It pains me to think of today’s college students. College is becoming more and more of a requirement to getting an above-minimum wage job, yet it’s being sold as a summer camp. And even if you’ve got your head buried in your books and you’re pulling through with decent grades, it doesn’t guarantee you a job.
We’ll dive into the failings of the American school system another day, but for now I’d like to dive into a topic that I know strikes fear into so many young hearts: internships.
The thing is, internships are the only real way to separate yourself from the pack. Your employer doesn’t care if you graduated summa cum laude. They also won’t think all that much of your teacher recommendations. Academia is a different world from the workplace.
Your employer doesn’t care about your accolades. They care about your experience.
Think about your average mid-level manager who’s looking to fill out their team. They’re stressed about keeping on top of their work while keeping morale high. When they’re looking for a new hire, they want it to be as easy as possible. Do they want to train them up? Maybe in theory, but in reality, hell no. They want a miracle candidate. Someone who’s done the work already, but also someone who’s eager to learn more.
In an overly bookish education system, internships are often the only way to get hired by certain companies as a new grad.
My first full-time position came after interning with a large marketing agency in Arizona. One of my duties was, ironically enough, managing the intern program and hiring interns myself. I’ve interfaced with a lot of managers in search of interns, so I have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for (spoiler: many of them aren’t sure themselves).
Here are four things you need to know about how to get an internship.
1) Focus on the industry, not the job
You might know what you want to do for the rest of your life. But most people don’t. And most people who think they know also don’t.
So what’s an internship-seeker to do? Instead of hemming and hawing over which internships to apply for, just go big picture. Match an industry with a skill set.
For example, I knew my skill set was writing. I had interests in marine biology, marketing, and Japanese. Considering I couldn’t speak Japanese fluently, and I lived in the middle of a desert, marketing looked like my best bet. And guess what? I’m still doing it. I’m figuring out each day what aspects of this industry attract me the most, and I’m orienting my career toward them.
2) Internship websites kinda suck
If you have the opportunity to apply to an internship through someone you know, or through a less-popular internship website, or directly through a company’s Career page, do it. It’ll be much more effective.
However, if you’re forced to search on internship websites, be prepared for some heavy competition. Websites like Internships.com, Looksharp, and Indeed.com are all going to be the go-to spots for eager job seekers. This does not mean you should ignore them—just know that a resume isn’t going to cut it.
3) By the way, your resume probably won’t cut it, regardless
I remember one application I received during my time managing the intern program. It was a nice resume with a touch of color, and it was accompanied by a page-long cover letter.
I considered it, then put it to the side. Things got busy. A week or two letter, I received an equally long letter from the applicant following up on the resume. I was floored. Their resume wasn’t anything spectacular, but the letters set them far apart.
Not only had they taken the time to write, but it was good writing—and I knew our marketing department was looking for a blogging intern. Bada boom, we gave them the job.
Resumes are just part of the battle. You want it to meet the minimum criteria, such as focusing on the results of each position instead of your responsibilities, and formatting it attractively. What wins you the job is the something extra. A winning cover letter, a portfolio of relevant work, a website that demonstrates your abilities. Something to make you memorable.
My memorable thing? I started a blog. That blog no longer exists, but it was enough to showcase my writing and budding interest in marketing. If you can demonstrate that you can already do the position they’re hiring for, choosing you will be a no-brainer.
4) If the doors seem closed, get some face time
I’ll never forget an amazing gal who applied one summer. She lived out of state, but had some extended family living locally. She wanted to intern with the agency.
Her resume was strong and she seemed very well-spoken in her emails, making her a perfect candidate for a client-facing role. I arranged an interview with one of our departments. It was a video call, and it went great. At the end, the department head thought she was very capable, but didn’t think she was the right fit. I delivered the bad news, the applicant was very gracious, and it was over.
But two weeks later, I get another email from her. She was planning to visit Phoenix for a week, and she was wondering if she could stop by the agency and shadow for a day? It was an unprecedented request, but after some hemming and hawing, everyone seemed game. I set her up to shadow with two different teams—the client-facing department she had interviewed with, and a more technical team.
By the end of the shadowing, both departments told me they wanted her to join them. The candidate who was originally rejected actually had multiple department heads fighting to hire her!
Shadowing is not a possibility in many companies. However, trust me when I say that most mid-sized businesses (and even many large ones) don’t have a set-in-stone hiring process. As a job seeker, this is a golden opportunity. Show your personality and get some face time with the managers. It works.
5) Paid internships ARE possible
They aren’t possible for everyone. However, do everything you can to seek a paid internship before settling for an unpaid one. You’re doing work. You deserve to get paid. Not all companies see it that way, and that’s a serious shame. But some do, and you want to find them.
If there’s a paid internship in your industry/skill of choice, give it your all. A paid internship is a real job. You learn real things and do real work because the company doesn’t want to waste their money. If you’re not paid, you’re much more liable to be left to the side.
Not always. But it’s more likely.
6) Specialize, kick ass, and/or be likable
To gain a salaried position after your internship, you must do at least two of the three things above.
If you specialize and kick ass, you prove your excellence even if you’re boring of kind of a jerk.
If you specialize and you’re likable, people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you’ll improve over time.
And if you kick ass and you’re likable, everyone will think you can do anything.
I’ve seen all combinations succeed. On the other hand, if you have just one of these traits, you never communicate your value. No one cares if you’re a specialist who’s a half-skilled asshole. If you’re good at a few different things but you’re a wallflower, no one will know where to put you. And if you’re unskilled but likable, you’ll just make your manager feel bad when they tell you your internship’s done.
Getting an internship is freakin’ hard.
It’s gonna take some ingenuity, dedication, and a healthy dose of dumb luck. Don’t let that deter you. At this point in your life, every opportunity has something valuable to teach you. So throw yourself out there, say a few prayers, and let me know what comes back.
Image by Faustin Tuyambaze, used under CC Zero.
Also published on Medium.