Are You Prepared to Use Your Language Studies to Make a Good First Impression?

photoOn Friday, Ann Abbott and Beth Chasco in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign hosted me as I led a workshop on “First Impressions: Getting Started on Your Job Search with a Language Degree.”

Students left the 90-minute workshop with their languages skills clearly represented throughout their résumés, a draft of a letter of recommendation request, and a solid answer to a common interview question.

Here are some takeaways from the workshop:

Spanish on your résumé. A lot of students are using “professional working proficiency” to describe their language skills on LinkedIn and on their résumés. This is an excellent description of language skills that are purposed for the workplace.

The downside: if a lot of students are using “professional working proficiency,” you might not standout from the crowd, especially if that’s the only language skills presented on your résumé.

What to do?  

Add a specific project you worked on with descriptive verbs and quantifiable information.  

One student who participated in the workshop on Friday had a service-learning placement where he answered an average of 25 phone calls per week and took an average of 15 messages in Spanish for a local social service agency.

Those specific action verbs and quantifiable numbers give hiring managers a lot of information: your Spanish is fluent enough to be comfortable using it on the telephone. Your accuracy allows you to take actionable messages.

Provide specifics in your letter of recommendation request. You can take control & provide information that assures an excellent letter of recommendation simply by providing these four things:

  • your complete name,
  • the course & semester you took the course(s) with the professor you’re asking,
  • a concise summary of projects or presentations you did in the course, and
  • an explicit connection between the work you did in the course and whatever it is you’re applying to.

 Well done, this can serve as a draft of the letter for the faculty member. Write well because you might be quoted in the letter of recommendation.

Students in the workshop left with a draft of a letter of recommendation request (and Dr. Abbott got at least one letter of recommendation request shortly thereafter!)

Face-to-face first impressions. Be ready to give a short, concise description of an experience using language in the real world.  You might be able to use this when someone asks you “tell me about yourself” (a common interview question).

Just today J.T. O’Donnell, career strategist and workplace consultant who runs, reminded us of the importance of “drafting stories” in her post “Job Interview Tips for Fresh Graduates.”  If some those stories are about language and cultures skills, you could be racing to the front of the pack!

One workshop participant had identified a problem at a dental clinic where she volunteered: only one staff member spoke Spanish, yet a large percentage of clients were monolingual Spanish-speakers.  Clinic clients were being passively turned away simply because nobody could interact with them at all if that one staff member wasn’t available. This students solved that problem by preparing a simple script and training staff members to use it in person and on the phone so that Spanish-speakers were able to leave messages and get attended to by the Spanish-speaking staff member as soon as she was available.  Now that student can use the polished version of the anecdote that she crafted in the workshop to answer common interview questions such as:

  • tell about a time you worked in a multi-cultural team
  • tell me about a time you failed at something
Darcy Lear with Dr. Ann Abbott on the Illinois campus.

Darcy Lear with Dr. Ann Abbott on the Illinois campus.

Spending a little time on these details can yield great results in a close race with another job candidate with similar qualifications.  

For me, it was a pleasure to spend a little time on the Illinois campus with old and new colleagues and students.

Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:

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