Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps

2.03.2009

2/3/09 Joining Peace Corps - The Timeline and Application Process

Disclaimer: This post ended up a LOT longer than I'd anticipated. The application process is multi-tiered and complex, as well as terribly opaque, and I wanted to give a thorough explanation...which means that this is long. Hopefully very useful, but long. Also, I detailed my own experiences with the application process as I went through it, as you can read here and here. You can also find everything I've written about the Peace Corps Timeline here.

So, you've decided to join Peace Corps.

What happens next?

Application Part 1: Who Are You, and Why Do You Belong in Peace Corps?

Step one is filling out the application on the Peace Corps website. This took me a little over 3 months, partially because of my procrastination and partly because the application is so long, and requires minute details of your past. Here's the list of pages you'll fill out:
Personal Information
Application Information
Legal Information
Financial Obligations
Intelligence Activities and Organizations
Military Status
Family Information
Dependents
Job Preferences
Post-Secondary Education
Language Skills
Licenses and Certificates
Employment History
Community and Volunteer Activities
Geographic Preference
Practical Experience
Essays
Application, Part 2: Medical Information
Once your application is submitted, you're allowed to access your medical questionnaire. They'll ask you about you and your family's experience with nearly every disease or condition imaginable. Whether you've ever sought counseling. Whether you wear glasses. Whether you've ever been diagnosed with ... anything. Etc, etc, etc. They're hoping to send you to a country where you'll go months or years without access to Western medicine, so they need to know that you'll survive.

One other note: I'd never advise anyone to be less than forthright, but in the interests of full disclosure: The medical questionnaire can create problems. If you've seen a therapist at any point in the past 10 years, you'll need to get that therapist to complete a 6-page analysis of your mental health. A friend who saw a counselor for a few months after her parents' divorce, and another who got a handful of sessions of therapy after a sexual assault - in both cases, years before they applied to Peace Corps - have both told me that they wished they'd said No to that question, and saved themselves (and their long-lost therapists) a lot of hassle. But they did both end up in Peace Corps, so maybe honesty was the best policy, in the long run.
Application, Part 3: Recommendations
It's not enough for you to explain why you're wonderful; your friends and colleagues need to agree with you. Peace Corps requests three recommendations, one from an employment supervisor, one from a volunteer work supervisor, and one from a close friend who has known you for at least two years. If you have no work or volunteer experience, you can substitute a professor. Your application won't be reviewed until your recommendations are in, so this is the time to nag your friends and recommenders. Kindly and gently, of course, because they're doing you a big favor.
Application + 2-4 weeks: Interview
Assuming you've correctly filled out the application and are at least slightly qualified, you'll probably be granted an interview fairly quickly. (Yes, there are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence. There are no absolutes in this process.) Peace Corps likes to brag about how selective the process is, based on the ratio of applicants to Volunteers, but the truth is that most people who start the application never finish it, so the number of "applicants" is artificially inflated. That's actually one reason the application is so horrifically long - if you don't have the patience and dedication to type stuff into your computer, you probably don't have what it takes to serve for 27 months in an underdeveloped country.

So now you're at the interview with your recruiter. Expect to discuss the information on your application, as well as your chosen region. Why did you choose it? How flexible are you? (And remember, flexibility is key.) I reeeeally didn't want to go to a blistering hot country, so I made a note on my application and during my interview that my ridiculously fair skin sunburns in minutes (lame but true), and so I'd really like not to be anywhere near the equator. Result: I'm in Morocco, north of the Tropics, technically, but within hours of the Sahara.

...just as an object lesson in how much your preference is considered. :)

Also at the interview, they'll probably fingerprint you, for the FBI background check. Oh, the background check - one of many reasons you shouldn't lie on your application. There are Volunteers who have been convicted of minor crimes before, including drug abuse and civil disobedience, but they were all up-front about it. There are no Volunteers who tried to hide their past indiscretions. And don't think that "expunged" means the FBI can't find it. They can and they will.

Note to vegetarians: While serving as a Volunteer, you must be willing to eat what your host family eats. While they may accept your not eating the meat itself - mine did, after a while - the fact remains that everything they serve will have been cooked with meat. If you've been veggie for a long time, you may want to start reintroducing meat into your diet, a little at a time. You have enough to deal with upon the start of your service - you don't need your gut to start rejecting all meat-infused food. Lots of vegetarians have joined Peace Corps, so don't think it's a deal-breaker, but you and your recruiter *will* have this conversation.

Depending how well your interview goes, your recruiter may tell you which region he or she is planning to invite you to. Or he/she may not. Don't read too much into it.
Application + 4 weeks: The Waiting
You've been interviewed. If the interview went well, you're probably going to be Nominated. Eventually. Here's a good time to practice the Peace Corps skills of patience and persistence. Don't harass your recruiter, but it's OK to check up on them every week or two. They may need another one or two pieces of information from you that are stalling your application. I'm sure they'd get around to calling you for it eventually, but PC staff are human too, and therefore distract-able. It's up to you to make sure your paperwork is flowing through the proper channels.
Application + 1-3 months: Nomination
Congratulations! Your recruiter thinks you'll be a great Peace Corps Volunteer. Along with your nomination letter, you'll receive a package containing some paperwork about the region (but not the country) to which you've been nominated...and medical paperwork. Lots of medical paperwork.

Note: They won't tell you this, but you'll now be handed over from your recruiter to your "placement officer". So any questions you have will be routed to someone new.
Nomination + 1-12 months: Medical Testing
Remember that detailed medical questionnaire you submitted? Part 2 of the application? It went to the Office of Medical Services (OMS), who have now sent you a four-page checklist that you and your primary care physician will fill out, plus a page for your dentist. (Peace Corps needs X-rays, as well. And since they won't send you to a dentist until your Mid-Service Medicals, 15 months after you leave the US, go ahead and get a cleaning now, too. And consider scheduling one for just before you leave.) Don't skip anything or leave any blanks, or they'll send it back to you. You'll need a TB test and bloodwork, so plan for at LEAST three visits to your doctor. And yes, ladies, you will need a pelvic exam.

In addition, any question in the online questionnaire that you answered Yes to will result in extra pages for you and your doctor(s). What's the current status of your condition? Can you back that up with renewed medical testing? What's your glasses prescription?

All these doctor visits can get pricey. Peace Corps will reimburse you for some of the costs, but not much. A better route is to find the local VA Hospital - there is one in nearly every American city - and they'll give you the full physical for free. Uncle Sam scratches his own back. :) Also, they claim that several fairly expensive vaccinations are required before you go...but some of my friends later got these vaccinations for free during Pre-Service Training. I have no idea why, but if your budget is tight, you should talk to OMS about it.
Application + 3-12 months: Legal Clearance
The FBI checks you out. If you aren't guilty of anything you haven't already explained away to your recruiter, and if there aren't any outstanding warrants for your arrest, this should be quick and easy. Should be, not is. The FBI is busy, so this may take a while. I thought that this was a bit of a joke, since I've lived a (generally) virtuous life...but it's still a hurdle, and you still have to jump it successfully. Also, if you ever blew off a parking ticket or moving violation, the traffic court judge probably issued a bench warrant for you, so you'll need to clear that up before your application can proceed.
Medical paperwork submission + several months: Dental and Medical Clearance
OMS has reviewed your medical records and test results. If they have any questions, they'll ask you to redo some portion of the exam and/or bloodwork. OMS is chronically understaffed - there are a lot of much better-paying gigs for doctors - so this process can take longer than a healthy person might expect. But once OMS is satisfied that you'll survive 27 months without regular access to western medicine, they'll clear you, and send you a note letting you know that you've been cleared. Once this final hurdle is crossed, you're invite-able.
Final Clearances + 1-2 weeks: Invitation, aka We Want You in the Peace Corps!
They'll email you to let you know that your packet is in the mail, but the packet has been overnighted, so at you won't have to wait long (for once!). If your invitation is on the early side, you might get some nifty Peace Corps freebies, like a patch to sew onto your backpack, a keychain, a luggage tag, a bumper sticker, etc. I was nominated only a few days before the window closed, so didn't get any of that stuff. :(

"Window closed"? Turns out that Peace Corps promises not to invite you less than six weeks before the beginning of training, so as to allow you enough time to shed the trappings of your old life and prepare for the new one. My training began March 1, so my placement officer *couldn't* invite me (or anyone) after January 21st.

That's the official line, anyway. I do have a few PCV friends who got their invitation with only two or three weeks to go, so apparently exceptions are made from time to time, but you shouldn't expect one.
Invitation + However Long You Want: Making The Decision
You've been invited. Peace Corps is asking you to serve in X country, doing Y work, leaving on Z date. This may be a surprise, or may be exactly what you expected. If it's a shock, give yourself some time to make a good decision. The most common "If I knew then what I know now..." that I've heard from PCVs is that they had no idea they could turn down an invitation, and still serve eventually.

Of course, Peace Corps doesn't want you to be a dilettante about this. If you turn down several viable invitations, they may decide that you're not serious about serving, and stop inviting you. But the little-known truth is that YOU DON'T HAVE TO ACCEPT YOUR INVITATION. You really don't. If your sister is getting married in a few months, or if your dad just had a stroke, or even if you're just mortally terrified of the country they're assigning you to...you can pass. You'd better have a good reason for passing, and defend it to your placement officer, who will do his/her best to convince you accept this invitation. But the truth is, you can refuse an invitation once, maybe even twice, and still serve in the Peace Corps. What you can't do is travel for any reason during the first six months you're in country, so if your sister's wedding or your best friend's baby-due-date or your mom's surgery are taking place in the six months after your scheduled departure, you have some serious thinking to do right now.

On the other hand, a lot of Volunteers - like me - did not go where they planned to, but still ended up in a fantastic place, living a wonderful life. Don't be afraid of the unexpected.
Pre-Service Training - 3 weeks: Staging Packet
Once you've accepted an invitation from Peace Corps, they'll start sending you information about your training (also known as "staging" or "stage"). Three weeks before departure, you get a packet with some useful logistical information like your flight numbers and travel times, plus some paperwork on cultural expectations and tips on adjusting to your new life

So there you have it. It's a long process full of bureaucracy...but then, your service will have its share of paperwork and bureaucratic roadblocks as well, so you might as well begin practicing your patience, persistence, and flexibility. If you have any follow-up questions, please put them in the comments below or email me. And thank you for considering Peace Corps!

The Wide-Eyed Innocent's Guide to the Peace Corps Application Process

My Pre-Peace Corps Timeline
My Pre-Peace Corps Timeline, cont.

Other Peace Corps Blogs
So You're Thinking About Joining the Peace Corps?
Joining Peace Corps: Timeline and Application Process
What Comes Next: Your First Nine Months In-Country
The Three Goals of Peace Corps
Leaving Peace Corps Service
The Sectors: Youth Development
The Sectors: Small Business Development
The Sectors: Health
The Sectors: Environment
Top 10 Reasons to Join Peace Corps
Top 5 Reasons to Reconsider Joining Peace Corps
Peace Corps Applicant FAQs
Your Peace Corps Toolkit
Final Thoughts for Applicants
Gender and Development: Int'l Women's Day
Peace Corps Applicant FAQs II

29 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this! It was very helpful..

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  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to write out all this valuable information and giving your insight(s) on the process! It was VERY helpful for me :)

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  3. Thanks for such a thorough description about the PC app process. Definitely very helpful!

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  4. I wish I would have known about the V.A. Hospital. I had to pay $366 for lab fees.

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  5. You're all welcome! I'm thrilled that I can help you out!

    @ childpleazee1: Sorry to hear about that. I shelled out a ton of money for my tests and fees, too - that's why I put this info up here. Hopefully, others won't have the same experience we did.

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  6. This is the best timeline I've read so far. Superbly informative.

    I am a college junior who is just beginning the process. I am wondering about suitable recommenders since I have only worked part-time summer jobs and participated in volunteer projects in which student leaders were my main "supervisors" (or people who can attest to my character and work ethic). As you wrote, I can substitute one with a professor, but do you think a recommendation from a short-term employer or student leader is appropriate?

    Thank you for your time.

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  7. This might be a question for your recruiter, but I don't see why a recommendation student leader or short-term employer would be a problem. Peace Corps gets a ton of fresh-out-of-college PCVs, so they must be used to the lack of work experience on the part of applicants. You might be able to submit two professor recommendations or else choose between the student leader and short-term-employer...and remember, the *point* of a recommendation is to speak intelligently about you, your motivation, your commitment... Decide who can address those issues best, and choose accordingly.

    Good luck on your application!

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  8. Thank you so much for your time & advice.

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  9. Thank-you very much! I got medically cleared 12 days ago and am waiting with bated breath for a response so the 1-3 weeks thing sounds good. Also how many of you get your toolkit updated at like 2 am strange right?

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  10. This is great! I've been wondering how long the process from filling out the application to actually leaving the country takes. Now I understand better what "applying" really means. Thank you!

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  11. eek.
    So you have to see a gynocologist? :/

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  12. Various @Anonymous: You're welcome! Happy to help. :D

    @Anonymous 4/28: Yes. Sorry, but you do. Peace Corps Office of Medical Services (OMS) needs to be confident that you're healthy inside and out, and that includes getting a pap smear and full GYN exam. Just grit your teeth and remind yourself why you're joining Peace Corps.

    Best wishes! :)

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  13. If you've had a pap smear recently (within a month before receiving the paperwork, for example), do you have to have another one, or can your gyno just fill out the paperwork based on the one already done?

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  14. This hasn't changed much since 1964 when I went through it. The application and process was just as long then - and with NO internet!

    But my PC time was the most wonderful of my life and I'm almost 70, and have a great marriage, kids and grandkids.

    It was a true blessing and I wish the same for all Americans. We wouldn't have the problems in our country that we have if everyone were to do a stint in the PC.

    Good luck, everyone. The bureaucracy is worth it!

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  15. Thank you for this and to everyone who added their insights! I was nominated to a program leaving at the end of September, and just barely cleared medical. Knowing the six week rule instantly helped me curb my expectation of seeing an invite any time before the second week of August.

    @ Lauren: I know nothing about pap smears, but i do know that they took my dental records from a check-up i had about four months prior to getting nominated. They said that if it was in the last 6 months then it was acceptable.

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  16. I appreciate this, it is very helpful. I am in the process of turning down an offer for several reasons: an upcoming wedding and my dental procedure (Free of charged, but I've been on the waiting list for 5 months). I am, however, being pressure to take an ESL job on the Pacific Region in October by my placement officer. She even went as far as saying, "withdraw your application". I believe she has power issues we spent 2 hours on the phone, trying to convince me to take this position. I think my teeth are important.

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  17. I was recently nominated for service. A few weeks ago, the recruiter told me over the phone he would nominate me for a business advisor position in central or south America. When I finally got my nomination letter, it said I was nominated as a business advisor in eastern europe or asia. Is there anything I can do about that? I am not interested in that region. I understand the need for flexibility but I was never informed of the change.

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  18. Serenity and Anonymous -

    Sorry you're having a rough experience. These are questions for your recruiter; call them up and don't be afraid to be tough.

    Good luck!

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  19. Today I walked to the mailbox and finally turned in my medical forms. I applied in February and now patiently awaiting for the medical review to occur and be cleared, hopefully. Tentative leave date – July 2010, Community development with an emphasis on business – Africa. Yikes! Do most people leave near their tentative leave date?

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  20. @Anonymous 9/18 - Congratulations! Tbarkallah!

    To answer your question - Your "tentative leave date" is the departure date for the program your recruiter wants you to be part of. So let's say it's Small Business Development in Senegal. [[To be clear, I'm making this up - I have no idea which countries have which sectors, let alone which you've been nominated to.]]

    If SBD/Senegal fills all its Trainee slots before you finish your clearances, your recruiter will shift you somewhere else. If SBD/Sierra Leone[[again, blind guess]] is also leaving in July 2010, your recruiter might not even tell you that you've been shifted. That's one reason they don't tell you exactly which country you've been nominated to, just which region.

    Another factor affecting whether or not you'll leave on your "tentative leave date" has to do with you passing your clearances. (Medical, dental, legal, etc.) If you don't clear every hurdle more than 6 weeks before SBD/Senegal ships out, they'll have to pull you from that slot.

    If you do get bumped from SBD/Senegal, either because it filled without you or because you weren't cleared in time, and if there is no other "Community development with an emphasis on business" in Africa that leaves in July 2010, your date will change. Your region might even change, though they don't like to do that.

    But as for "do most people" leave with their intended program - I don't know the stats. Ask your recruiter, if you're really worried about it, but remember that statistics are indicators, not predictors. You've heard the old joke about stats? "The foolish use statistics as a drunk man uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination." Even if 98% of PCTs ship out on schedule, it doesn't mean you will. But even if only 20% do, it doesn't mean you won't.

    So keep practicing that patience and flexibility - you're going to need it. :)

    Best wishes!

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  21. I just turned in my application yesterday and this has been really helpful to explain exactly how long the process is going to be. Thanks!

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  22. I am a senior applicant nominated for sub-
    Saharan Africa departing in October. At my age, medical clearance is an enormous undertaking/hurdle, so I am close to the wire. I will have to retire, file for Social Security, divest myself of my home (no mortgage, but still a responsibility) and clear up debt. Then the matter of my 23 year old son is unemployed and dependent for health insurance, housing, food and student loan payments. I understand Social Security doesn't want to see me until my 62nd birthday in late September. I keep running time lines through my head. Very tight time lines. Much more difficult now than at 21. I graduated college minus any health conditions and free of ownership/debt. The notion that I can persuade my recruiter to put me in a later departure gives me hope that I can gain another wedge of time.

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  23. thank you.
    i'm currently waiting for my interview.
    just a question though - did you notice if there were any outward drug tests?

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    1. No drug tests, they do do a general urinalysis but its for other things not drugs...

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    2. Don't expect to be using drugs in the peace corps. Also, don't apply if your planning on using drugs while your in the Corps.If you have a history of drug use and your doctor knows it than don't bother applying, they will figure it out sooner or later.

      Also, many countries will put you way for drugs what might be a seemingly simple or minor drug offense crime in the united States.

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  24. For those that are currently in college how were you able to balance the work load while overseas? I am currently in my master's program on my 5th term with 6 classes left before graduation hopefully by the end of this year. Then I am scheduled to start my phd one of 5. I made sure that I mentioned within the essays about the residencies that I would need time to complete those. I am also preparing for certifications in my new field as well. Is it recommended to take a laptop, or will I have access to a computer at all times? Thanks for the helpful information. Also why can't they use my previous background check that I did a few years ago what is the difference? Why should I have to complete another one each time?

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  25. Hi,

    This was very helpful. Thank you

    I am currently completing my pc application right now to submit before the February 28th deadline. You mention recommendations in the initial application, however it says on the website, that my references will only be contacted after you have gotten through initial screening? If you could follow up on that.

    Secondly, you described how you asked to not be placed somewhere hot and got placed in Morocco....what level of choice does one really have over where they are placed. For example, I was a Russian/Eurasian Studies major who would like to go to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia and if i do not get placed there, it does not really line up with the career path i'd like to pursue. what is your sense of how much control i would have and how they take consideration into affect? I have heard differentiating reports on this

    Thanks!!

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  26. Hi, Anonymous Colby Student,

    Rob mentioned at the info session that the application process has changed slightly since I went through it. For one thing, you're now nominated to a sector but not a region, so you have no geographic hints at all until you're actually invited.

    I don't know if the Recommendation step has changed, but peacecorps.gov is certainly more up-to-date than I am; I went through all this in 2007. When I went through the process, the steps were as I described them: Not until after I'd submitted my application did the screen for medical information come up, and not until after I'd submitted that did the recommendation page appear. I submitted all three in one evening (after spending about 4 months on the application).

    It's possible that nothing has changed; their description might just mean that even though you submit the names and contact info for your recommenders as part of the application process, Peace Corps won't reach out to them until after you've gone through the screening.

    If you're worried about it, talk to your recruiter (Rob). He's also the one to talk to about how likely you are to be placed in Eastern Europe. I can tell you that in 2010, the Ukraine had the single largest Peace Corps program in the world (and I think they still do), so there's a huge need there. But where you end up depends on a lot of factors, only one of which is what you want, which is why some people report that they went exactly where they wanted and others say that they went somewhere else entirely.

    Peace Corps prizes flexibility, so if you walk into your interview saying, "If I don't go to Eastern Europe, I'm not joining," that'll be a massive red flag against you. If, instead, you talk about how much you have to bring to the region and what a leg up you already have for cultural and linguistic success, your odds of going where you want are a lot higher.

    Good luck!

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps