How to write your resumé for a job in International Development
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.”
“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?”
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. »
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?
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.
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.