Unofficial Volunteer Handbook

From Peace Corps Wiki

Revision as of 07:06, 9 January 2011 by TravisHellstrom (Talk | contribs)
Jump to: navigation, search
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 on your adventure of applying to and serving in the Peace Corps. We hope you find what we’ve shared helpful – if not, don't worry – 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 through the Peace Corps Handbook website 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 Education, Business & Information Technology, Health, Agriculture and Community/Youth Development. However hundreds of different assignments are given out every year in countries throughout the world. To say that every Peace Corps Volunteer has his or her 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 will 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 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. 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 write your name on the front, 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. 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 yours. It was written just for this purpose and we hope you make the most of it. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. We’ve started the conversation. We’d love to hear what you have to say...

Get To Know Peace Corps

A common question people ask is “What can I do to become a better Peace Corps applicant?” This is a complicated and wonderful question. To start, it’s important to do a lot of research on your own and reach out to people in the Peace Corps community…


There is a tremendous amount of information out there for people who want to learn about Peace Corps: online journals and videos, great books and articles written by Volunteers and of course the enormous Peace Corps website. Flip to the back of this handbook to see some of our favorite resources and ways to connect to the Peace Corps community. Pay close attention to what you think you might like to do, what area you could see yourself working in and what gets you really excited about Peace Corps service.

Attend A Peace Corps Event

To attend an event visit the Peace Corps website, find your nearest Peace Corps Recruitment office and check out upcoming events both online and in-person. This is a great chance to meet Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) as well as other people interested in Peace Corps and you can never do this too early. The great stories you’ll hear and the inspiration you’ll find will be contagious. Don’t be surprised if you meet Volunteers who you then correspond with for months. They are a diverse and wonderful source of expert advice and personal experience.

Make Yourself Competitive

In addition to meeting people in the Peace Corps community there are other things you can do to make yourself a better applicant. Whatever your area of interest, Peace Corps is looking for defining characteristics that span across sectors: motivation and commitment, competence in your field, social sensitivity and cultural awareness, and emotional maturity. To prepare for your application, and more importantly to prepare for your Peace Corps service, there are several things you can do to improve in these areas and make yourself a better Volunteer…

Demonstrate Leadership

Exercise your ability to identify challenges and create solutions. Anyone can be a leader and it rarely requires a title or position. Leadership is the ability to influence others by finding your voice and helping others find theirs – seeing others’ potential so clearly that they can’t help but see it in themselves. Think about what really matters to you (helping kids, saving the environment, creating a successful business, learning, teaching, anything) and then get more passionate about dedicating yourself to those causes. It isn't hard to identify problems; the challenge has always been doing something about them. As you become more passionate at creating solutions, people will be drawn to you and you can begin to work together to make things happen. That takes a leader, a visionary, and the kind of person who will be perfect for Peace Corps.

Commit to Service

Making a decision to serve in Peace Corps for 27 months is a commitment to give over 820 days to serving others, almost 20,000 hours of excitement, frustration, hopeful, hopeless, wonderful and horrible experiences minute after minute, week after week. The desire to help others will only pull you through this adventure if you are willing to reach deep down inside to ask yourself how much you are really willing to give. Peace Corps will shake your worldview, probably in a very good way, and you can prepare for that now by honestly answering this question, "Do I believe it's important to help others? If so, what am I doing right now to live that out?" Peace Corps service requires a huge heart, and it helps if it's a muscle you've already been working out before you apply.

Develop Understanding

We don't all have the opportunity to study abroad or even leave our country or home state, but we all have the opportunity to leave our comfort zone and do things outside our norm. When we push ourselves, step into a new environment, accept the reality that 'the world' is larger than 'our world' and begin to act on that, we develop a skill set essential to any Volunteer: empathy, humility, kindness, flexibility and strength. Peace Corps is looking for this adaptive ability since they will uproot you from everything you know and plant you in a completely new and very different place to see how you will survive and grow. With the right mindset you will astound yourself with your personal growth. Guaranteed. To start try reaching out to those around you, maybe your local international community or club, to build relationships with people from entirely different cultures and backgrounds.

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. We say just dive right in. There is no harm in starting early on the application and taking your time to check it out and get an overview of how it looks. As you start filling out the application, really be yourself. As you’ll see later in the interview, your essays and activities will play an important role in the interviewer’s impression of who you are. The Peace Corps Volunteer Application has basically two parts: simple forms and more detailed sections. While most sections are simple, some deserve a little extra attention and some advice we would like to share. Let’s take a look...

Job Preferences

This section changes in how it appears on the application from year to year, but basically Peace Corps wants to know what you see yourself doing as a Volunteer. Go ahead and research each area on the Peace Corps website to get a good idea of what different work assignments mean in areas like Health, Agriculture and Education. Then make a short list of what you could see yourself doing. Your recruiter will be very excited to talk about how you see yourself serving as a Volunteer, so be prepared to talk with him or her about why you chose your preferences and also be open to their suggestions.

Language Skills

Peace Corps Volunteers are not expected to be advanced in the language of their host country (that’s why Peace Corps offers three months of training in hundreds of world 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 want to see your attitude toward learning. If you can show evidence of having an open and inquisitive mind ready to take in lots of new information that can go a long way.

Licenses and Certificates

If you have certifications (nurse assisting, teaching, etc) or training (first aid, mediation, information technology) that you think will be valuable to you in Peace Corps, indicate that here. Also, be prepared to provide documentation later on because your interviewer will ask you to send them copies of certifications.

Now some more detailed sections, these require careful attention. Employment History, Community and Volunteer Activities and Practical Experience all allow for short descriptions of your experiences and achievements. Geographic Preference and Recommendations require some planning and the Essays require a lot of time and thought. Don’t be discouraged. This is the hardest part of the application process. After this it will be smooth sailing!

Employment History

In this section 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. Also, use someone as a reference who knew you personally and will speak well on your behalf. Be sure to speak with them prior to you submitting your application to ask permission to use their contact information.

Community and Volunteer Activities

This is probably the most important part of your application. It is a little challenging since the descriptions are limited for space, but on the positive side you can include an attached document to provide more details. Definitely do that if you need to. 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 from 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 bragging a bit. You never know what is going to strike a chord with your recruiter. You might find a random connection that you talk about forever. Show what’s important to you and show how committed you are to helping your community, hour after hour, day after day.

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. Examples: If you want to teach English but don’t mind where in the world you might go or if you want to help with Information Technology in the South Pacific specifically. Your recruiter is going to bring this up again in your interview to see how flexible you are, so think about your answer carefully and be ready to explain yourself when the question comes. Be yourself and be honest, Peace Corps will try to take your preference into consideration when they make their decisions, but sometimes they might need you somewhere else. Remember the happiest Volunteers aren't usually the ones in the "right" job or the "right" place. They are the Volunteers who choose to be happy and make the most of their situation.

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, as before, be thorough in describing your experiences. If you are interested in Health list your Hospice training but also add your training in mediation. It may seem unrelated to health at first, but actually it could come 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 where most applicants get stuck. People stall on their essays for months with nervousness and over-estimation of their importance. Don’t get stuck. Just smile, be yourself and write what feels right. These essays are important, but not dire. They are only one slice in your big pizza of an application, so just say what’s in 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. The exact prompts for the essays change often, 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 your past experiences and life goals?
    How good are you at adapting to challenging situations?

These are deep questions and they seem 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 and 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. Say what you really feel.

Also Peace Corps wants to know what happens when you are brought out of your comfort zone and are challenged to see the world in a new way - 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, handling a new work project or adapting to a new community. Writing about who you were before and after these experiences can be very helpful to a recruiter. Peace Corps knows your two years of service will be similar to these experiences and they want to see how well you did to predict how well you will do.


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. Ask these providers to write their recommendations before you are done with your application, so that you won’t have to wait too long after you have finished your part in the process. However, don’t ask 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 complement your application. For example, if you mention one of your friends in your essay on motivation then it might be nice to have them write your close friend recommendation. 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!

To read Step 2 | The Interview and much more check out the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook (and help out Peace Corps projects while you're at it!) by visiting


Chief Editor

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

Personal tools
Tell Your Friends
Peace Corps News
Country Information