The Peace Corps formed more than 50 years ago to send Americans abroad to volunteer. From movie references to famous former volunteers, PostTV takes a look at "the toughest job you'll ever love." (Gillian Brockell, Jhaan Elker, and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

Applications to the Peace Corps have surged to a two-decade high after a series of recent reforms to the recruitment process at the country’s signature volunteer organization, officials said Tuesday.

More than 17,000 people submitted applications to the Peace Corps this year, an increase of more than 70 percent compared with 2013. The 17,336 new applicants in fiscal 2014 make up the largest field of candidates since 1992, when 17,438 applied.

“This milestone reminds us that Americans today want to serve others and make a difference, and we are making great strides to reduce barriers to service and modernize the Peace Corps,” director Carrie ­Hessler-Radelet said in a statement.

The Peace Corps, established in 1961, is in the midst of a reformation under ­Hessler-Radelet, who took the helm of the organization in June and, to attract more applicants, has focused on reducing the amount of red tape they must face.

In the half-century since its inception, the Peace Corps has sent more than 215,000 Americans overseas — to far-flung locales such as Madagascar and Macedonia — to perform good works on behalf of the U.S. government. But interest in the agency has fallen in recent years to record lows, with 10,118 applicants in 2013, a decline of 44 percent since applications last peaked in 1979 at 18,159.

Serving in the Peace Corps

In July, Hessler-Radelet announced a top-down revision of the recruitment process, calling it “the most extensive reform effort our agency has ever undertaken.”

Beginning this year, candidates could choose the country where they want to serve and their program specialty, such as education or health. The new application also was streamlined, allowing candidates to complete their packet within an hour, far less than the eight hours or more that was previously necessary. Overall, the year-long application process was shortened to six months.

“We want to make it simpler, faster and more personal than ever before,” Hessler-Radelet said in July. “We don’t want to make our application a barrier to entry.”

The process was seen as so mired in bureaucracy that last year less than a quarter of all candidates completed their applications; more than 30,000 applicants dropped out before finishing. Under the new guidelines, 95 percent of candidates finish the application, Peace Corps officials said Tuesday.

The changes proved quickly popular, with applications surging 400 percent in July compared with July 2013. Officials said many applicants take advantage of the new process, with about 46 percent of all candidates now choosing where they want to serve.

The new recruitment process was part of a larger modernization effort at the Peace Corps. In 2013, the organization allowed same-sex couples to serve together abroad for the first time. The Peace Corps also instituted new programs to prevent sexual assault after accounts of violence surfaced in news reports.

The Peace Corps, with a $379 million annual budget, sends volunteers to more than 65 countries to perform two-year projects including building bathrooms in Senegal and teaching nutrition to villagers in Togo.

The Peace Corps has sent 215,000 people abroad

Peace Corps facts

The Peace Corps, established on March 1, 1961, sends U.S. citizens abroad to perform service projects, which volunteers have performed in 139 countries. Today, there are 65 host countries and the agency has a $379 million budget. Click above to see a snapshot of today's Peace Corps. Read more about the Peace Corps.

“There is great demand for Peace Corps volunteers around the world, and our reforms have better positioned us to offer assignments where volunteers have the most interest in serving and are able to make the greatest contribution,” Hessler-Radelet said.