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Finding an Internship and Making the Most of It

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Twenty years ago internships for college students were rather unusual and considered an after-thought.  But the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2010 Student Survey reported that 63% of recent graduates garnered at least one internship during college. That means nearly two out of every three students juggled an internship with college courses.

Why have internships become so prevalent, playing an increasingly critical role in students’ lives? After the 2008 and 2009 recession, obtaining a job after college became more difficult and competitive. Securing internships enables undergraduates to achieve several goals: obtain real-world experience, differentiate themselves from competitors, experiment with career fields, and beef up their references.

Internships, however, have come under scrutiny. Conde Nast, Hearst Magazine, and Fox Searchlight Pictures, for example, were sued by interns (some out of college) who thought that they deserved to be paid for doing the same work as employees. Nonetheless, whether paid or not, internships serve as a valuable resource for undergraduates in their quest for experience and employment.

Securing an internship has become increasingly competitive. Because of the increasing popularity of nabbing an internship, there are more undergraduates pursuing them than there are openings. So an undergraduate must develop a strategic plan, covering how to identify the best internships that suit you, how to apply for them, interview for them, handle yourself once the internship begins, and use an internship as a springboard for obtaining full-term employment.

Executing a strategic plan requires several steps including: starting the search early in college, mapping out a structured approach to research, employing networking as a tool in the search, doing sufficient “homework” to identify internships, and then following up on initial efforts.

In Lauren Berger’s book All Work, No Pay, she points out that several celebrities started their rise to the top by securing internships. For example, Oprah Winfrey interned at a CBS local station in Nashville, NBC newscaster Brian Williams interned in President Carter’s administration and fashion designer Betsey Johnson interned at Mademoiselle. Everyone has to start somewhere, and internships often serve as a launching pad for many people on their way up.

How to Find an Internship

One of the first places to start your internship search and launch a strategic plan is the career office at your college. Some larger colleges have internship coordinators who serve as a main resource for inaugurating the search. Other colleges have career coaches that offer one-on-one assistance with this pursuit. Ask if your college offers a list of internship opportunities, including from alumni, an online job board, and other assistance such as resume workshops or career counseling.

Besides the career office, many colleges sponsor career fairs where major employers descend to describe future employment. Attending them enables you to discover what internships are available.

Start networking. Begin by canvassing relatives and friends of your parents. Whom do you know that works at a large company such as Coca-Cola, General Electric or Procter & Gamble that likely provides a bevy of internships? Let them know your interests, the kind of internships you most desire and ask them the best ways to apply.

Investigate company websites. Many websites include a careers or internship section that describes internships available, the requirements, where to send a resume, what the internship entails, and deadlines.   

After doing initial research, conduct an analysis to determine what kind of internship best fits into your career goals. Writing majors, for example, may want to pursue an internship at a website, magazine or newspaper. Finance majors may seek out a Big Four or smaller accounting firm. Web developers may find opportunities at local agencies. Architecture enthusiasts might query local architects.

Career experts also recommend arranging informational interviews with people in the field. For example, ask your parents’ accountant to set up a time to interview him or her and find out where internships are available, what interns do and elicit recommendations.  Or call the editor of a local newspaper, website or TV station to see what writing internships are available.

Creating a Resume to Land an Internship

Writing a resume for an undergraduate invokes a classic Catch-22 dilemma. How do students draft a resume that demonstrates their strengths while they’re still studying in college and presumably have limited work experience? What students must do is emphasize their skills, education level, references and career goals. Any part-time job experience that you have garnered while in high school or college that can yield recommendations is also beneficial.

After stating your name, current address and contact info, include your college, major and/or minor, and expected graduation date (some employers only select interns in their junior or senior years) on your resume. Also note any previous experience, such as other internships, and part-time or full-time work.

It’s also beneficial to include a skills section, showing in bullets or a summary of the major skills you have mastered. Skills can cover writing, communication, IT, data collecting, social media marketing, and special skills such as knowing other languages. Keeping one’s resume compact is preferable; usually one-page is advisable and no more than two pages.

Writing a knock-out, concise cover letter also makes a difference and demonstrates your acumen. Make sure the writing is lively and pertinent to the job applied for; generic, form letters that are lackluster are not advisable. Focus on why your skills and educational background match the job and what you can do for the company or employer, not only what it can do for you.

Preparing for the Interview

Just as in college when students must do their “homework” to study for a test or write a research paper, doing your research is one of the most effective ways to differentiate yourself. The more research you can do to familiarize yourself with the company, the better. Consider such factors as: 

  • What are the company’s key products? 
  • What’s their major growth area? 
  • Who are key competitors? 

Visiting a company’s website furnishes sufficient background, and reading their annual report provides ample insight into its main products, challenges and growth opportunities. 

Also it’s advisable to do preliminary background on the specific job applied for. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What does an administrative assistant do at this company? 
  • What have I done previously that prepares me for this job? 

Entering an interview and asking, “What exactly does the company do?” is a sure sign that you haven't done any research or homework. Be prepared.

Understandably, many applicants are tense or nervous doing an interview. You’re anxious about being judged and fearful about being rejected. One way to allay your nervousness is to enter that interview prepared. Knowing about the company, thinking about where it’s going in the future, noting how your background blends in at the firm, can prove useful and help alleviate nerves. 

While the interviewer undoubtedly will pepper you with questions, you should also prepare questions to ask as well, such as: 

  • What will I do as an intern? 
  • Describe a typical day in an intern’s life. 
  • What skills are required? 
  • Who will serve as mentor or manager?  

Interviews can be conducted in a variety of ways: by phone, in person at the office, by Skype, in a coffee shop, but doing the research and preparing questions applies to any venue.

According to Lauren Berger’s All Work, No Pay, certain questions predominate during most internship interviews. Practice answering helps you respond in an informed and professional way. The questions most often asked include: 

  • Why are you right for the job?  
  • Describe your key strengths. Any limitations? 
  • Why does this company interest you?  
  • What in your background fits for this job?  
  • What outcomes do you aim to derive from this internship?   
  • How does this internship fit into your long-term goals? 
  • What questions do you have about this internship?

Some students think that they must dazzle the interviewer to win the job, but that’s often not the case, and applies excessive pressure on you. Being prepared, asking thoughtful but concise questions, doing one’s homework, showing enthusiasm, explaining how your skills fit the job are the primary ways to ace the interview and earn the job. 

Don’t exaggerate your skills or stretch the truth, which are solid grounds for rejection. Being on time, dressing appropriately, using good English and grammar are other prerequisites for success.

Following Up on the Interview

Once the interview concludes, your work hasn’t ended. Experts advise sending a brief note, usually via snail mail or e-mail, to thank the human resources (HR) person or company representative for taking the time to conduct the interview.  

Including a brief summary of why your skills are right for the company is appropriate, but keep it short and avoid turning the thank-you note into a self-promotional advertisement. If you haven’t heard back in a week or two weeks, it’s appropriate to follow-up with an email to see what progress is being made to reach a decision on the internship.

Starting the Internship

Once you earn the internship and start, your work is only beginning, literally and figuratively. Nabbing the internship to gain the requisite experience is a positive. But making sure you maximize the internship and use it to find future employment is critical.

Keep these things in mind when starting the internship. The internship should benefit the intern, include guidance or mentoring from a supervisor or manager, and there are no guarantees of employment at its conclusion. But interns shouldn’t be harassed, asked to do anything immoral or illegal and should be treated with respect. If you’re not treated with respect, inform a college adviser or supervisor, if appropriate.

Besides learning new skills, broadening your experience and strengthening your resume and credentials, internships encourage networking. The more people you meet and form relationships with, the more people to contact when you’re ready to nab a full-term job. 

Treat everyone with respect, not just managers. Hollywood has a trove of classic stories about agents starting in the mail room and moving up to become top agents and producers. Getting to know as many people at every level at the company expands your connections and enables you to tap them when ready to pursue a full-time job after graduation.

Entering your internship with an open and enthusiastic outlook, an expectation to meet new people, a willingness to exchange business cards and form relationships transforms the experience into an opportunity for full-time employment. The more open and outgoing you are, the more beneficial the internship will be. Volunteer for committees, get involved in social activities, and introduce yourself to as many people as possible.  

But there are also traps to avoid so you don’t ruin the experience and damage your reputation. Avoid being unprofessional, irresponsible, lackadaisical and late to work or appointments. Always act professionally. Avoid getting into arguments or stirring up trouble. Don’t gossip or badmouth your bosses or supervisors. If something goes awry that hinders the experience, meet with your manager on the job, or college counselor, to fix the situation.

Concluding the Internship

As the internship is nearing its end, about two weeks before the final date, it’s appropriate to ask a supervisor for a letter of recommendation. Sending a request via e-mail to your supervisor is one way to proceed. But even that letter shouldn’t terminate the relationship. 

Stay in touch with your manager and selected contacts at the firm. This enables you to be considered for future work. Staying connected via e-mail, LinkedIn, or Facebook, are other methods to maintain contact. 

Keep contacts updated on future moves, such as when you graduate from college, secure a first job, or find another internship. And follow-up to see if any full-term positions are cropping up that fit your background.


Here are a variety of resources including websites to search for internships, websites to research company cultures, and books:

  1. Idealist.org is a website that lists jobs, volunteering assignments and internships for over 80,000 non-profit organizations.
  2. Experience.com lists best companies to intern for and includes a listing of some of the top internships available.
  3. Internmatch.com connects students with internships.
  4. Search company websites for background info on internships such as General Electric, ge.com, Ernst and Young at ey.com, and Procter & Gamble, at pg.com.
  5. To elicit background on each company’s corporate culture including the quality of their internships, visit vault.com and glassdoor.com.
  6. Lauren Berger’s book All Work, No Pay (Ten Speed Press, 2012) offers advice on finding internships as does her website internqueen.com.

Graphic Credit: Binoculars designed by Luis Prado from the Noun Project.

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