How are you planning to spend your summer break? Since you’re reading this website, I assume you plan to do more than just sit on the couch eating cheese puffs. You want to make your summer count.
Plus, everyone is telling you that you need to get an internship: your parents, professors, and maybe even your friends. But how the heck are you supposed to find an internship? It’s not as simple as signing up for a class or getting a job at the local supermarket.
However, it’s completely doable, especially if you follow the steps in this guide. So below, I’m going to take you through the entire process of finding and getting an internship that will help you further your education and professional prospects.
If you’re reading this article, you probably already realize the value of doing an internship. But just in case you need further convincing, let me tell you why doing an internship is so essential.
Back when my parents were in college, having a degree was enough to guarantee you a good job upon graduation. So few people had college degrees that having one was a mark of distinction.
These days, however, having a degree isn’t enough. When every applicant for a job has at least a college degree, companies need other ways to sort through applicants. Often, this means prioritizing applicants who have real-world experience. And when you’re in college, doing an internship is the best way to get this experience.
Plus, internships let you start building your professional network. The contacts you make during an internship can serve as references for later job applications, or even make the introduction you need to get a job.
Convinced of the benefits of doing an internship? Then let’s look at how to get one.
If I could give just one piece of advice about how to get an internship, it would be this: start planning early.
Many students struggle to get an internship not because they aren’t qualified, but because they start searching too late.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in classes and everything happening on campus that you don’t start thinking about an internship until the spring semester.
But if you’re hoping to do an internship in the summer, this is usually too late; all the application deadlines have already passed.
If you want to do an internship in the summer, then you should start searching for one in the fall of the previous year. This gives you plenty of time to find an internship, put together your application, and use all the resources you have to maximize your chances of getting accepted.
Before you start looking for an internship, I recommend brushing up on your job application fundamentals. These are the materials you need to apply for any job, internship or otherwise. If you don’t have these already, then there’s no time like the present; you’ll need them eventually.
To apply for most internships, you’ll need the following:
- Cover letter
- References (and sometimes a letter of recommendation)
- LinkedIn profile (some companies will ask for this in place of a resume)
Don’t have these? The following guides will help you put them together:
- How to Write a Winning Resume
- How to Write a Cover Letter
- How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation and References
- The Ultimate Guide to LinkedIn for Students
And of course, once you apply, you’ll need to tailor your resume, cover letter, and references/letter of recommendation to the specific internship.
This is yet another reason that you should start early: putting together these materials can take time.
Letters of recommendation, in particular, require a lot of lead time since they involve asking a busy professor, coach, or someone else who knows you well to take the time to write a letter.
If you wait too long, then they may not have enough lead time to write one at all (let alone one that will help you get the internship).
Okay, so you’ve put together your application materials. Now, you need to actually find the internship. But where should you look? Here are my recommendations:
Without a doubt, your college’s office of career planning is the place to begin your internship search.
Not only can they show you where to find an internship relevant to your major/interests, but they can also help you with the application process. This includes critiquing your resume, helping you draft a cover letter, and conducting practice interviews.
It’s literally these people’s job to help you succeed professionally, so don’t neglect this resource. And to reiterate: career planning will be able to help you best if you talk to them early.
If you want to do an internship in the coming summer, go to career planning as soon as the fall semester starts. They’ll be much more helpful early in the fall than in the final weeks of the spring semester.
The career planning office is a great place to start your internship search, but it’s far from the only place to look. Another great place to find internship opportunities is the career fair.
No matter where you go to college, there’s likely a career fair near you. Large universities often have them on campus, bringing in representatives of companies across industries. Your specific department may also have smaller, more tailored career fairs. And even if there isn’t a career fair on campus, there’s probably one you can attend in the nearest major city.
Career fairs are a great way to find internships because companies are there to find new talent. If you can make a good impression, then you may be able to bypass the application process (or at least parts of it).
For more advice on how to use the career fair to your advantage, check out this guide.
Career fairs are a great place to get face time with recruiters, but they can be crowded with hundreds of other students trying to do the same. For this reason, I also recommend checking out local networking events as part of your internship search.
Typically, these events are aimed at working professionals looking to connect with each other. But there’s nothing to stop you from attending as a student (unless the event specifically says so).
While networking events aren’t necessarily full of people looking to hire interns, they’re also less crowded (and often more casual) than career fairs. If you put yourself out there and make it clear that you’re looking to learn, you just might meet someone who could either hire you as an intern or connect you with someone who could.
You may be able to find your internship without even leaving campus. After all, one way to view college is a giant networking event happening 24/7. If you can meet the right people, then you could end up with an internship.
This is exactly how I got my summer research internship in the English department. Quite by accident, I met a student who was serving as the professor’s current research assistant.
We ended up becoming friends, and through her I learned that one of the English professors was hiring a research assistant for the following summer.
After going to a couple of English department events and networking with the professor who was hiring, I had a big advantage when I actually applied for the position.
Now, you could argue that all of this was just luck. And while luck was involved, I was also paying attention to the opportunities around me.
Your campus is different, of course, but you could still ask your advisor, favorite professor, or another person on campus if they know anyone looking to hire an intern.
When you’re looking for an internship, it’s easy to overlook the people who know you better than anyone else. But don’t rule out your family members during your search. Ask both your immediate and extended family members if they know anyone who’s hiring interns.
If you can, be specific about the company or industry that you’d like to intern with. This way, they can give you more tailored help.
And don’t rule out family friends, either. These people can often be more helpful than your family since they have a broader network that overlaps less with yours.
Sometimes, the best way to get an internship is to go directly to the source. If there’s a company that you really admire and want to learn from, then reach out directly and ask if you can intern there.
Of course, you need to make a good case for yourself. You can’t just say, “Give me a job plz,” as that’s not very compelling.
Instead, write an email telling the company why you admire them and what you can offer them. Make it clear that you’re looking to learn, but also that you want to help. Try to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.
Here’s a template you can use (be sure to adapt it to the specific company that you’re reaching out to):
Dear [CONTACT PERSON AT COMPANY],
My name is [YOUR NAME]. I’m a [YEAR IN COLLEGE, WHAT YOU’RE MAJORING IN, WHERE YOU’RE FROM, ETC.]. I really admire the work you’re doing with [SPECIFIC THING THE COMPANY DOES THAT YOU ADMIRE]. It has inspired me to [WHATEVER YOU’VE LEARNED FROM THE COMPANY].
With the summer approaching, I’m looking to gain professional experience and learn outside of the classroom. Since your company excels in [INDUSTRY THAT THE COMPANY WORKS IN], I was wondering if I’d be able to spend some time around the office learning more about [WHATEVER COMPANY DOES].
I’d be happy to help with the following:
- [WHATEVER YOU THINK YOU CAN HELP WITH]
So you know that you won’t have to hold my hand, here are some things that make me qualified to help you:
- [ANYTHING IMPRESSIVE/RELEVANT THAT YOU’VE DONE OR LEARNED]
Thank you for being such an inspiration, and I hope to talk further soon.
There’s no guarantee this approach will work; many companies don’t have the resources or interest to hire an intern.
But if you try this enough, you’ll at least make some valuable professional connections, one of which could turn into an internship or even a full-time job.
While it can be impressive to have an internship at a big company on your resume, there can be just as much (or even more) value in interning at a smaller, local company.
To start, internships at small companies typically have fewer applicants, which increases your chances of getting the job. You can’t say the same of an internship at a large corporation, which could have hundreds or even thousands of applicants.
Plus, you may get more out of an internship at a smaller company. Because the company is small, you have more chances to work closely with executives and other people who could serve as valuable resources later on.
And since the company has fewer employees, you may get to take on more responsibilities than an intern at a large company.
It’s Up to You
While you should use all the resources at your disposal, remember that it’s no one’s job to find an internship for you.
You have to do it yourself. And it can be a long, sometimes frustrating process. So start early and be diligent!
So you’ve found some internships that interest you. Unless you were somehow able to bypass the application process (see the previous section), it’s now time to apply.
Usually, these applications are much like any other job application. I already covered the essential materials you should have prepared (resume, cover letter, references, etc.), but I want to address a few additional challenges that can come up when applying for an internship.
Read and Follow All Instructions
If you can’t follow the instructions on an internship application, then how can a company trust you with bigger responsibilities?
This is the mentality you should have when filling out your application. Follow all of the instructions to the letter. Otherwise, your application will get rejected before anyone has had a chance to read it.
Here are some mistakes to watch out for:
- Not including required materials — Read and re-read the job posting for everything you need to include.
- Not answering “optional” questions — “Optional” questions aren’t really optional if you want the job. They’re a way to see if you’re willing to put in extra effort.
- Submitting documents in the wrong format — For instance, don’t include your resume as a Word document if the company asks for a PDF.
- Misspelling the company’s name — This happens way more often than you’d think. Check the company’s website to be sure you’re spelling their name correctly. This is especially important for start-ups/tech companies with unusual spellings.
In addition to the above, please proofread your application. Grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and typos make a very unprofessional impression.
What If I Don’t Have Any Experience?
The classic job-hunting paradox for college students is: “I need experience to get a job, but a job is the only way to get experience.”
The whole reason for doing an internship is to make sure this doesn’t happen to you when you graduate. But even when you’re applying for an internship, you’ll still have to talk about your experience.
You may think you don’t have experience since you’ve never had a “real” job, but that isn’t true. While you may not have much work experience, you do have many other experiences you can talk about.
- Extracurriculars (bonus points if you’ve held a leadership rule)
- On-campus jobs
- Other part-time jobs
- Freelance work
- Any projects you’ve done on your own (if relevant to the internship)
Get Someone to Review Your Application
Once you’re done with your application, get someone to review it. Career planning, once again, is your friend. They have professionals who can check your application to make it more compelling, as well as ensure it’s free of errors.
If you really want to be proactive, then find someone who works in the industry of the company where you’re applying and ask them to review it.
Career planning can likely connect you with an alum who would be happy to help you (as long as you give them enough notice). The phrase “I’m a student” is powerfully persuasive.
If you’ve gotten to the interview phase, congrats! Now, you need to seal the deal and convince the company that you’re the right person for the job. Here are some tips for a successful interview:
Do a Practice Interview
Also called a “mock interview,” these are a great way to make the actual interview less nerve-wracking.
Your career planning office likely offers these, and they’re useful for pinpointing any areas of improvement before the real interview. They’re also a good time to familiarize yourself with common interview questions.
Dress for Success
Office dress codes are more casual today than ever, but you should still dress your best when you go to the interview. Usually, this means dressing in “business professional” attire.
For many of you, this could be the first time you’ve needed to dress up that much. So plan ahead and be sure you have professional clothes (that fit) before the interview. And wear this same attire to your practice interview so that you can get tips on any needed sartorial improvements.
If you’re unsure what constitutes “business professional” attire, this guide from The Balance gives a great overview (including pictures).
Finally, remember that it’s better to be overdressed for an interview than underdressed. If the company turns out to have a more casual dress code, you can always adopt that once you get the internship.
The Interview Starts When You Walk in the Door
You may think that “the interview” only describes the time you spend sitting in a room talking with the hiring manager. But in reality, the interview starts the moment you walk into the company’s office and doesn’t end until you leave.
For this reason, you should treat every interaction you have at the company as part of the interview. This includes the conversation you have with the receptionist and anyone who gives you a tour of the office. Rest assured, the person doing the hiring will talk to these people when making their decision.
It’s not difficult, though. Just be a polite, decent person, and you’ll be fine.
Relax and Be Confident
Once you’re in the interview room, try to relax and be confident.
This is easier said than done, but try to project confident body language. Sit up straight, don’t fidget, and make eye contact.
View the interview not as an interrogation, but as a conversation between two people deciding if they should work together. Remember that the person giving the interview is under just as much pressure as you.
Go Beyond Your Resume
If you’re new to job interviews, it’s tempting to just regurgitate everything from your resume and cover letter.
But the goal of an interview is to show the interviewer things they couldn’t learn from reading your application. So go beyond the statistics and documents.
Instead of just telling them that you did X thing as part of Y organization, for instance, tell a story that shows how you overcame a challenge or took the initiative.
Send a Post-Interview Thank You Note
So you made a great impression in the interview — wonderful! Now, it’s a good idea to send a thank you note to the person who interviewed you. This is a polite gesture that most applicants won’t think of, so it can really make you stand out in a good way.
Additionally, consider sending a thank you note to anyone who gave you a tour of the office or otherwise helped you out while you were there. If you’re not sure how to write a thank you note, here’s a guide.
Before I wrap up this guide, I want to address some common questions about internships. Many of these are questions I had when I was in college, or ones that we frequently get from current students.
Should I do an unpaid internship?
In general, I’m against unpaid internships. While I don’t think companies should have to pay interns as much as full-time employees with more experience, they should still pay them for their work.
However, use your discretion. If the company is very prestigious or offers really valuable connections that could lead to a great job after graduation, then it could be worth it. Just be sure you’re able to support yourself while you do the internship.
For more thoughts on unpaid internships, check out this podcast episode.
How many internships should I do?
Ideally, I think you should aim to do two. When you do them is up to you, though I think it’s realistic to do one in the summer after your sophomore year and one in the summer after your junior year (if your schedule permits). If you can do more, great.
Should I take off a semester to do an internship?
Maybe. But consider how it will affect your class schedule and graduation timeline. If you take a semester off to do an internship, then you might need to spend an extra semester finishing your degree (unless the internship counts for credit).
In some situations, it could be worth it even if you need to take extra time to graduate. For instance, I have a friend who took two semesters off to do an internship at Dow. This made sense because he got paid to do the internship and it ended up getting him a great engineering job when he graduated.
If you have an opportunity like this, then it could be smart to take some time off from school. But be sure to discuss it with your advisor before making a decision.
Should I get a summer job or do an internship?
In an ideal world, everyone would be able to spend an entire summer doing a full-time internship.
However, I recognize that this isn’t always practical. For instance, if you need to spend the summer working in order to pay for tuition or living expenses, I would never suggest taking an internship instead (unless the internship pays enough).
Plus, there are some summer jobs that could be just as valuable as an internship. One of my good friends, who’s now a teacher, spent several summers working at day camps for elementary school students. This gave him experience that would later be relevant to his teaching career.
Finally, remember that summer isn’t the only time to do an internship. There are many internships that you can do part-time during the semester. These internships can give you the same valuable experience while still allowing you to spend the summers working or taking additional classes.
If you want to get a good job when you graduate, then you need to do an internship. They offer real-world experience that you just can’t get inside the classroom.
Now that you’ve read this guide, you know the steps you need to get an internship that will serve your career goals.
So what are you waiting for? Start looking for your internship ASAP.
Want to make the most of your internship? Read this guide next.
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