Unofficial Volunteer Handbook

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<center>[ Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook] '''By Travis Hellstrom '''</center>
<center>[ Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook] '''By Travis Hellstrom '''</center>
<center>Please let us know if you want to reproduce any part of this handbook</center>
<center>All Rights Reserved | © 2010 Travis Hellstrom  </center>
<center>Preview : Applying to Peace Corps Section</center>
<center>Preview : Applying to Peace Corps Section</center>

Revision as of 14:58, 3 March 2010

Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook By Travis Hellstrom
Preview : Applying to Peace Corps Section



Peace Corps may just be "the toughest job you'll ever love" but you don't have to learn that the hard way. The Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook is the handbook we wish someone would have given us: a collection of lessons learned from Volunteers all around the world created to act as a companion along your adventure of applying to and serving in the Peace Corps. If what we've shared is helpful to you, we're glad. If not, don't worry. Just forget about it. Everyone's Peace Corps service is unique and we just hope you have an incredible experience. If at any time you have questions unanswered by this guide please contact Peace Corps directly or if you think we can help, please contact us at

About Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a United States governmental organization approaching its 50th anniversary in 2011 - founded by President John F. Kennedy in the Peace Corps Act of March 1961. As an organization, the Peace Corps chooses, assigns and sponsors Volunteers to complete 27-month service assignments around the world and further the Peace Corps mission:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women;

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served;

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

These three founding goals of Peace Corps were set down by Kennedy himself in 1961 and hundreds of thousands of trained men and women later they still remain the ideals of every Peace Corps Volunteer.

In general, the assignments of Peace Corps Volunteers are broken down into the areas of Health, Business, Environment, Education, Technology and Community Development. However hundreds of different assignments are given out every year in countries throughout the world. To say that every Peace Corps Volunteer has their own unique experience really is an understatement. Just as no Peace Corps Volunteer is the same as any other, no Peace Corps job is like any other. As hundreds of thousands of Volunteers have said, service within the Peace Corps can be one of the most meaningful experiences you ever have and as Peace Corps is fond of saying it will likely be “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Millions of people around the world, from politicians to public school students, have said that they believe Peace Corps offers a valuable addition to the great common cause of world development. It has been featured in Hollywood movies (like Volunteers starring Tom Hanks), provided formative years for United States Senators and Representatives for decades, provided help to countless men, women and children throughout the world and has become a household name in communities throughout every country on the planet. The Peace Corps has a proud past and a bright future, especially with Volunteers like you who are ready to live with a host community and serve as a trained Volunteer (the first and second goal) while sharing your experiences with everyone you know and love back home (the third goal).

About This Book

There is a certain cathartic element of self-release in writing a handbook like this and it is important for us to admit that outright. We write this to benefit you and your Peace Corps journey, but we also write to help us make sense of ours. We aren’t perfect Volunteers, we have just had experiences that you might like to hear about. If they are helpful to you, we are glad. If not, don’t worry. Just forget about them. Your Peace Corps experience is unique and we wish you the very best. In fact, this handbook is much more yours than ours and we have left plenty of space to prove it. This is designed to be an interactive companion for the important thoughts and concerns that you have as a Peace Corps Volunteer - a place for you to explore who you are, to understand the challenges you will face as a Volunteer (all the way from your application to returning home), to hear tips from other Volunteers and to share your questions and concerns with other people who are also going through their own unique and incredible Peace Corps experiences.

In fact you should know that this handbook is ultimately useless unless you take ownership of it. We say scribble, doodle, and improve on our methods. Every page and empty space in this book was made specifically with you in mind. We hope it is fun, interactive and relevant. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It has required years and many people to write this handbook, but the most important moment in the life of this particular book is happening right now. As soon as your pen touches this paper, it’s become yours. It was written just for this purpose and we hope you make the most of it. We’ve started the conversation, we’d love to hear what you have to say...

Step 1 | The Application

The Peace Corps application is a thorough one, but it can be completed in a week or so if you concentrate. It took me a few months to complete mine but in hindsight, I could have finished a lot faster than I did. My advice is to just dive right in. There is no harm in starting early on the application and taking your time checking it out to get an overview of how it looks. Also be sure to really be yourself in the application. As you’ll see later in the interview step, your essays and activities will play an important role in the interviewer’s impression of who you are. Here is an overview of the Peace Corps Volunteer Application. First, it consists of eighteen sections:

   Personal Information
   Application Information
   Legal Information
   Financial Obligations
   Intelligence Activities and Organizations
   Military Status
   Family Information
   Job Preferences
   Post-Secondary Education
   Language Skills
   Licenses and Certificates
   Employment History
   Community and Volunteer Activities
   Geographic Preference
   Practical Experience

Of these sections, there are basically two types: the first 12 are simple forms and the last 6 are more detailed sections. The bolded sections above deserve a little extra attention and some advice I would like to share. Let’s take a look...

Job Preferences

This is the first section to ask about your preferences for jobs when serving in the Peace Corps. There are seven choices: Education, Business, Environment, Agriculture, Health, Community Development and Information Technology. Go ahead and research each area on the Peace Corps website and get a good idea of what each work assignment means. You get to choose your top three choices and indicate your order of preference. Choose these wisely but don’t worry, you can change them up until you submit the application. Also know your interviewer will definitely ask you why you chose your preferences and why in that order. Just be prepared.

Language Skills

Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t expected to be advanced in the language of their host country (that’s why Peace Corps offers three months of training in over 250 languages before your two years of service), but Peace Corps definitely wants to know if you have any language experience. Don’t be bashful here, share whatever experience you have. Recruiters like to your attitude toward learning: evidence of an open and inquisitive mind ready to expand and take in lots of new information.

Licenses and Certificates

If you have certifications (CNA, etc) or training (CPR, First Aid, Mediation) indicate that here. Also, be prepared to provide documentation later on, because they will ask you to send them copies of certifications and so on.

Now we’re getting into the good stuff: the detailed sections. The next six sections require quite a bit of effort and attention. Employment History, Community and Volunteer Activities and Practical Experience all allow for short descriptions of your duties and achievements, which can be challenging. Geographic Preference and Recommendations require some thought and planning and the two Essays require quite a bit of time and thought. Don’t be discouraged, this is the hardest part of the application process. Get on through it and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out!

Employment History

Here Peace Corps asks for your recent job histories and some description of your responsibilities and achievements while in those jobs. Stay on target here and describe the things you did that were outstanding and relevant to your future in Peace Corps. Perfect attendance, taking on new duties, leading others, and getting jobs done with teamwork are all very helpful things to include here. Also, use someone as a reference who knew you personally and will speak well on your behalf. Call them or e-mail them to make sure it is okay for you to use them as a reference.

Community and Volunteer Activities

This is probably the most important part of your application. It is a little challenging in terms of filling in the descriptions which are limited to 200 characters (which works out to about two sentences), but on the positive side you can include an attached document to provide more details. I did that myself and would definitely suggest you do that too. Over half of your questions during the interview will center around how well you can lead others, projects you have completed, how you work under pressure, how you resolve conflicts, how you work in an unstructured environment, and how you work with people that are different than you. Your recruiter and placement officer want to make sure you can adapt, lead, plan, and stay motivated in projects and activities. This is the best place to show them all of these things. Don’t be modest when describing your experiences, even if it seems like you are talking yourself up too much. You never know what is going to strike up a conversation with your recruiter. In my interview, my recruiter said he ran a Haunted Trail when he was in college and he could totally relate to the Haunted Trail I founded and lead while I was at my university. Your connection might be just as random as that. Show what’s important to you and show how committed you are to helping your community, hour after hour.

Geographic Preference

This section is much like the Job Preferences section in that Peace Corps is trying to figure out how flexible you are while also determining where you need to be placed. Here they ask you if you are willing to go anywhere or wish to go to a particular geographical region, and if you are willing to do anything or wish to use a specific skill set. If you want to teach English but don’t care where, for example, or if you want to help with Health in the South Pacific specifically, for instance. Your recruiter is going to bring this up again in your interview, to see how flexible you are, so definitely choose your answer carefully. Be ready to explain yourself when the question comes. To prepare myself, I studied all the Peace Corps countries and found out which ones had Health Extension, which I knew I wanted. When I went to the interview, I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Be yourself and be honest, Peace Corps will do everything they can to put you where you want to go, but sometimes they might need you somewhere else. Be ready.

Practical Experience

This section asks you to detail experiences you’ve gained from hobbies, volunteer activities, and part-time or summer jobs that may help you qualify for Peace Corps service. If you are interested in Teaching, you can list Tutoring experience or Student Teaching, for example. Again, like before, be thorough about your experiences. I was interested in Health, so I listed my Hospice training, but I also added my training in Mediation. It was unrelated to health, but came up in the interview as a valuable skill worth mentioning. Think about all the varying practical experiences you have had which you bring to the table and include them here.


This is probably the one spot in the application process that most applicants get stuck. I personally stalled on my essays for over two months, with nervousness and over-estimation of their importance probably being the biggest reasons for that stall. My advice to you is, “Don’t get stuck. Just smile, be yourself, be honest, and write what feels right.” These essays are important, but not dire. They are only one slice in your big pizza of any application, so just be yourself and say what’s on your heart. The interviewer and placement officer (who are the two official people who will read them) want to see that you are human, have an understanding of the world around you, are open-minded, flexible, helpful, caring, excited, and balanced as an individual. Write with that in mind. Also the essays seem to change over time, but whatever they prompt you to write, they will basically fall into these categories:

   * Why do you want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?
   * How does this relate to past experience and your life goals?
   * How good are you at adapting in challenging situations?

I know these are deep questions and they seems daunting at first, but they are exactly the questions that will keep coming up during your Peace Corps service. Why am I here? What are my goals in life? Why is this so difficult? You don't need to have perfect answers to these questions, but there is definitely a Peace Corps spirit that former Volunteers (recruiters, staff) are looking for.

They want to know what motivates you, what drives you in life and makes you do what you do. What drives you toward Peace Corps and makes you think Peace Corps is the right next step? You don’t have to have everything figured out to write this essay, you just need to know where you are and how you want to move forward from right here. Again, be honest and say what you really feel.

They want to know what happens when you are brought out of your comfort zone and are challenged you to see the world in a new way. They want to see your maturity and ability to grow in a new environment. Write about a time when you adapted and changed yourself to handle a new experience. This can include study abroad experiences but it can also include leading an organization in your university or handling a new work project or community. Writing about who you were before and after that experience can be very helpful to a recruiter. Peace Corps knows your two years of service are going to be like this and they want to see how well you will probably do based on your past experiences.


This is it, the last piece of your application. Here you will add three recommendation providers by online form, including their relationship to you, their e-mail addresses and their phone numbers. They will be e-mailed a link to a recommendation form that is approximately three pages long, and they will have as long as they want to complete it. I suggest asking these providers to write their recommendations before you are done with your application, so that you won’t have to wait on them once you finish your part of the process. However, I wouldn’t ask them until you know why you are asking them.

First, your recommendations have to come from:

   A current or previous employment supervisor
   A current or previous volunteer work supervisor and
   A close friend who has known you at least 2 years

Second, you need to ask people that compliment your application. For example, I mentioned one of my friends in my Motivation Essay and then decided she should be the one to write my close friend recommendation. That worked out very nicely for me and I’m glad I waited until I wrote my essay for that reason. However, your application process is your own and only you will know when it is the right time to ask for recommendations and who to ask to write them.

Once those recommendations have been turned in and you’ve submitted your application, you’re all done! Congratulations! Just fill out the short Health Status Review which takes about five minutes and you're home free! Just sit back and wait for your Recruiter to contact you for an interview!

Step 2 | The Interview

Congratulations again on getting your application turned in and getting an interview scheduled! This is a very exciting time and you are moving through the exciting application process nicely. Now the question you are likely wondering is “What will the recruiter ask me and what can I do to prepare for their questions?” Here I’ve included the questions my recruiter asked me. Take a look at them and think about what you would like to share with your recruiter in response to these questions, but definitely don’t script out any answers. The questions are geared toward figuring out who you are and what you have gone through in your life to get you to where you are. Be very honest and open about yourself and be ready to explore and explain your life to someone who is very interested in you. My interview was one of the most enjoyable experiences I went through in my application process and I hope it will be for you too. There are tons of great answers you can provide, but the best answers will be the ones that show what’s most important to you and what you’re really like. I know I’ve said this more than once, but Relax, Be Yourself and Have Fun. Also dress nicely, a shirt and tie or nice suit will be great.

Questions My Recruiter Asked Me

   What makes you interested in the Peace Corps?
   Why do you think you will be a good Peace Corps Volunteer?
   What are your plans after serving in the Peace Corps?
   Have you ever worked with someone different than yourself toward a common goal?
   Have you ever led a large project?
   Has there ever been a time when you had to work in an unstructured environment?
   Have you ever had a conflict/disagreement between yourself and another person? How did you deal with it?
   What do you do if someone runs something differently than how you would?
   How do you help others to become better leaders?
   Have you ever had to communicate with someone who saw things very differently than yourself?
   How do you resolve conflict?
   How do you deal with isolation, and also over-crowding and lack of privacy?
   What kinds of things do you do to relieve stress? What do you do for fun?
   Are you currently in a relationship? *Note: Peace Corps has a 13% early termination rate and 90% are relationship-based
   Why did you pick your regional preferences? How would you rank your flexibility in your preference from 1 to 10?
   What kind of support do you have from your family and friends regarding serving in the Peace Corps?
   Do you have food preferences (vegetarian)? How do you think you will adapt to food, clothing, and environmental comfort changes?

Questions I Asked My Recruiter

   What was your experience like in the Peace Corps?
   Why did you become a recruiter?
   Could you tell me a little about yourself? Your Background? Your Interests?
   Who have been some of the best examples of Peace Corps Volunteers that you’ve met?
   What kind of flexibility and cooperativeness should I expect in the placement process?
   What did you like most about the Peace Corps?
   What was most challenging for you?
   What do you wish you would have done in my position during this part in the Peace Corps process?
   What advice do you have as I go through these next steps?

A very important part of the interview is what you ask your recruiter. Be excited about talking to them. They are often very recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and they have gone through everything you will. If your interview is anything like mine, your recruiter will tell story after story about their Peace Corps experience and you will really enjoy their insight. They are often not much older than you (mid-twenties usually) and they remember what it was like to be in your position as an applicant. Be very appreciative and receptive to what they have to say and also feel free to ask what’s on your mind, whether it be a question about electricity or a concern you’ve been wanting to address. When your recruiter tells you, “I am here to help you,” like mine did, know that they mean it. They can be a huge advocate for you and they are here to help you. Send a Thank You card to them after your interview and e-mail them a thanks as well when you get back. They will really appreciate it and remember you.

My recruiter told me, "In every interview I am basically asking myself, 'Would my host country be lucky to have this Volunteer?' If yes, I nominate them. If no, I don't." I think it is a beautiful sentiment and one that many recruiters probably agree with. They love Peace Corps and the people that they served as Volunteers, they are wanting to pick the very best people to serve their friends and join their ranks as colleagues. Keep this in mind during your interview and if you honor it, you will be fine.

Step 3 | Nomination

Isn’t it incredible how fast things are moving? Not too long ago you were finishing your application and now you are nominated for service in the Peace Corps! Congratulations again! By now you’ve received the official notification from your recruiter that you will be nominated for service and moved on to the next step in the process: Medical Clearance. In my case, my recruiter told me at the end of my interview that I would be nominated for service and he told me where he would be nominating me for (region) and what I would be doing (assignment). Nomination means that your recruiter believes you would make a good Peace Corps volunteer and they will send your full application onto the headquarters in Washington, D.C. for processing. Here also your recruiter may ask for some more information to be included in your file: in my case these were copies of my CNA certification and First Aid cards. Be sure to send this information in as soon as possible. You will also have to get two copies of fingerprints made for your file. I would suggest getting this done at your local police office.

Now the last two steps in your Peace Corps application process take place. Once in Washington, D.C. a medical officer and placement officer will be assigned to your file. The medical officer will send you your Medical Clearance packet for completion (Step 4) and then once your packet has been completed and approved by your medical officer, you will be considered for placement (Step 5). You’re almost there!

Step 4 | Medical Clearance

Up until now things have probably moved pretty fast, but get ready for a slow down. It’s not a bad thing, just the way things work in this part of the process. Medical Clearance is the process of checking your medical and dental history and being approved by the Peace Corps Medical Office. By going through a check-up at both your family physician and dentist’s offices, Peace Corps is getting an overall look at your health and well-being. They want to make sure you are capable of living in the challenging locations you may be placed in, and they also want records of your health for the health care they will provide you during your service.

Be patient as you wait for your medical forms to arrive in the mail. When they do, also be patient as you look through them, they will be thick. Make doctor’s appointments as soon as you can, right after getting your medical forms in the mail. Make one call to your dentist and one call to your physician, and tell them both you are getting a check-up for service in the Peace Corps. When you arrive at your doctor’s and dentist’s offices, have all of your forms in hand. You will need to have filled out the first sheet or two in the packet, but your health professional will need to fill out the rest. They will date and sign the forms, including necessary shot records, x-rays (digital and film are both okay for dental clearance), and necessary blood tests. Your packet will be even thicker by the end of your check-ups, but then your part in the medical clearance process will probably be over. Send in your forms in the envelope Peace Corps provided for you and you are all set. They will get back to you if you need any additional work done, but once you’ve been medically cleared you’re on your way to placement!

Can I get rejected?

It's true that Peace Corps applications can be "rejected" - Peace Corps headquarters can remove applicants from the pile of nominations before they get an invitation to serve. This can happen for a variety of reasons that can be outside your control, including medical reasons. The best thing for you to do as an applicant is be respectful, prompt, patient, excited and flexible. Once you've been nominated, Peace Corps will do everything they can to place you in a country and job that is a good fit for you. If you handle all interactions respectfully, fill out and send in all requested information promptly, wait patiently as the process can be tedious, and remain excited and flexible about your service, you will have done your best to be placed and invited to serve.

Step 5 | Invitation

This is it, the last step in the process to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer! It is very important to remember to be patient and accept that it might take a while to get your official invitation to serve. Everything in your file must be completed and then it will all be reviewed by your placement officer, every bit of it. They will consider where your recruiter nominated you for (your region) and what they nominated you to do (your assignment) and then they will compare that to what current regions and assignments are available. This means that not all placements match their initial nomination, but according to my recruiter in general you have a sixty percent chance of them matching up. Also, don’t worry. If you do get placed in a region, assignment or leaving date that you don’t prefer, you always have the option of declining your invitation. I did this on my first invitation because it was leaving earlier than I wished to leave. I then received another invitation later.

After you receive your invitation you have ten days to decide if you will accept it. If you don’t accept it, call your placement officer and they will reconsider your application for another assignment. If you accept however, you are all set for departure into “the toughest job you’ll ever love!” Congratulations!

You have moved all the way from interest in the Peace Corps to an invitation to serve within the organization and I wish you the very best in your journey! You have worked hard to get to where you are and you deserve it. We hope you really enjoy your two years of service within one of the greatest organizations in the world. Your adventure is only beginning…

Should I accept my invitation?

It’s hard to know how to respond to your invitation at first when there is such a mix of excitement, nervousness and urgency. First, remember you have ten days from when you receive the invitation to accept it. Second, remember you have a lot of people you can rely on to answer your questions and provide you with advice. These include RPCVs and PCVs that are currently in the field, friends and family with you at home and Peace Corps staff as well. More than anyone else, PCVs and RPCVs provided me with the most help in making my decisions regarding placement. I googled “Peace Corps” and “My Country” and also looked for Volunteers through, Facebook groups and also talked with PCVs I met through information sessions, calling Peace Corps, Study Abroad, other friends and chance meetings. Not only are Peace Corps Volunteers some of the most friendly people I have ever met, but they are also brutally honest if you want them to be. Read their blogs, e-mail them, message them on Facebook and then consider their replies. Also send out e-mails to several Volunteers if they are out in the field so you are likely to get a few replies in your ten day window - some PCVs in the field don’t have regular internet access for weeks at a time. Lastly, I say follow your heart. It know it’s cheesy, but if you really feel like the assignment you received isn’t one you want to do, you should probably listen to that internal wisdom. Wait a few days to be sure and then call Peace Corps to let them know your decision.

What happens if I decline an invitation?

Generally speaking Peace Corps is going to try and work with you if you decline your invitation. However, they are only likely to do this once. In the words of a Peace Corps Placement Officer who e-mailed me, “it is highly, highly unusual for us to send a third invitation.” This is because after you decline your first invitation your Placement Officer is going to try very hard to figure out what you are going to accept the next time. They will either call or e-mail you for a detailed explanation of why you are declining and then once they feel you both have an understanding, they will offer you the next invitation. If you decline that, it makes it look like something is wrong. My advice is to spend a few days thinking over your decision, discussing it with your friends, family and other PCVs and RPCVs (especially in that country) and make a list of reasons why you do and do not want to serve in that country. If you decide to decline, be ready to explain those reasons and then only expect one more invitation. In special circumstances, such as in the case of Peace Corps asking you to leave before your original nomination, you might get a third invitation. Otherwise though, just count on two.

What’s next?

When you call Peace Corps to accept your invitation they will ask you a little bit about your assignment packet to make sure you read over your job assignment and have a good understanding of what you will be going into both culturally and professionally. Your next step after accepting your invitation is filling out your Passport and Visa forms, as well as your aspiration and resume forms for your country desk. The passport and visa forms are to be sent back to the Peace Corps as soon as you can in the envelopes they have included and then your aspiration statement and resume is sent into your country desk by e-mail so that your future Peace Corps staff can get to know who you are and place you well in your future job once you arrive and have gone through training.

I accepted! I have so many questions!

You will be astounded by the incredible answers that you can get from other Volunteers who are either in your destination country or have already served there. There are lot of incredible resources available for incoming Peace Corps Volunteers. Definitely check out the helpful resources listed in the back of this handbook including They are full of great information.

Searched for groups online or start your own. You will be amazed by how many people will respond to your questions on Discussion Boards. Volunteers are often very welcoming and honest about what to expect and how to prepare for leaving. It’s a great chance to meet Volunteers you will be serving with when you leave. Peace Corps Journals also provides great blogs of PCVs which can give you an individual look at the Peace Corps experience. If you like what you see, send them an e-mail. They can be very helpful and motivating, and probably felt the same way you do now.

Your adventure is only beginning! Now that you have completed your application, finished your interview, been nominated, passed medical clearance and accepted your invitation, it's time to move onto the next big stage in your handbook: Preparing for Peace Corps...

To read more visit


The Author

Travis is currently volunteering in eastern Mongolia as a Peace Corps Health Volunteer from 2008 until 2010. He hopes to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Mongolia until 2011 while working with the World Health Organization and the National Mongolian Scouting Association.

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