How to Turn International Experience into Professional Skills

Aug 05, 2021

By Jenny Han Simon

Spending time abroad for work, study, or even vacation can have numerous benefits and may lead to some life-changing experiences. But how can you translate these experiences into relevant professional skills, and how can you express these skills in your resume and cover letters?

Schools and employers have a growing fondness for candidates with international experience and expertise, and it’s not just because of the language skills. Experience abroad can suggest many desirable qualities about a person, and it’s your job to be able to take your international experiences and turn them into clear and relevant skills that speak to your ambitions, work ethic, and personality. Here’s how: 

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills 

Hard skills describe skills often acquired through training and those that rely on specific technical knowledge and expertise. Examples include language proficiency, being able to use specific software, etc. Conversely, soft skills refer to personality traits and speak more about what kind of an employee you will be and how you will contribute to a company’s work culture. You definitely want to list your hard skills on your resume, and your cover letter and an interview are great places to discuss both hard and soft skills. 

Living and/or working abroad can certainly endow you with both marketable hard and soft skills. Often, the most obvious hard skill that comes from working abroad is increased language proficiency, which is certainly a huge asset in today’s increasingly international world. Learning a new language, however, also speaks volumes about your work ethic and dedication, as learning a new language and having to use it in an unfamiliar environment shows intelligence, tenacity, confidence, and more.

Likewise, living abroad will often broaden your understanding of people, workplaces, and both the difficulties and joys of being a living, working human being. As hard skills, this may translate into presentation, management, and leadership skills; relevant soft skills may include good interpersonal skills, stress management, and critical thinking. 

Tell us about a time when you… 

One of the greatest joys of spending time abroad is all of the incredible memories you make—ones that you can choose to share with others. While some experiences are filled with drama and grandiosity, others seem more mundane in contrast.

However, all experiences can be transformative, and when it comes to sharing these experiences with potential employers, what’s most important is how you articulate the experience, focusing on how it changed you and how you carry that lesson forward. For example, if during an interview you’re asked to describe a time you were faced with difficulty and how you overcame it, a few answers may come to mind: navigating a new country in a language you are not familiar with can be draining and stressful. Rather than focusing on the hardships of this experience, think about how you overcame these stressors and that you ultimately prevailed.

Even getting sick in a different country and not being sure of where to find a doctor or buy medicine is a great story that can showcase your ability to handle stress, be independent or ask for help when needed, and find a solution. Don’t sell yourself short by thinking your experiences may not be good enough because they don’t seem intense or dramatic to you. Instead, think about how these stories show that you will be able to handle stressful situations in the future—something that future employers want to see!

So what’s next?

Just as much as employers like candidates who are capable of getting the job done, they also want candidates who are ambitious and passionate. Sometimes an experience abroad doesn’t have much influence on who we are or what it is we ultimately want to end up doing, and that’s okay, too.

But for those whose international experiences did have a life-changing impact, it’s important to be able to explain how that happened, what is now at stake, and how the current opportunity you’re pursuing will dovetail with previous experiences in your pursuit of something greater. Good luck!

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

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