According to a recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the U.S. for people holding a bachelor’s degree or higher is 2% as of October 2018. That means that if you’ve graduated from a four-year program, the odds are pretty good you will be able to land a job. However, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a job that lines up with your studies.
It’s no secret that employers prefer job candidates with relevant professional experience. But you’re still in school. How do you get that experience? How do you become qualified if it takes experience to qualify for a job? It’s kind of a dizzying Catch-22, but there is one good answer: internships. A good internship gives you relevant, real-world experience in your desired field, preparing you for professional success, as well as adding a valuable line to your résumé. As it happens, plenty of degree programs require internships as part of their curriculum. That means in some cases, unless you find a legit internship, you won’t be walking away with a degree.
All things considered, you don’t want to miss out on landing a great internship. But how do you start your search, and how do you make sure you’ll get the experience you actually need instead of just earning college credits to be somebody’s underappreciated gopher? Worry not; we have the answers below.
It’s worth pointing out that many of the tips offered here also apply to finding a great full-time job. Take note, and try to think of your internship search and interviews as practice for the real thing.
Get Ahead of It
If you want to find a great college internship, you need to start your search early. Most universities require students to be registered for classes at least two months prior to the coming semester, and many businesses that offer internships need interns confirmed even before that. Don’t sleep on it; if you think you want to pursue an internship, or if you need internship credit to complete your degree program, the sooner you get started, the better. Even if you don’t need to be signed up for awhile, it’s never too soon to start navigating the internship landscape.
Keep it Relevant
It’s majorly important to make sure that you’re looking for internships that actually match your professional interests. Don’t just do an internship to say you did it or to satisfy a college credit requirement. An internship playing with baby animals at the local zoo sounds really great, but if you’re earning a degree in finance, it won’t do a whole lot for building your résumé or developing field knowledge. Before you begin your search, take some time to assess your goals, interests, and skills (and if you need help, ask a trusted figure in your life or a professor who knows you well). Write your goals out on a big sheet of paper (or type and print them if that’s your thing). Put your goals somewhere clearly visible in your room or workspace. Let these goals remain always at the front of your mind. Build your internship search along these lines, and when you come across a potential match, ask yourself: “How does this align with my skills, interests, and goals?” If you can’t come up with a solid answer, move on to the next one.
Network at Every Chance You Get
Any successful professional will tell you: networking is key to success. Do not attempt to go it alone. You can’t do everything yourself. If you want to find a great college internship, you need to network, network, network. Start in your immediate vicinity by talking to your college department advisor, internship coordinator, and (if there is one available) a college career counselor. They should be able to offer some leads, but don’t stop there. It never hurts to network (for any reason), and opportunities can come from anywhere. Talk to your professors, your peers, your friends, and your family. Don’t be afraid to mine every angle for networking opportunities: personal connections, career fairs, networking events, and even the old-fashioned “cold call.” And don’t forget about online networking. Now might be a good time to set up and flesh out your LinkedIn profile.
Nail the Cover Letter
In the majority of situations, the cover letter will be an employer’s first impression of a potential intern; make sure it’s a good one. Remember, you probably need them more than they need you, but you want to convince them it’s the other way around. Write to their interests and needs, and build yourself up as an ideal candidate without sounding full of yourself. Write it to a specific person (search the company’s website for somebody relevant to your inquiry). Be brief, get right to the point, and, of course, keep it clean! Finally, remember to revise it thoroughly. For more advice on this subject, check out our expert Cover Letter Tips.
Get your Résumé in Shape
Your résumé backs up the loads of fantastic claims you made about yourself in your cover letter. Hopefully they’re not too fantastic and can be easily verified; if not, see the previous tip. Without a well-written, attractive résumé, you very likely will not get the internship that you want. Like the cover letter, keep it clean, relevant to the job, and brief. Don’t make things up about yourself to sound cool, but don’t underplay your own talents and abilities either. Develop your résumé in an industry-standard style, and be sure to revise it before submitting. Ask for help from someone you trust or from your university writing center whether or not you think you need a second opinion. For more advice on this subject, check out these tried and true Résumé Tips.
Follow the Application Guidelines
Every company and organization that you might consider applying for an internship with will have its own set of guidelines on how to apply. These guidelines mostly help the employer keep track of the applications and prioritize specific qualifying criteria among applicants. In doing so,the guidelines also help the employer quickly weed out undesirable applicants. Whether applying for an internship, a full-time job, or a degree program, the quickest way to get bucked from the running is to ignore application guidelines. If you want to apply somewhere, read the guidelines, then read them again. After you have your résumé, cover letter, references, transcripts, and recommendation letters together and are all confident and ready to apply, read those guidelines one more time and make sure they don’t also require a blood sample.
Prep for the Interview
Ah, the dreaded interview, the final barrier between you and success (unless you have to do multiple rounds of interviews, in which case we feel for you). It’s easy to feel anxious about interviews, but in all honesty, they’re not worth fearing. The thing that can make or break you here is, just like running a marathon or freestyle swimming with sharks, failure to prepare. Be your (professional) self. Anticipate questions you might encounter and practice answers. Know what you want to say about yourself and make sure it is professional and not boastful. Dress appropriately, don’t wear perfume or cologne, and try to make them laugh. Know what your résumé says, in case you get quizzed on it. Also, remember: the interview process for an intern will be significantly less strenuous than for a potential full-time employee. Some internship application processes, we should point out, are a little less formal and may be all interview. This is especially common in creative fields (more of an art than a science, one might joke). For more advice on this subject, check out our handy Interview Tips.
It’s Not All About the Benjamins
Some internships pay, but that’s not exactly standard practice. Typically the structure is this: a business or organization provides students with professional and educational field experience in exchange for free labor. If you can find a paying internship that meets your needs: great. Most don’t offer pay however, and having “paid labor” at the top of your internship criteria is a bad idea for two big reasons. First, you will be severely limiting your choices, and as a result you might miss out on a great experience. Secondly, the pay won’t be great anyway, so holding out for a paid position isn’t going to do a whole lot for your wallet. Again, paid work can be a good thing, but don’t let holding out for cash hold you back.
Leave No (Virtual) Stone Unturned
In your search for a great internship, don’t limit yourself to old-fashioned methods. Traditional networking (mentioned above) is a great start, but don’t forget: you live in a time where everything is rapidly changing, thanks directly to the Internet. Career fairs, as we have covered elsewhere, can offer some useful networking opportunities, and might help you understand the lay of the land, but probably won’t lead to a great job (or internship). Get online, and utilize the vast array of tools that are available, including job search sites, as well as internship-specific sites. Below are a few good options to check out.
Embrace the Shrinking Map
Speaking of the Internet: the world is shrinking, and the Internet is to blame. That’s not a bad thing though; not only is it easier now to connect with people around the world than ever before, it’s also easier to find jobs that fit your needs and abilities. Remote work is on the rise, in large part because with technological advances like cloud computing, companies simply don’t need all of their workers clustered under one roof. When you’re searching for internships, don’t overlook remote work. There are plenty of lucrative jobs to be found that are just as professional and legitimate as traditional office jobs, and if remote work is an option in your field, it could be an ideal path for you. Of course, remote work isn’t possible in every field, but for many (especially in business, marketing, and tech fields) it is becoming more and more common.
Maybe you’ve found an available internship with a dream employer who is leading the field and pushing the envelope in every way you can imagine, you meet all of the qualifications, and they’ve even offered you a spot. Let yourself be excited and proud, but don’t commit just yet. Remember, the primary goal of an internship is to give you professional experience relevant to your goals within your field. Unfortunately, not all internships are created equal, and you shouldn’t settle for just anything. The reality is that some internships can just wind up wasting your time. If you’re studying pharmacy and go into an internship expecting to work closely with scientists in a lab developing new medicine, and instead you wind up spending all of your time fetching coffee and lunch for your supervisor, you’re not getting the experience you signed up for. As you pick places to apply, be demanding of prospective employers, and make sure you’re going to get your time’s worth. Ask them specific questions about your duties and workload, and don’t be afraid to ask others who work there or have interned there. If it doesn’t pass the test, move on; there is always something else for you.
Internships can be a great way to prepare for your post-college career, and to beef up your résumé. While finding and landing one can be stressful, it doesn’t have to be. Remember, there are opportunities everywhere, you just need to look, network, and don’t give up or settle. Know what you want, make a plan, and go get it. The above tips should help you pull it off.
Learn more about Career Opportunities in your field, check out our Create A Career page to get started!