was in, I was invited for an interview in the New York City Office. Typically what happens before the interview is you receive an email with an invitation to confirm your scheduled date and time with a Peace Corps representative. Also provided are a list of questions that may be asked. The email is careful to note that the questions aren’t the actual questions in the interview; rather, they are just representative of the kinds of questions. If you’re particularly worried about this step of the process, fear not. There are plenty of free, helpful guides online that feature many of the questions that will, in fact, be asked. Just do a cursory search for them and you will find all of the preparation you need for the interview. I did this and was so prepared for the interview that the entire experience felt almost like déjà vu.

After the interview, you wait some more, usually for the background check to be cleared. You might get a phone call about corrections that need to be made to the criminal background check. At one point, they had to send me back my fingerprints because there was a signature missing on one of the forms.  This little issue took about two weeks to resolve. But after that, finally, there really was nothing more to do but wait. After the interview, I didn’t hear back from anyone until I had made a personal call, in October of 2013. I was informed over the phone that the whole reason for the hold-up was that I had some medical records that needed to be reviewed. Ultimately, I had had to wait almost a year after the interview to move on to the next step—assignment. Now that I’ve been assigned to a post, I have a number of other clearance steps to take in order to be officially sent off.

I am describing this entire process to illustrate the point that you’ll experience setbacks, maybe a lot of them. Certainly, you won’t get in right away, even if you have all of the criteria to satisfy a position overseas. According to the Peace Corps’ website, for example, the application process takes on average 7-12 months, although I imagine it’s a bit longer now. You should have a back-up and/or interim plan, but if you’re committed to serving in the Peace Corps, it may take anywhere between seven months and three years.  

However, do not feel discouraged because there are some strategies you can take to ensure that your application process is smooth. In reflecting on my own experiences, I have generated a short list which may be helpful. Take it for what it’s worth, however, and with due diligence. Remember that this is only one article of many that you need to be reading in order to develop a more global view of what the expectations are, in terms of just the application process alone. So here goes:

(1) Have a fast computer- the portal the Peace Corps currently uses is not 100% reliable. You may log off mysteriously, and the pages could refresh before you are finished; if you can, make sure you have a top-of-the-line computer that you can work on quickly to get through the 12 some-odd pages that you have to complete before you can be considered for service. Make sure you have flash installed as well as any other nifty software devices that allow you to see all versions of a page. If you don’t have the money for a new computer, the next best option would be to use your local library or even your local One-Stop Career Center which will have a free computer lab. Even if you’re employed, you can still access One-Stop Career resources. On a side note, going through a One-Stop Career Center may even be easier than signing up for a library card (Or so my experience tells me). Visit benefits.gov to find your local One-Stop Career Center today!

(2) Make sure that you are able to satisfy all of the requirements for filling a post. I know this sounds like a pretty obvious tip, but you’d be surprised how many people think that they can get in on their credentials alone, whether a BA, MA, or PhD. It’s true that the Peace Corps has accepted highly credentialed people over the years. This does not, however, assure you a position, and if you have no skills, you are harder to place in the Peace Corps. If you don’t have the skills that they need, you need to consider finding them, and getting at least thirty hours of them. If you’re not sure where to look, a great organization to do some work for is Habitat for Humanity. They are always looking for people. Another is the American Cancer Society and still another is your local library. Find a place where you can volunteer, a place where you can ideally pick up a few skills, and strive to achieve them to perfection. Then, after you’ve completed your hours, re-activate your account according to the instructions in the email that the Peace Corps instantly generates once a waitlist decision is rendered. This ought to get the ball rolling for you, at least.

(3) The criminal background check (CBC) is the longest part of the application process, taking anywhere between 3 and 6 months or longer to complete. It will behoove you to get one right away, even before the actual application process begins! If you really want to expedite the application process, file for a CBC on the FBI website (you can run a background check on yourself) and this should save you about six months. Last I checked, it costs about 18.00, but do visit the FBI website from time to time to check for any changes. After you’ve done this, when it comes time for the Peace Corps to go looking for your records, you’ll have updated reports for them right away. In retrospect, I should have done this because it would have saved me at least a year and a half of time.

(4)  Follow up. There comes a point in your application process where you might lose touch with representatives for any number of reasons: you get lost in the fold or the system has been upgraded and PC representatives haven’t been notified that it is time to contact you. Whatever the case may be, you should definitely follow up with representatives on a bi-monthly basis. They get a lot of applicants, after all, and there is a lot of processing that needs to get done. The onus is on you to ensure that you’re not forgotten. Perhaps some of you are wincing as you read this—perhaps you’re thinking “how outrageous!” But, actually, if you think about it, this is pretty standard for most organizations nowadays operating through cyber space. It’s fairly typical, in fact, for most organizations to never even respond, let alone call back. So consider yourself privileged to even have this sort of status.

(5) It may be a good idea to have an interim plan. If you have an interest in teaching English, you may wish to consider the Union of International Associations (UIA.org) or the Yearbook of International Organizations. Many of the associations have open enrollment to do some really respectable volunteer work overseas.  While I’ve never looked into these associations myself—because I didn’t have this type of knowledge way back when I was first applying—I wish I had known about some of the organizations featured in the yearbook, for I would have surely taken advantage at a younger age.

(6) Save everything that you send to the Peace Corps! This is a big one, and I can’t stress it enough. Systems are fragile, computers are wonky, and the internet is still very much like the Wild West. Internet-paper gets lost all of the time, so you will be doing yourself a real service if you save all of your essays, scan all of your personal recommendations and FedLoan verification forms, and make sure that all of the application forms are protected and available in the event of any unforeseen eventuality. Save your belongings to wherever! The Cloud, the USB, or just the good old-fashioned desktop (I know, it’s weird to consider desktops old-fashioned, but you get my point).

(7) Read the Peace Corps library! Peacecorps.gov has a nifty little library with various eBooks that you can download about various experiences and opportunities for working in the Peace Corps. The library covers a whole spectrum of topics, from methods for picking up language to strategies in teaching multi-leveled English classes as well as how to build libraries from scratch. And the best part? They’re absolutely free! These tools will be indispensable guides for you to add to your arsenal of skills while you’re waiting to hear back (or wherever you decide to go, for that matter). It’s never too soon to start reading up on how to work with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) or ways to assist small businesses in whatever village you’ll be working in. These are great guides, and I highly recommend them! Blogs are one thing, but these are more practical and straight forward and don’t require nearly as much sifting as a blog would require.

 (8) Research additional opportunities within the Peace Corps. Thinking about staying an additional year? Want to learn about NGOs in a particular locale? How about working as a volunteer post-service? Researching these and other questions are another great way to build on your knowledge base of what to expect.

And finally…

(9) If you can, save money on the application process. Do not spend money on a language class just to make your application look stronger, and do not send any documents through snail mail. Unless you’re interested in building skills for other purposes, such as gaining employment or finding other opportunities where they could use those skills, do not spend money just to impress the Peace Corps. Let your application and your ideals speak for themselves.

Of course, this information, like everything else, is subject to change, so it is a good idea to keep checking back on the official PC website every once in a while to look for updates here and there about service. It’s also not a bad idea to keep reading broadly about experiences PC Volunteers have gone through overseas. The Peace Corps has a blog which you can read to get a better sense of the “issues,” you might encounter.

So there you have it: a list of tips to follow when you’re applying for the Peace Corps. The application process isn’t for the faint of heart, to be sure. It’s, at times, tedious, comprehensive, and certainly lengthy. As the application process rolls along, you’ll learn of other requirements that you need to fulfill, such as writing update reports and essays about why you’re stillinterested in the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, it is critical for your success to complete these written assignments because failure to do any additional activities will lead to automatic disqualification.

As of 12/2013, I have had to submit a total of three essays: the first for an initial introduction, the second to update the Peace Corps on how I had been improving my skills, and the third a sort of mission statement that had to be no longer than two pages regarding what I expected to get out of service. Guaranteed, this process will help you learn more about yourself and your commitment to serve.

Finally, there are two rumors that I would like to quickly dispel about the Peace Corps. Firstly, as of December 2013, the Peace Corps does not have any student loan forgiveness program. I repeat: The Peace Corps will not lead to your student loans being forgiven. Maybe in the Peace Corps literature it says something about getting loan deferment or partial forgiveness, but this is not the same thing as getting a clean slate. On the whole, the Peace Corps expects you to assume responsibility for paying back your school loans upon returning from service, and representatives make it top priority to ensure that you make this promise to repay your debts before they accept you. Secondly, the Peace Corps’ website notes that service will make it easier for employment in the government sector. It states “Volunteers who complete two years of service receive one year of noncompetitive eligibility for employment in the federal government… at the hiring agency's discretion, if a volunteer meets the minimum qualifications for a position, he or she can be hired without going through the standard competitive process” (Peace Corps 2013). It may be important to clarify here that you are not promised employment upon return. It just means that people may view your application more favorably. It’s a possibility, not a guarantee. I know some returned volunteers, for example, who applied to become Foreign Service Officers afterwards in the State Department and had to go through the same tests and procedures as others. Therefore, as of December 2013, PC service does not guarantee employment in government.

Further, it’s important to note that if you served in the Peace Corps for two years, you are not allowed to serve in the Peace Corps again until another two more years have passed, unless from the outset you request more years of service. Obviously, this is something you will have to factor into your consideration of the program if you’re thinking about long-term plans.

In sum, let me first encourage applicants by saying that any valuable experience is worth waiting for. I will say that the application process seems to do a good job at helping one determine whether service is right for her/him, although, as far as I know, there haven’t been any published studies on this sort of thing. Research, however, is, in fact, picking up (see Google Scholar).

Hopefully this article has made you more aware of the application process. I encourage social science majors especially—e.g. sociology, anthropology, and psychology—to consider what tangible skills you have that you may be capable of offering to the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is concerned about the bottom line, i.e. “what is it that you can do that will contribute effectively to the community?” If your solution is “read a lot,” that’s a good start, but you need to go further.

It’s a long process, to be sure, and you learn a great deal every step of the way. But for those of you who feel genuine to the PCV calling, this experience will be demanding but well worth the effort. 

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