While the primary goal of internships is to learn about a potential career by doing various entry-level (and often unpaid) tasks, internships are so much more than résumé builders for college and even high school students. Internships are often students’ first “real” jobs, simulating what life will hopefully be like out in the “real” world after college. And internships can even help college students figure out if they’re in the right major and career path. Although I have worked a few minor jobs throughout high school and college, this summer I have my first internship/job related to my major and intended career field. I was a bit overwhelmed when I started the process of looking for an internship but eventually figured out some strategies along the way. I hope you can learn from my experience!
1. Start searching early
My internship search process started about a month after I got to campus in September and continued up until December. Personally I was interested in a summer internship, and starting at least six months before your desired internship should give you more than enough time to find one. Because the programs I had in mind were going to be extremely competitive, I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to get the desired documents ready (e.g., transcript, letters of recommendation, essays, etc.). Although many of the internship applications weren’t due until December or even spring semester, I was glad that I was ahead of the game. Many people wait until just before summer when all of the best internship programs are already filled, so don’t miss out!
2. Make a list of internships by competitiveness
My roommate, who applied to internships after our freshman year, gave me this tip. Just like when you applied for college and found reach and safety schools, make a list of internships based on how competitive you think they will be. Apply to a few reach internships, programs that are challenging but not impossible, and ones you’re pretty sure you can get into. I personally applied to about eight internships and was only accepted by one. (Another tip: stay positive!)
3. Consistently look out for opportunities
Google is important—but it’s not your only friend when it comes to finding internships. While an online search is a good start, sometimes it is not specific enough. Try to find specific internship search sites talk to your career center, read your school emails (which often contain internship offers), or go directly to company websites, if you’ve found some you’re interested in. I found my summer internship on a site dedicated to internships in Asia, with some other programs via my career counselor.
4. Be aware of major- or grade-specific internships
I was only a sophomore when I was applying to internships, but I saw many applications that said they would prefer juniors, seniors, or recent grads. Other programs said they were only interested in students with a particular major, including majors that weren’t offered on my campus. However, instead of automatically crossing opportunities like this off your list, contact the internship recruiter to see if those are strict requirements or if there’s a little wiggle room. Although internships are generally harder to get if you are only a freshman or sophomore, there are exceptions. In addition, there are several programs that are geared towards freshman, sophomores, and juniors specifically!
5. Have several people look at your résumé and cover letter
You’ve probably heard this tip a million times, but you will be amazed at how many people fail to get another opinion on these important documents, whether it’s because they procrastinate or they just didn’t see the point. Having just one counselor, parent, or friend proofread your résumé(s) and cover letter(s) can make a huge difference. Although résumé and cover letter styles are changing and there is no single “correct” way to write one, check online for tips on your specific field or ask a career center advisor if they have any advice. Because I applied to intern at a company in Japan, I had to learn how to write a Japanese résumé using a completely different format (and, of course, I did it in my second language). It was definitely a challenge, but I was happy to have friends from Japan who gave me many tips…and corrected my less-than-perfect Japanese.
6. Ask your professors for letters of recommendation early
Many internships will require you to have at least one letter of recommendation from a professor within your major. It's best to ask them well before the deadline, three weeks at the bare minimum. Many professors will require you to send them your résumé so they can write you a more tailored letter. Be sure to email them a week before to kindly remind them of the deadline if they haven’t already submitted it, and send them thank you card (and maybe even a small gift!) to show your appreciation.
7. Prepare for your interview
Not all internships will have an interview process, but many programs do via Skype, phone, or in person after the initial résumé inspection. If you make it to this round, it is important that you prepare yourself accordingly. For attire, it is best to have one set of professional clothes just in case (matching blazer and slacks and ironed, plain button-down to start). Before the interview, learn a bit about the company and have a list of questions to ask at the end. Try to think of answers to typical questions ahead of time (“Why do you want this internship?” or “What are your goals?”) and stay calm.
8. Look for financial support
Because many internships are unpaid and require you to relocate away from home, students often struggle to find ways to financially support themselves. Because my summer internship is abroad in Japan and unpaid, I was super stressed about how to pay for my airfare, transportation, housing, and food. Luckily, my college sponsors grants for unpaid internships. Many colleges have similar funds to support students with their internships. In addition, saving money from your part-time job or asking family for support are other ways of financially providing for your internship.
9. Reach out to if they haven’t gotten back to you
Many larger companies have too many applicants and tend to not contact people who haven’t made it past the résumé round. But smaller companies and programs may accidentally lose an applicant’s documents, so just be sure to send a follow-up email if you haven’t heard back. It’s frustrating when internships don’t get back to you, but their non-response shouldn’t discourage you.
10. Be willing to do internships out of your comfort zone
A lot of students don’t have internships because they are unwilling to do ones that seem insignificant or “not good enough” for them. On the other hand, some students decline because they are scared that the job is out of their league. I usually fall on into the latter group, but I decided to accept this summer’s internship because I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone eventually. An internship is not a lifelong career, but it can be a first step into eventually getting to your goal. Don’t fret if you decide to do a program that isn’t your top choice either. After all, I decided to go to a college that wasn’t my top choice, yet it has opened up so many opportunities for me I couldn’t have imagined. You get out of the experience what you put in!
College internships are a must during your four years of undergrad. They provide an unbeatable level of experience and skill development for wherever your next steps take you—be it your career or a grad program. Use these tips to make the most of your experience and come out of it with the confidence of a seasoned professional. Good luck!
Our Internships and Careers section has a ton of other advice to help you with your college internships. Check it out!