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[This post was originally published on the CMC’s blog, “Go to Market.”]

Recruiting can be difficult for any student, but international students often face additional challenges as they navigate their job search in a foreign country. Kellogg’s Career Management Center recently connected with Kellogg’s English language coach, Tamra Wysocki-Niimi, on some of the most common issues students face and what advice she has to overcome them. 

Underselling yourself

One of the main struggles for the international students I work with is promoting themselves and directly discussing their accomplishments and skills. Students often say it feels like they are bragging, and promoting themselves goes against their cultural norms.

The Fix: My recommendation for this issue is to work with your CMC Coach and with me to explore the language for communicating your skills in a way that feels authentic. You may not feel comfortable talking about yourself and your accomplishments in the beginning, but with some practice you will become better at expressing yourself more clearly and confidently. It is also important to get feedback. In American English, bragging is often communicated through certain intonation patterns rather than through word choice. When working with your coach, you can ask, “Does it sound like I’m bragging?” This can help you get a feeling for what bragging is vs. a direct statement about your skills.

Interviews that don’t feel conversational

The second biggest challenge is achieving a natural, conversational tone during interviews or networking conversations. There are cultural differences with this point. For example, a student from Latin America may have an easier time with creating a connection, especially at the beginning of an interview or when engaging in small talk. However, this student may struggle with preparing organized answers to behavioral and fit questions, resulting in an impression that that they are unprepared. Students from East Asia, on the other hand, may struggle with unplanned conversational topics that come up with small talk, but feel more comfortable preparing and memorizing answers to interview questions. In interviews, they may come across as robotic and formal and miss the opportunity to create a connection with the interviewer. Because the pandemic has pushed communication online or over the phone, it is even more important to know how to set the right tone from the start as it can be more difficult to convey your energy and create a connection virtually.

The Fix: For this issue, I recommend preparing your answers ahead of time, even if you think you can “wing it!” I do not recommend memorizing. If you feel more confident starting with a script, that’s okay; but use conversational English rather than “written” English to counter the “robot” effect. Practice saying your script conversationally as well. This might sound strange, but practice your facial expressions, too, especially if you have received feedback that you are robotic. Smile a little more or soften your facial expression. Record a video of yourself and watch it. Notice if you look very intense and serious. Notice what your eyes do.

Move to bullet points of your script as soon as possible and then work to internalize rather than memorize your answers. Practice everywhere — making tea, going for a walk (pretend you’re on your phone!), in the shower — until you get to a point where you know you can communicate your experience conversationally from the bullet points.

Also, work with your CMC coach and with me to prepare and practice not just your behavioral and fit questions, but also small talk/conversation. It is important for students to run through their answers several times, out loud with someone else to be sure that they can stay structured, communicate their skills and experiences directly, and stay within the acceptable time range.

Getting lost in the details

The third issue is related to the “STAR-L” model of behavioral answers. There is a tendency for international students to spend too much time setting up the situation and including too many details in the Situation and Task components. By the time they get to what should be the main focus – the Action and Result – they have exhausted the interviewer’s attention and have taken up a large chunk of their interview time. As a result, the student gets through fewer questions in the interview and may come across as “rambling”. Particularly relevant during the pandemic, video and phone calls can amplify the negative impact as factors like Zoom fatigue and multitasking can further detract from the interviewer’s attention span and focus.

The Fix: It should come as no surprise that the answer here is once again to practice. It can be hard to assess this on your own because you are too close to the story. In your mind, you really want the interviewer to know how complicated this situation was so that the interviewer will understand all that was involved in completing the actions and getting the results. This over-explanation can also be a strategy for some students to get around directly stating the value in their results because they feel the value is implied by complexity of the situation. This strategy usually doesn’t work and only overwhelms your interviewer so that they’ve zoned out when you get to the important parts. A more effective strategy is a short, direct statement of the situation with only the essentials for understanding the context and then a well-organized explanation of your actions, a direct statement of your results, followed by your take-away/learning/value add. Book an appointment to work through your storytelling and get some feedback — it’s worth your time!

Final thoughts

My last bit of advice relates to language use. As much as possible, prepare in advance and develop an “American English” mode in which you are especially speaking but also hearing, writing, and thinking in American English. Before any interview or networking event, use English only for at least two hours. Students who have had interview success have told me that this was key for them. American English mode will allow you to activate and access the vocabulary and sentence structures that you will need during your interview or networking event.

Finally, it is okay to have an accent and to not have perfect grammar or speak in complex sentences. With preparation and a moderate speaking pace, you can successfully communicate your experiences and skills.