Thoughts on the new Peace Corps application process

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On July 15, the Peace Corps unveiled several major changes to their online application and selection process. According to Peace Corps, the new system will be "simpler, faster and more personalized than ever before.

All prospective Peace Corps volunteers must complete an online application. When printed, the form could stretch over 60 pages and take up to 8 hours to complete. The application would pass through several phases, during which applicants would often experience long periods of inactivity while waiting for an invitation letter and a final approval. 

Waiting for the invitation, which can sometimes take up to a year, is a trial for many Peace Corps hopefuls. The former system posed personal and professional challenges for the applicant. Not knowing the status of their applications, prospective volunteers would move on with their lives and drop out at all stages of the application process. 

Applicant anxiety is readily apparent in most Peace Corps forums and social media groups. The Washington Post article on the new changes calls this “restless applicant syndrome,” and its understandable considering that people embarking on a journey instinctively seek milestones. The new addition of a Know By deadline will be key to managing such practical and emotional life decisions.  

But how do RPCVs feel about the changes? 

On choosing a placement

Some Returned Volunteers fear that the new application process weakens the spirit of selfless public service. They feel that by offering new selection criteria, only prime locations will be chosen and the next generation will miss out on the experience of adapting to an unknown environment and job. After all, volunteering in this capacity is a job, not a vacation. Giving applicants a choice may also reinforce preconceived expectations, fostering illusions which won't hold up to the realities on the ground. However, the new application system should be more effective in placing volunteers in the right places for assured success. The world is indeed changing, and sometimes volunteers show up to sites without key experiences essential for the job. It doesn't help if you’re prepared to build a chicken coop when your community wants a website! 

On mystery and adventure

Many RPCVs also take pride in the emotional growth and resourcefulness that develops from full immersion in a unique culture and adjusting to changing circumstances. They also admit that they would have never chosen their host country if given the option, but now can’t imagine having served anywhere else. This reinforces the critical role that recruiters and Peace Corps staff play in guiding applicants to the projects and places that need them. Hopefully, by casting the net a little wider, Peace Corps can encourage new applicants to step forward, guaranteeing that no project will go unoccupied for long.

On patience and flexibility

Some point out that a slow, frustrating application process serves two functions: It weeds out those who are less committed and gives the applicant an early taste of everyday life in many parts of the developing world, where patience and follow-through are key to getting things done. We know adaptability and flexibility are the sole defining features of every successful Peace Corps volunteer, but it should be up to the recruiters to recognize and encourage those qualities in an applicant. Why waste time and money administering the world’s longest standardized test?

On practicality and modern workflow

From an operational perspective, revamping the online process should be a routine task for any company that depends on a web-based system to manage its workflow. Using basic data analytics, the agency can identify the weak points in its pipeline and quantify the resources being wasted on disengaged users. Granting applicants more information increases the likelihood that they will stay engaged with the process. A straightforward, more transparent process could also translate to increased application numbers and potentially greater support and funding from the White House and Congress.

The value of change

The Peace Corps is a great agency because it can respond to the needs of its community in ways unimaginable elsewhere in the federal government. Change and adaptability are part of its DNA. Though its goals may be timeless, its administration must look forward to its future, and that requires smart, thoughtful planning to best accommodate the next generation of volunteers.

What do you think? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Sonita Singh, MD

Board Certified Family Practice