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How to Ace a Job Interview in a Non-Native Language


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I remember one of my most exciting job interviews in a non-native language. It was with a company that I had followed for several years, and I really admired its growth and development. When I was informed that they had an interesting position available, I immediately realized that this was fate. I prepared intensively for the meeting with my future employer, studied the accomplishments of the company from A to Z, learned as much as possible about all the details, read comments from the company’s employees, and found photos of the office as well as the social network accounts of my future colleagues. And I sent my resume. They contacted me fairly quickly and invited me to an interview in English. On Skype!

Although I’ve been comfortable with foreign languages since childhood, this frightened me, since my dream job was at stake.

Jumping ahead, I’ll simply say that I was successful, and I got the job I was after.

How did I do this? My success was based on several things: a solid cover letter, a positive attitude, and a firmness of purpose that helped me cope with the stress of the interview, even when I was at a loss for words and couldn’t even answer a fairly simple question. At that moment, I just remembered what my goal was, and I was able to leave the interview with a smile on my face.

But first things first.

It All Starts with a Cover Letter

The importance of a cover letter simply can’t be overemphasized. So before you send your cover letter to the HR department, try to put yourself in their place. Showing your enthusiasm for the role can win over a manager, even if you don’t quite have all the skills the job requires.

Succinctly mention your professional skills and qualities in the cover letter, and explain why you are applying for the position. The letter should address, above all, why you are the best candidate for the position.

But I Don’t Feel Confident Writing in My Non-Native Language!

The idea of writing a cover letter shouldn't frighten you. Don't think of it as an essay or a poetry contest – nobody is judging your eloquence, especially if your dream job is a Front-end Developer. Other popular fears that I've heard are “What should I start with?”, “My cover letter is not creative enough!”, “I feel like it’s too short!”, “It doesn't sell me properly”, “I want a managing position, but don't I sound like a leader…”, “Should I add some jokes?”

Put those fears to bed by writing something that’s professional and to the point. If it’s an actual printed letter, keep it to one page maximum.

Don't try to be smart or funny. If you don't have a feeling for the language yet, that's OK. Aim to be brief, direct and understandable. Your extraordinary personality may not be visible in your limited writing skills, but you can always have this opportunity during the interview call.

And remember: The fact that you’re writing in a non-native language gives you a unique perspective and writing voice that other candidates won’t have.

Finally, it’s a good idea to get your cover letter checked by a native speaker. Even if you’re at an advanced level in the language, it’s easy enough to make a small mistake that could cost you the opportunity of going to interview.

An Example of a Model Cover Letter

One of my past jobs was to find and hire employees. I would like to share an example of a cover letter which I still remember, and became an inspiration for my own personal cover letter in applying for my current job:

Greetings!

My name is Maria, and I saw your job posting on Facebook. In the past five years I have worked as an art director in an advertising agency and a product designer in three different companies. I created mobile and web applications and complex interfaces for corporate clients.

My Employment (references in the portfolio):

[LIST OF PAST EMPLOYMENT]

I would like to work in a team of competent people who think alike, and which does not place limitations on the designer's freedom to design.

Can we talk?

I liked how Maria managed to state in a couple of lines all the pertinent information concerning her work experience and expertise. Additionally, she explained her reasons for applying for the position. And the references in the portfolio allowed me to verify her work experience.

What Not to Do: The Most Common Mistakes Made in Cover Letters

There are a few common mistakes in cover letters.

Mistake 1: Sending the Same Letter to Everyone

You can send the same resume for different positions, but try to adapt the cover letter to each employer. This is important, first of all, for the applicant himself, because there is no such thing as a letter that will appeal to everyone. Even similar positions in a company differ in some ways, and the candidate must match each position.

Mistake 2: Opening with “Dear Sir/Madam”

Start the letter by referring to the addressee by name. Using profiles on social networks, take a few minutes to get acquainted with HR, and try to use this information effectively.

Mistake 3: Focusing on Tasks over Achievements

Companies are interested in the results you have achieved, not a list of tasks that you performed. It is better to relate one successfully completed project than to waste the personnel manager’s time by listing all of your work-related skills.

I wrote, “I developed applications for projects X and Y. In concert with this, I came up with my own action plan for the project and reduced the time spent working on the application by 30%.”

I’ve mentioned two specific results here. This demonstrates initiative, productivity, and the ability to perform an analysis of one's own work.

A Few More Tips on Writing Your Cover Letter

Take a look at the website of the company where you’re applying for job. Get a sense of the writing style, and try to use the same style in your own letter. This in itself will let the manager know that you’re on the same page.

Mention your hobbies and things you’re interested in. There is always the chance you’ll win over the HR department, if not with your specific interests, then maybe with your active lifestyle. And don’t be afraid to toot your own trumpet and explain why you’re the best candidate for the role.

You’ve Been Invited to Interview! Here’s What to Do Next

An interview in a foreign language is not necessarily a reason to panic.

Try not to give in to your emotions, and be yourself. The interviewer will most likely be more interested in hearing about your skills and achievements than looking for minor errors in pronunciation and verb forms.

The best thing you can do is prepare yourself for questions that are likely to come up. Let’s take a look at some of those.

Make Sure You Have Answers Prepared to These Typical Interview Questions

In order to get ready for the interview and be less nervous, be prepared for questions such as:

“Tell us about yourself.”

This is usually asked at the very beginning of the interview. In order to make as few mistakes as possible when speaking, try to be succinct. Emphasize your work experience, education, and hobbies. Speak confidently and show interest in the conversation, as if you are talking to a friend. But don’t forget to be respectful.

“Where do you see yourself in…years?”

In response to the recruiter's question about your plans for the next few years, try to talk about your ambitions. Of course, you need to consider the goals of the employer. For example, if there is the potential to become a future marketing manager, a good response would be, “I hope to become the marketing director of one of your future branches.”

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Here you can leave out the details about your ability to drink three beers at once or your fear of cars. Emphasize your strengths which will appeal to the employer, such as diligence and punctuality. With regard to weaknesses, focus on something neutral, for example, altruism, perfectionism, or the need to be better than everyone else — and explain how it can also be a strength.

“Can you give me an example of a time when you … and how you dealt with that?”

This question is becoming more and more common. It is asked to understand how well you manage stress and your ability to cope in difficult situations. Think of an instance when a problem arose in your company and you succeeded in quickly getting it under control.

“What are your salary expectations?”

You never know how a potential employer will react to a specific amount. So instead of giving a direct answer, mention your salaries from previous jobs. You can return to the question of money when the conversation turns to the details of the job or future work. Just say: ”Can we discuss this later if you decide to make me an offer?” For overseas companies, an acceptable answer would be, for example, “In my experience, $38,000-$45,000 per year is a typical salary for this role”.

“Do you have any questions for us?”

This is one of the final questions which will be asked during the interview, and is intended to determine your level of initiative. Ask about training opportunities at the company, interesting projects which are currently underway, the work schedule, and the potential to develop your career. It would be better to prepare these questions in advance to make sure they are worded correctly.

3 Phrases to Help You Win Over an Employer

“I am a multitasker”

You don’t necessarily have to be a one-man orchestra to call yourself a multitasker. You just need to mention a couple of situations where you had to do several tasks on the same project or replace a colleague from another department during his absence.

What employers want to see is that you can adapt yourself to different situations.

“I’m always eager to learn”

Even the most talented people need some training in a new job. Let the recruiter know that you are willing to use your own personal time to learn new things related to the job. You can even share your experience of learning a foreign language or mention other self-study projects.

“I’m looking for the chance to progress”

If your resume did not focus on a specific project, then the future employer, most likely, plans to work with you for a long time. Tell him about your plans for growth and development within the company. This will convince him of the seriousness of your intentions.

What About Job Interviews by Skype?

When preparing for an interview using Skype, make sure you know the local accent and colloquialisms for the country where your interviewer is from. It can be helpful to watch videos on YouTube that will help you to distinguish different accents, and this will help you to properly understand the interviewer’s manner of speaking.

Before the interview, check all of the settings on the computer. The camera should be positioned so that the interviewer sees you just as he would if you were sitting across from him. Eliminate all possible sources of noise: turn off the radio and TV, send children out for a walk (with an appropriate adult!), and lock pets in another room. You need to be able to fully concentrate on the questions asked by the potential employer. Believe me, not every HR manager will want to sit there and smile at the chaos in your house, waiting until you deal with the problems and return to the conversation.

More Tips and Tricks to Ace Your Job Interview in a Non-Native Language

If there are language clubs in your city, go to a few meetings. Only real, active conversations with native speakers will teach you to properly react to intonation and answer readily and properly. You can also ask others there to rehearse an interview with you, thereby preparing you for even the most unexpected subjects that could come up.

If during interview you find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation – for example, if you do not understand the question of the interviewer, or if a joke he told is not funny – start improvising. Remember all those uncomfortable situations from the movies that main characters find themselves in, and apply them in practical ways. The most important thing to do on an interview is to focus on your strengths. In the TV show Suits, one of the main characters was able to land a position as a lawyer in leading firm because of his outstanding memory.

Here is a trick that I have used: If I don’t understand a question and I can’t quickly give an answer, I simply say: “I didn't catch that. Could you repeat the question?” Remember, there’s no shame in being honest.

What if you don’t have the vocabulary to answer a question, or your mind goes blank? While it’s always better to answer questions where you can, a useful strategy here is “switching”. This is where you reflect the question back to the interviewer. For example, you could say “Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by that?” This puts the focus back onto the interview, and gives you some time to gather your thoughts.

If your internet connection is playing up, say that there is a bad connection (“I have a problem with my Internet connection. Please repeat your question.”). In fact, this can be to your advantage. It has given me the opportunity to glance at the notes that I made beforehand and find clues, or look at my printed resume (so I can easily return to questions about my previous employment).

And I have attached useful phrases to the wall above the computer so I’m not looking all over the place in order to come up with an answer.

Try to speak slowly, and don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer to do the same. Often people think that a person knows a foreign language well if he speaks it quickly. But the phrase “Fools rush in” is directly applicable to interviews. Your chance of blowing it in the eyes of the interviewer is especially high when you are speaking his own language. Additionally, if you speak a bit more slowly, you’ll have a little more time to think about the questions you’re asked. And appropriately placed pauses will help to emphasize key thoughts and ideas.

Learn more about the history of the company you want to work for. What inspired the creation of it? Who was there at the very beginning? Learn about its products and services, and read reviews about it. Be ready to talk about your first impressions upon being introduced to the company.

Resources to Help You Prepare for Job Interviews

Here are some good online resources to will help you prepare for job interviews in any language, but particularly in English:

  • The University of Kent, one of Britain’s leading universities, outlines potential interview questions (and how to answer them) for those who are looking for their first job;
  • The British Council website has collected dozens of podcasts about marketing, PR, biotechnology, medicine, motivation, job search, and management;
  • Ronnie, who will teach you not only how to swear in English (don’t do that when you’re applying for a job!), but also how to get through an interview.

The most difficult part of a job interview in a foreign language is making the decision to embark on this adventure. People who rarely speak another language in everyday life find it especially difficult to imagine that, considering their poor communication skills, they will be understood by the interviewer. But in fact, interviewers are often willing to work with potential employees and give them time for in-depth study of the language after they are hired.

author headshot

Tania Viezhys

Journalist and traveler

Tania Viezhys is a digital nomad who went on a 2-month trip which turned into a 122 week adventure. She is still traveling while working for an international tutoring platform Preply.

Speaks: English, German, Ukrainian, Russian

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