How to write your resumé for a job in International Development

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For want of a proper chair, Jessica sits on the old radiator in my office, looking out at the still bare trees and the green grass we’re all hoping is heralding spring. We are talking about a new job opportunity for her, and she’s hesitating.

“I’m just not sure if I’m qualified for it,” she tells me.

We met for the first time in September; she was looking for a way – any way – to get her foot in the door of the NGO world, and I was looking for an intern for my project. She ended up joining another team at the organisation, in a part-time administrative role, and soon became a familiar face at the office.

“I took this job because I just wanted to get my foot in the door. But I can do more than this. I’m not meant to just be doing admin work.”



My heart goes out to her; Jessica should not be in this situation. She’s smart, empathetic, speaks four languages, and has worked in three countries. I shake my head, trying to reassure her that she is, indeed, qualified for the job, and she should apply for it anyway. “My friend works there, I can ask him to keep an eye out for your application. And anyway, you’re already qualified for the job.” She doesn’t believe me.

“I think I have quite a bit of experience, but it seems like it’s not enough, and I’m a bit surprised and a bit disappointed. I’ve done everything I could, I’ve gone abroad, I’ve done internships.”

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, writes about this in her book Lean In:

“Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.”

I remember doing this too.

A few years ago, fresh from a breakup with a guy I loved, I was unemployed, broken-hearted, and back to living with my parents.

My Instagram stayed pretty: snapshots of the orchid show in downtown Miami, blue skies, lots of palm trees, but my life felt like one big uncoordinated mess of job applications, late night Netflix binges, and dinner every night with my parents, when we’d all skirt around that untouchable question, “So what are you going to do?”

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I’d drag myself out of bed every morning for months on end only to start and end the day in front of the computer, browsing job postings in Nicaragua, Rwanda, Paris, Mumbai, all of which seemed to require ten years of experience and five thousand other qualifications. Most of the time, I was so intimidated, I didn’t even apply. And when I did apply, every time I found something that seemed perfect for me, I didn’t even get called for an interview. Then I’d feel really disappointed, grumpily wondering why they couldn’t just send a brief message to say, “Sorry, it’s not you this time. »

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After seventeen consecutive rejections, I realized that I had to a) widen my search and b) make my resume show what I was capable of doing. Up until then, I had only applied to jobs I was certain I could do; I began to explore opportunities that offered new levels of responsibility and learning, and adjusted my resume to show my track record of success and passion for development, rather than a grocery list of jobs I’d once had.

Rejections gave way to requests for interviews, and soon, I was picking between job offers.

But because I’d put in so many applications, requests for interviews continued to flood my inbox, even after I’d already accepted a plum offer in Haiti and was no longer in the market for jobs. I’d roll over in bed at six in the morning, getting ready to wake up, pick up the Blackberry provided to me, and scroll through my email; beneath a couple of updates from friends and my mom, there were five messages asking when I was available for a Skype interview, and what about Wednesday at 10 a.m. Pacific?

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And I thought to myself, why not have fun with this? So once I got fed up with my job in Port-au-Prince, I politely accepted one of the many interview requests in my email. Two months later, I walked into a new position in Germany, smiling. “We’re so happy to have you here,” they told me.
“Me too,” I nodded, with a grin.

Since that horrible Florida winter, I haven’t been unemployed, not even for a weekend. I’ve jumped from one wonderful NGO to another, learnt new skills, become a lot better with Excel, and taken on more responsibility, to my current role managing a seven-million-dollar project in four countries.

Listening to Jessica, I think about that time I was in a job-hunting frenzy; it seems so long ago.

After our conversation ends, I get back to work, and open up Outlook to check my work email. Jessica has sent me her resumé, asking if I could take a look.

Here’s what I told her:

1. One page only.

I double-clicked on the file in Jessica’s email, and out tumbled nine pages of information, with several different colours and fonts. One is sufficient, and all that most hiring managers have time for.

2. Use a traditional format.

Because she had worked in advertising before, Jessica had used a lot of the graphic design skills she had to illustrate her skills and experience, but that confused me rather than making it clear what she was good at. Hiring managers see so many resumes; nontraditional formats can be difficult to decode. Keep it simple with your name and contact information at the top; then list only the work experience that is pertinent to that particular position for which you are applying.

3. Languages are key.

Earlier that day, we were speaking in French with a French colleague, and while I was chatting with a Mexican friend, Jessica walked in and joined in the conversation in Spanish. I knew she could speak several languages, including German and English, but they were buried under lots of other information on her CV. In international organisations, because you’re constantly interacting with people from all over the world, the ability to speak to stakeholders in their own language, or a common lingua franca, is invaluable. Put the languages you speak at the very top of your CV.

4. Tell a story.

The first three pages of Jessica’s CV talked about her values and skills, but I still kept wondering, where does she want to go with this? A resumé is not a log of every job you’ve ever had, it’s a marketing document. Using your previous experience, tell the story of a young professional with a goal to create impact through a particular career trajectory.

5. Bullets, bullets, bullets.

Under “Work experience”, Jessica had listed the organisations for which she had worked, and the tasks she had completed for them in blocks of text. I got a little lost, not sure what to focus on.
Use bullets to talk only about what’s relevant to the kind of work you want to do, and highlight your accomplishments rather than explaining the day-to-day tasks you were expected to do. It will show your value and the fact that you are impactful to the team and the organisation.

6. Show, don’t tell.

“Flexible and dedicated work ethic with great ability to self-initiate and bring multiple projects to completion under pressure,” read one line on page three, and maybe it’s true for Jessica, but how many hundreds of thousands of people out there say they are flexible self-starters and can work under pressure? Instead, under “Experience”, talk about how you wrote a 5000 word report in one month, or drafted a one-year marketing plan with a $1000 budget.

7. The only personal information you need is your name, email address, and telephone number.

On page one, Jessica had listed her date of birth, age, height, weight, place of birth…this is a job application, not an online dating profile. Stick to what’s absolutely necessary in order for the organization to contact you for an interview, and cut out the rest.

8. Education at the bottom, unless you have a PhD.

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This is how LinkedIn does it, and you should, too, because in the professional world, your work experience matters more than the title of your degree.

9. Achievements matter more than timelines.

Fully thirty per cent of the page space of Jessica’s resume is dedicated to dates and timelines. But I’m not looking at those; I’m trying to find out what she has accomplished in the last couple of years, and if any of it is interesting. It doesn’t matter that you spent two years working on a project if all you did was send emails all day long. Focus on what you did to drive impact, not how long you spent doing it.

Before leaving the office, I run into Jessica near the printing machine, a cappuccino in her hand.

“I sent you my CV, did you see it?” she asks.

“Yes! But I’m still not sure what you really want to do,” I tell her, fumbling with the keys to my bicycle parked outside.

“You’re right,” she says, “I know that I want to do work I’m passionate about. And work for an organization whose work really helps people.”

10. Start with the end in mind.

Working in development is no longer confined to the Peace Corps, or working as an economist on growth policy. NGOs and international organisations now look for many of same skills as in other industries, including Jessica’s background in design work and event management. Pick the kind of position and job title you want to have, and tailor your resume show how you already know (at least 65%) how to do that role’s expected skills and tasks. You might not end up with that exact job, but you’ll come close enough to get your foot in the door and start your career in international development.

 

Top photo via Austin Kleon, photo in Haiti by my friend Lisa Palmer.



38 thoughts on “How to write your resumé for a job in International Development”

  • I have always just put how flexible I am and never really shown it. I will certainly start giving a lil more detail on that. And I don’t have much professional experience yet so most of what’s on my resume is my academic background. But I guess that’s ok for now.

    • @Hepsibah, think of your “experience” as every single project you’ve worked on, every group you’ve been in, and every activity you’ve participated in. And then you’ll have more than you think 🙂

  • This is such an interesting and helpful read!
    I usually would list all the tasks of every job and my resume would be pages and pages so it’s great to know that employers are only looking for the highlights.

  • Thank you very much for this useful article. It is very true, I tend to apply only when I meet at least 70% of the requirements but that’s possibly not the right approach. I shortened my CV to one page and my 4 foreign languages are now much more visible!

  • This is golden advice! Job hunting can be so daunting when done wrong! I’ve always been an advocate of the one-page CV, but now I realize that I might have told more than showed many times, and insisted on useless timelines… Thanks for the tips and all the best to job hunters around here!

  • Beautifully written. Well done. I definitely saved this page for when I next apply for a job application. You are absolutely right about thinking about the end result when applying for a job, and demonstrating that we are the role we are applying for.

    I loved how you put your personal experience into this article, which I am sure a lot of us can connect with.

    Can I ask how is it that you all of a sudden received multiple interview offers out of the blue, where you were actually able to choose and pick from. Was it just luck?

    Brilliant, continue writing

    Clarisse

    • Thanks Clarisse! So glad you liked it.
      “Out of the blue” haha. Thing is, I had applied for over 20 different jobs around the world. Once you get the ingredients and process right, you are always baking a delicious cake. Therefore, though I was surprised at the time, after several years of using these strategies, I’ve realised it’s nothing more than a) being consistent and b) applying the right strategies.

  • Great article. I think it summarizes everything that is important in a CV in order to be successful. Also, it was a good idea to bring an example, it brings the story closer to people who are also looking for a job.

  • Thank you for your wisdom. This just inspired me to overhaul my CV and have the courage to apply for jobs that will not only be challenging but will also broaden my skill set!

  • Thanks so much for writing this post. I’m currently in somewhat of a professional slump and this post has made me feel a bit better about the situation, as well as motivate me to work on my CV a bit more, as I realise that it may be part of the problem. My main problem is keeping it short – it just seems impossible to keep to one page. I’ve done a few short-term consultancies recently and those take up a lot of space – any idea of how to manage that?

    • Hi Juliette, so glad this article was a little bright spot for you. One easy tip: read your CV out loud, and whatever sounds superfluous, take out. Or, delete everything and start from scratch, stopping when it goes over one page.
      For Consultancies, focus ONLY on what your deliverables were (refer to your TOR, which itself should not be much more than one page).

  • Malaika, your article spoke about my own experience of identifying opportunities, applying for them and then be fed the politely worded rejection letters. After 5 months I am desperate to break this cycle.

    My Covering letter has bullet points to match the requirements of the position with my experience. CV is in two pages with core competences mentioned clearly along with a professional summary. I try my best to align the job specification with the CV/Covering Letter by customising both. However, not even an interview call thus far.

    Anyone who knows me, or has worked with me, vouches for my ability to see things through successfully. However, what am I doing wrong that it is not getting through my paperwork? What kind of a person do I come across through my application?

  • Hey and thank you sooo much for a good article! I’d like to have your input on one of your statesments. “8. Education at the bottom, unless you have a PhD.”. I graduated a year ago and my only work experience consists of part time jobs during my studies, like hotels and sales. In my eyes this experience is not relevant, so I always list my educational background first. I argue that the fact that I’ve studied in three countries should somehow reflect my intrest in the world and ability to adapt to new enviroments. What is your input on this?

    Also, during my studies, I was on the board for a mid-size studentorganization and been voluenteering for a major NGO for three years. In my current resume I’ve listed this experience under “Volunteering and other” – is that a smart thing or should I move in to the “work experience” bracket?

    Thanks again! I really enjoyed reading your post and it gave me some new ideas and motivation 🙂

    • @IMP, you want to think, how can I make it MOST SIMPLE for the reader to understand what I’ve done? Do not split your experience. You can learn skills even if you are not being paid. Essentially, you’ve had three years of exposure to the inside of an NGO, that’s good stuff 🙂

      your education in 3 countries is nice, but that is common in the development sector so it does not make you stand out.

  • Thank you for writing this article. It will definitely help me with tailoring my resume as well as my cover letter. Like you mentioned, my resume should be a marketing tool to advertise myself not my autobiography.

    Once again, thank you for taking time to write this article. I look forward to reading more on how to tailor my resume and cover letter (s) when deciding to apply for a position with a specific company.

  • This is one of the most useful posts I have read in a while. I felt like I was reading my own story, because I am in that period of time when I only have rejections and sometimes I don’t know if my experience will be enough… After ten years working as a lawyer, I have decided to start over and despite all those rejections and all those who don’t really understand why I want to leave behind my “successful” career in a law firm, I am still positive about future. So, I really hope my story turns like yours pretty soon.

    Thank you so much!

    • Trust yourself and your desire for something new and different. You can access my free guide to writing your application for NGO jobs in the column on the right.

  • Hi
    Sir I love the ambition of Jessica to realise her dreams. I am here in a country under human trafficking and still having a hope to ever come out .Reading this story I had to shade tears and say so this is how life treats people also before they come to a realisation. As I talk now presently I need someone to just help me out how I could even get my documents but every morning and eveBing I cry to no aveille but still have the faith.I plead on every one who reads my message and knows what I can do to help myself out of this to tell me pls.Thank u.

  • Hi Malaika, thank you so much for your article, it is very helpful and I already took note of your recommendations to update my resume. I’m a social worker and currently work in an emergency shelter for women victims of conjugal violence. I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how to highlight accomplishments when job responsibilities are to provide support (follow-up) and care to people in crisis… I find it difficult to measure achievements when my work is to provide services to people in crisis.
    Thanks again, your articles is motivating!

    • @Nathalia, we’re all so used to “helping” that we forget the ocean is made up for individual drops. What does the shelter measure its work on? E.g. number of women who don’t return to the same abusive partner? Match your individual actions to the goals of the shelter, and look for ways in which you’ve contributed to the bigger picture goals. Providing services can be measured, too !

  • Hi I have just finished my masters in economics and Im looking to enrich my CV to get into international development as well. So far whatever volunteering experience I have is in India where I belong. I was wondering how do you manage to do so many internships in different countries in terms of financials. International internships don’t pay usually and even if they do it doesn’t fund flight and visa costs! So how do I get this ‘international’ experience to make a stronger case for a good job in this area?

  • Hi,

    Great article – makes me feel a little better during a time when it seems to be impossible to find a job in the field of international development / global health / disaster management.

    I think that you make an excellent point about the length of the CV. I have been battling with this for a long time now – any time I try to fit all my jobs into 2 pages (I haven´t even tried to fit them into one) the end result is too small fonts and the layout is very cramped. This is probably because I have never held a internship or a job for long, but my experience comes from several shorter periods in different places. Do you have any tips on this? I have tried to leave the “non-relevant” ones out, but there are two problems with this: a) it leaves gaps that don´t look good b) all of the positions have given me different experience, most of which seem relevant to most entry-level jobs.

    Thanks!

    -Mike

    • @Mike, thanks for your comment! You want to a) read your CV aloud and remove what sounds “Fluffly”, b) make sure every single item is 70% relevant to the job description, and c) remove everything you wouldn’t tell a stranger within 5 minutes (e.g., your grades, your hobbies). Try these, and you should be able to slim down your CV.

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