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?
Application, Part 2: Medical Information
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:
Intelligence Activities and Organizations
Licenses and Certificates
Community and Volunteer Activities
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.Application, Part 3: Recommendations
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.
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.Application + 4 weeks: The Waiting
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.
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.Nomination + 1-12 months: Medical Testing
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.
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.Application + 3-12 months: Legal Clearance
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.
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. :(Invitation + However Long You Want: Making The Decision
"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.
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.Pre-Service Training - 3 weeks: Staging Packet
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.
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