Glowing letters of recommendation, check. Impressive GPA that you worked so hard for, taking all of those extra AP classes in high school and continuing with a full course load in college, check. Detailed cover letter customized for the roles you’re so anxiously awaiting to submit an application—double check. So why does it feel like you’re missing something crucial to help you land that dream job after college?
It’s time to talk about internships.
Without question, outside-the-classroom experiential learning contributes to fostering success after college—from undergraduate research, studying abroad, volunteering, to leadership roles in student government, internships play a unique role in helping students feel more confident and self assured as they embark on the full time job search process upon graduation.
While your parents or older siblings may not have felt the pressure to pursue an internship or gain hands-on experience during college, that is unfortunately no longer the reality for the majority of college students. Notice I say majority, as there are absolutely alternative options that can be just as worthwhile for some individuals, but that conversation will be tabled for another post. Please also note I am not talking about a, fetch-your-boss-a-cup-of-coffee or make-copies-and-file-all-day type of internship. If a company has chosen to dedicate precious time and resources to recruiting, hiring, and training interns, they are looking for a significant return on their investment. Employers are seeking interns not only to gauge whether they could be a good fit for a full time role, but are relying on them to produce quality work, contribute meaningfully to time-sensitive projects and become a full member of their organization for short period of time they’re there. It is much more economical and time efficient for a company to invest significantly in their summer internship program, as that allows them to “test the waters” with during a shorter duration of time, versus hiring candidates after only a few interviews. In addition, many companies are now venturing outside the traditional 10-week summer internship and offering opportunites year-round and/or virtually. Make sure to check the dates listed on the website, and be open to inquiring if they can be flexible with start/end dates or location.
Because internships provide benefits to both the employer and the intern, it’s important to remember that this is as much a trial run for you as it is for the organization. YOU want to enjoy the work, feel excited about the team and culture of the office or environment, all while gaining new skills, meeting new people (and possible mentors) and networking with colleagues in your industry. Ideally, at the end of the formal internships (whether paid or unpaid), you will be given the chance to decide if you’d be interested in converting to a fulltime employee. Some find that after testing what they thought would be their dream job for two and a half months, they realize <fill in the blank, advertising, finance, organizational leadership> sounded a lot better in their mind than the reality proved to be on the ground day-to-day. And that’s okay. In fact, I’ve told my students it’s just as important to figure out what you don’t like, as much as what you do. That’s precisely what internships are for—giving you the chance to try something or a short-term basis to determine if it’s where you truly see yourself in the future. As much as one can learn in the classroom and through assignments and reading, in my opinion nothing teaches you what it’s going to be like working day in and day out in <x> industry better than an internship.
Also be sure to keep in mind that internships are no longer limited to offices and formal corporate settings. Organizations across all industries—from nonprofits to Fortune 500 advertising firms to international development and finance—are looking for talented students and recent graduates to help grow the impact and value or reputation of their company, build a brand with the next generation, and continue to produce a quality product or service. This mutually beneficial experience can provide that final check mark on your resume to help you stand out in an extremely competitive field. Here are a few tips for how to make that a successful experience:
• Take advantage of your college career center – Of course I’m a bit biased given that I spent a good amount of my career working in university career centers across the country, I am continually amazed at the number of students who either don’t know they have this resource available to them (for free!), or knowingly choose to disregard it because they think it can’t help them. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of staff members at most college campuses that are devoted to helping students find internships and jobs. They have relationships with alumni and employers, often hosting events throughout the school year that target different student groups and industry interests. Make an appointment with a career counselor for one individual session. I promise you won’t regret it. They often times have insider knowledge or relationships with potential employers and are willing to make those direct connections for students.
• Do your research – With the amount of information and technology at our fingertips, there is no excuse for not being prepared or knowledgeable about the organization and to which you are applying. Read professional journals or articles that are relevant to your industry. Stay on top of what innovative products, good or services the company is developing, who their competitors are and understand what the latest trends impacting the profession. You may or may not be able to use this during an interview, but research is never a waste of time, and building your confidence going into the interview will set you up for success in the future. And if you’re lucky enough to receive the name of the interviewers you’ll be meeting with during a first or second round, research them as well. LinkedIn is a great resource for candidates to utilize to aid them in preparing for the interview process, and you never know what you might find you have in common with someone or what will come up in conversation based on mutual interests or experiences. Please know there is a clear line between conducting an appropriate amount of research and internet stalking—and be sure not to cross it. You don’t want to make the interviewer uncomfortable when you mention the name of their childhood cat or favorite band; make sure to keep it professional, and allow them to direct the conversation. The first question often asked during an interview is, “What do you know about <insert name of company, product, etc.>” and when I was a recruiter in a variety of different industries, from management consulting to entertainment technology, it continually surprised me how often candidates would stare back blankly, taken aback that we’d have the audacity to ask such a question. Skimming the company website for 15 minutes isn’t enough to adequately prepare you, so make sure to not only understand what the company’s mission statement and goals, but why you want to be a part of such an organization and what you could contribute.
• Schedule an informational interview – If this is not a term you’re familiar with, here is a great (and brief) article explaining how to approach this important piece of networking successfully. While the goal is not to gain an internship from this conversation alone, engaging with alumni or professionals in your field of interest can offer insight that you can’t learn through research and reading alone. And you never know whom that person might know or be willing to introduce you to after your initial conversation. I often tell my students that after thanking <insert name> for their time and advice, it is worthwhile to ask if there is anyone else that they think could be helpful for you to meet or would be willing to make an introduction. It’s all about utilizing your second connections.
• Customize your application materials – As tempting as it may be to send the same resume and cover letter to every position you apply to, recruiters see right through that approach and will spend no more than 10 seconds before realizing you haven’t read their job description. Take the time to review each of these carefully, and personalize the skill set, experience and even the order of importance that you list your courses or on campus jobs. Recruiters give you a blueprint for what they’re looking for when they write the job description, so take advantage of that and match your materials as best you can to showcase that you have the skills they’re looking for. On a more logistical note, be sure to use your school email when applying, save all of your documents as PDFs (not Word, as different versions can look funky on different computers) and as separate files with your last name. For example, for a resume I would put Bjorklund_Resume. Recruiters read and save hundreds of resumes, and the easier you make it for them to find, the better.
• Consider adding a video interview to enhance your application materials – There are a handful of new companies that have started utilizing videos as a component to their online application process. While you will still need to submit a resume and cover letter, if you feel one of your strengths is the interview where your true personality and passion can shine through, check out some of these websites for additional places to submit your application:
• If you meet 60-75% of the qualifications, go ahead and apply! I’ve worked with too many students that felt intimidated by a list of qualifications on a job description, only to move on after reading a bullet point or two that they didn’t feel they adequately met. An employer is going to write their idea of the perfect candidate, and of course they’d be happy if every candidate that applied met all of those qualifications. In reality, however, that is rarely the case. I tell my students if you are a “rockstar” in one area and completely blow them out of the water in that regard, it may make up for other areas that you don’t have as much experience in or feel less confident. Reading your resume will showcase your background, skills and experience, but you don’t want to take yourself out of the running just because you are lacking or less experienced in one or two components of the job description. You never know until you try, and what you have to offer could be an ideal fit, even if you don’t have the exact degree or years of experience listed.
• Check your resume, and then check it again – I hope this goes without saying, but there should be no grammatical or spelling errors on any of the application materials you submit. As a recruiter who has reviewed thousands of resumes, the minute that I spot a spelling error in a resume or cover letter I am more than likely moving on to the next candidate. Don’t give the recruiter a reason to dismiss your stellar experience and passion because you were too tired to take one final look before submitting an application. Furthermore, make sure that your most relevant experience is listed towards the top of the resume, as some recruiters will only make it 2/3 of the way down before moving on if they don’t find what they’re looking for. This can include relevant coursework, class assignments or projects, volunteering, athletics, leadership experience, etc. Make sure you’ve correlated the job description to your strengths, highlighting how your background is a good match for what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate.
• Let your passion and personal side shine through – There may be some recruiters or career counselors out there who disagree with this last point, but I found it applied successfully enough times over the past decade that I thought it was important to include. If you have side projects or personal hobbies that are tangentially related to what you’re doing, or just down right interesting, include them on your resume! Often times it was the “Interests” section at the bottom of a resume when I saw a hiring manager pause and spend some extra time with the candidate. I once had a candidate discuss their interest in sushi making with an interviewee for the first five minutes of the interview, not because it was at all related to the position, but because they found it interesting and unique. If you spend time outside of the classroom building a passion or side project that showcases your skills and interests, even if it’s not “professional experience” at times it is still worthwhile to include. You never know who is going to be reading your materials and what might catch their attention.