Friday, August 8, 2008

Finding the Right Internship

Finding the right internship can be a difficult task. You may be asking yourself, “Is it worth it? Why do I need to go through all this trouble for something I might not even get paid for? Is there any way out of it?” An internship, however, will most likely be the most important part of your college education. By doing an internship, you show future employers that you have experience in the field you want to work in and that you’ve worked in a professional environment.
That’s a huge advantage over someone who took an extra course to get out of an internship. (Don’t even think about doing that! If you think doing an internship for low or no pay is tough, try finding a job without one.) The job market is tough, especially if your field isn’t high in demand. Ideally, you’ll intern with a company or organization that will be able to hire you after your internship is completed.

Your goal should be to find a company or organization you’d want to work for, and which has a good chance of hiring you in a permanent position after the internship. That’s far more important than finding a paid internship, which are often hard to come by. By starting early, you can do some shopping around. Many people do internships in the summer after their junior year, and many of them start looking for internships during the spring semester. That doesn’t leave much time to look, however, because that’s when you should usually be turning in your application materials. It’s never too soon to start looking, of course, but by starting your search the previous summer or fall, you’ll have time to look around for the best opportunities and meet any early deadlines.

In some fields, you should even think about doing two internships. Ideally you may get hired by the company you intern with, but that doesn’t always happen, especially if you live in an area with limited job opportunities. Many people end up doing two internships, which can boost you above the competition. There’s no reason you can’t look for an internship that would begin in the summer after your sophomore year. For highly competitive internships, you may not be at the top of the competition yet, but by getting your feet wet you can make yourself highly competitive for a subsequent one. Just as importantly, an internship can give you a better idea of whether you’ve found your calling in your field, or whether you want to do something else, and doing one early can help you to figure this out early.

When you’re ready to look for internships, the best place to start is often the department of your major. Your advisor will probably have some suggestions, and your department may keep a list of employers that have hired students as interns or in full-time positions in the past. Ask for a copy of this list, if it’s available. The employers on it will probably be relevant to your major, and since they’ve likely had good experiences with other students from your department, they’ll be predisposed to like you. The career services department of your college or university will also have useful information about area employers. Ask them about any upcoming job or internship fairs in the area as well; many schools hold these on campus.

Also, talk with anyone you know who may be able to help. Professors may have connections in the field; ask them if they know of any internship opportunities that would be a good fit for you. If you mention your search to relatives, friends, teachers, and anyone else you know, you may be surprised how networking can turn up results. Volunteer work can be a great way to network while gaining experience and showing your dedication to a cause, so talk with anyone you know from volunteer experiences.

Many online databases can help you find the right internship. The Princeton Review ( offers a great internship search engine. Back to College has a list of other helpful sites at Job websites such as and also have internship listings. Of course, you should also look outside of the search engines, finding out whether there are any other organizations you’d be interested in working for. If they don’t specify whether they hire interns, ask! Also, find out from your major department whether they will give you credit for the internships you find.

The size of the company or organization you intern with is an important consideration. Many people have a good internship experience with smaller companies because they have the opportunity to contribute their talents more than in a bigger one. However, because your ideal goal is probably to get hired by the company you intern with (especially if your field is highly competitive), interning with a smaller company has its ups and downs. A smaller company can be a great place to get lots of hands-on experience, and if job opportunities exist there, you’ll likely be high on the list once you’ve proven yourself to them.
However, positions in small companies are usually far more scarce than in a large company, so find out what you can about the company beforehand. Again, find out if your department has any info about the company’s track record with recent grads, look up its website and see how many staff members it has, and during your interview, ask whether they’ve hired interns in the past and whether they anticipate future growth.

To make yourself highly competitive for both internships and jobs, you should boost your resume by listing relevant activities that you’ve taken part in. If you’re looking for an internship in publishing, you’ll want to be highly active in school publications such as the newspaper or literary journal. If you see yourself working for a certain type of nonprofit, show that you’re involved with related campus activism. It’s usually better to pick one thing and work your way to the top in it than to dabble in a bunch of different things. While it’s good to take part in different activities, if you spread yourself too thin you may not get much experience in any particular area. In other words, take on the responsibilities that you can handle, giving your best effort to the things you’re involved with, and it will show. You’ll be more confident, for one thing, because you’ll be proud of your accomplishments.

Make sure you highlight your strengths and qualifications in your cover letter and resume. Your career services department will be glad to help you strengthen these materials, so take advantage of that! You’re paying tuition, after all, and that’s a service that comes with it. Resume and cover letter writing is a skill in itself, so make sure these materials are well developed. Your career services department will also help you to prepare for an interview. Bring these materials and your newly learned interview skills to any job fairs you attend as well.
If you prepare well and think ahead, you’ll have a huge advantage over the competition. You’ll know you’ve found internships that are a good fit for you, and you’ll be able to show your potential employer why you’re a good fit. Now all you have to do is put in a stellar job performance, and you’ll have your foot in the door!

Melanie J. Martin is a freelance writer and editor. She has a master of arts in English, and she especially enjoys writing and studying creative nonfiction essays.

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