Crossing the Cultural Bridge: Coaching International Students to Prepare for Job Interviews
By Xi Yu
With a growing number of international students studying in the U.S., career counselors and advisors in post-secondary education settings are facing the challenge of effectively coaching international students with job search skills. Especially for interviewing preparation, many international students who I worked with have expressed that the interview is the most difficult step to prepare for in the entire job search process. This issue may apply to domestic students too; however, for international students it can be even more challenging given a number of reasons, including lack of language proficiency, low self-esteem, and different expectations for an interview in different countries.
Three areas of cultural variations or differences are illustrated in this article to explain how they may have an impact on interviewing preparation.
1. Hierarchy / Authority vs. Equality
“What is the best answer to this question?” I was often asked this question by international students when we discussed and practiced the frequently asked question samples. Many international students have expressed that, based on their perspectives, interviewing is a “test,” which requires them to provide the “correct” answers to pass this test. Also, the interviewers are respected as individuals with absolute authority and high hierarchical level. This may be true in some countries, but is not necessarily the case in the U.S. I usually explain to my international students about the different expectations of interviewing in the U.S., how it is a two-way communication between the interviewer and the candidate in order to improve understanding between each other, rather than solely answering questions with right or wrong or preferred answers.
In addition, some international students have found it challenging to practice the non-verbal communication, such as appropriate posture and eye contact during interviews. Given different communication styles, even some styles or habits that come to domestic students naturally, may not apply to some international students easily.
2. “We” vs. “I”
For the international students who come from a more collectivist country, it may not be easy for them to claim their contributions to team projects that they have done. Being modest and contributing to team efforts is the expectation under their culture. But in the United States, interviewees are expected to articulate their roles and contributions even for the projects that are done as teams. When shifting from focusing on “we” to focusing on “I,” it becomes challenging and even uncomfortable for international students to talk about their individual contributions on teams. This has been particularly noticeable when I work with international students practicing behavioral or scenario-based questions for interviews.
3. Self-Promotion vs. Modesty
Many international students struggle with “selling” themselves to the employer. As mentioned earlier, the students may have difficulty with presenting their accomplishments and skills to the interviewer in a self-promoting way. Career professionals or career counselors often discuss “sell it” versus “tell it” strategies to assist international students with better understanding and practicing sample interview questions. One of the international students asked me when we discussed how to “sell” his skills, “should I be a bit more modest or hold back a bit?” What we had discussed was not exaggerating at all, but still the student was not feeling comfortable enough to “sell” himself.
Tips for Career Counselors Working with International Students to Prepare for Interviews
Ask about the student’s previous interviewing experiences (e.g., in their home country) to better understand where the student stands, and discuss the similarities and differences in terms of what they can expect when interviewing in the United States.
Help international students to better understand what aspects of and how U.S. culture (e.g. individualism, directness of communication) may have an impact on the expectations of a successful interview.
Assist international students to identify the value their international experience brings, helping them to understand how it may contribute to their qualifications for the position. Coach them on how to market their strengths and skills developed through their global experience during the interview. For example, discuss multilingual language skills, adaptability to new culture, tolerance of ambiguity, etc.
Remind international students that, in the U.S., although employers may ask about a person’s authorization to work in the U.S., it is illegal to query about marital status, age, race, religion, nationality, gender, disabilities, or immigration status.
Recommend to international students that they work closely with the International Student and Scholar Services office (or other similar offices at your institution) for their immigration status and work authorization options.
References & Additional Resources
University of Minnesota career resources for international students: http://www.career.umn.edu/intl.html
University of California-Berkeley Career Center resources: https://career.berkeley.edu/IntnlStudents/IS-interview.stm
UC-San Diego, School of International Relations & Pacific Studies Career Services: http://irps.ucsd.edu/current-students/career-services/current-students/international-students.htm
Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.
Xi Yu currently works in International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as an Evaluation Specialist. At ISSS, Xi previously conducted career service student appointments to assist international students with the job search. Now she conducts evaluation practices to identify international student’s needs and assists with better serving and engaging international students across the campus. Xi earned her master’s degree in industrial / organizational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Jennifer Bradley on Friday 08/01/2014 at 07:13 PM
Thanks for your article Xi. Lots of great tips for job-seekers and the professionals who work with them. Readers might also like to check out The Intercultural Institute - http://www.intercultural.org/ - based in Portland, OR for more resources
Jason Bauer-Clapp on Thursday 08/21/2014 at 02:53 PM
Useful recommendations here -- thank you! I'll add that some international students have a strong desire to pre-script answers to potential interview questions. While this can be a useful exercise for developing and shaping potential responses, that approach can be counterproductive in a live, dynamic interview conversation. "Reciting a script" works against establishing a genuine connection with the interviewer(s). A focus on developing talking points, themes, scenarios and outcomes, etc. rather than rote answers can give an interviewee greater conversational flexibility while making it easier to be actively engaged in the conversation.