Vault's Guide to Top Internships
What is an Internship?
An internship is one of the best ways to test out a potential career or employer—a sort of trial run to see if a company or field suits you. Internships vary in length: they can last two weeks or a full year, though most tend to be around three months. Many take place over the summer, while others occur over the fall or spring semester, or a duration of your choosing. The majority of internships are full time, though plenty are part time.
Why Do an Internship?
You might be tempted to opt for a job over an internship to earn money. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s more to learn, and gain, from doing an internship. For example, if you want to break into a field that’s tough to crack, like entertainment, advertising or politics, the very best way to get a full-time job in the field is through an internship. Not only will you learn the inner-workings of the industry and have great experience on your resume, but you’ll also meet plenty of contacts and potential mentors. Similarly, interning at a top company puts you on the fast track to getting a full-time offer from that firm—or one of its competitors!
If you're reading this guide, you probably know that the job market is still grim. At the end of 2009, many economists predicted a jobless recovery, and that has generally proven to be the case. With a dearth of available jobs, the recession made the internship even more important to starting a career off right. Large companies are much more likely to hire you if you were an intern, not just someone off the street. Even if you don’t end up working for your internship employer, you’ll have gained some invaluable and hard-to-get experience. If you’re a recent or soon-to-be graduate, having some internship experience under your belt is crucial for your full-time job search.
Not surprisingly, interest in internships has reached unprecedented levels. In the most recent Vault survey of undergraduate career services, over 50 percent of all career centers told Vault that they've seen an increase in the number of students applying for internships. Due to budget cuts, new legislation on unpaid internships and other constraints, however, employers are ill-equipped to deal with the increase in applicants. Career centers have reported a decrease in the number of students who actually received an internship. More applicants and fewer positions mean that competition is steep, so students should visit their career centers early and often to review internship listings, get resume and cover letter advice and conduct mock interviews.
Who’s eligible for an internship?
Internships aren’t just for students anymore. In Vault's undergraduate internship recruitment survey, about 60 percent of undergraduate career centers reported an increase in the number of soon-to-be graduates accepting internships rather than full-time positions for after graduation. Internships are also a good way for professionals to transition to a different career path or to sneak into a competitive field.
Although it's true that many programs require that interns be current students, many others accept (some exclusively) recent graduates and seasoned professionals. So, if your career isn’t getting off to as fast a start as you might like, or you are looking to change careers after a setback, take a look, you might be able to intern at a company that interests you—an ideal way to network your way into a full-time job.
But I Need to Get Paid!
Don’t think that doing an internship means giving up on pay all together. It’s true that many internships are unpaid or offer only academic credit. At the same time, these are often small, interesting organizations or companies in glamorous industries. But many other programs offer some kind of payment, from a stipend or travel allowance to a very generous salary or a scholarship for any remaining academic requirements. Others offer interesting perks, including travel and the chance to attend exclusive industry events.
But don't give up on your dream internship if it's unpaid, as there are other ways to get the financial support you need. Sometimes, organizations will make special arrangements for interns they particularly like even though the program is usually unpaid, such as housing assistance or a small stipend. Talk to the human resources department to learn about different options—and if they suggest a stipend at the end of the program, remember to work hard during the internship to earn it.
Colleges and universities also understand that taking an unpaid internship position may be impossible for some students. In our most recent survey, about half of career centers told Vault that they offer some kind of financial assistance for students taking low or unpaid positions, such as grants, fellowships, scholarships, financial aid or tuition reimbursement. In addition, even if you're receiving academic credit from your school, you are still eligible for financial compensation, either from the employer or the school, itself. To learn about these opportunities, talk to your school's career center—and remember, even if there isn't a formal financial assistance program, it never hurts to ask!
Tips for Applying to Internships
Let’s say you’ve found an internship that interests you. The first thing you should do is follow all the instructions. Here’s a short checklist of things you need to do when applying for internships.
Apply by the deadline. A few months before the deadline is even better—a small organization might just take the first qualified intern who applies.
Follow the instructions! If you’re asked to provide a writing sample, don’t send your photo portfolio. If you’re asked to provide a reference, start canvassing your teachers and professors.
Make sure your resume is up-to-date and thoroughly spell-checked. If you’ve never written a resume, go to your school’s career guidance center and ask for help. And ask an experienced professional or two whom you trust to review your resume. If you are applying for internships in different fields, you may need to have more than one version of your resume highlighting different experiences. Ensure that your most current contact information is on the resume.
Don’t ignore the cover letter. Make a persuasive case in your cover letter, which should be tailored to each internship, that you really want to intern at the company. Do your research and be specific—and honest—about why the opportunity is right for you. Again, make sure you carefully proofread the cover letter. Let a trusted friend or teacher read it as well.
Follow up. If you’re really interested in an internship, there’s nothing wrong with a quick call or email a few weeks after sending the application to let the organization know how interested you are. But don’t badger them with phone calls every day.
Carpe diem. If you’re really want a particular internship, but your qualifications don't match completely, apply anyway and show your passion. Many organizations would rather have an intern who is excited and motivated than one who just meets the qualifications on paper.
Take experience over money. You can always earn money; however, the window of opportunity for internships isn’t open eternally. If you’re really broke and there aren't any compensation options, consider taking a part-time job in order to work at the internship you really want.
Making the Most of Your Internship
Congratulations! You’ve gotten the internship you want. Here are some tips to make the most of your experience.
Be a happy camper. Even if you’re given work that you think is below you or not what you expected, do it and do it happily. A great attitude and a willingness to pitch in will impress your co-workers—and you might learn a lot more than you anticipated. Once you’ve proven your value, you may get projects and tasks more to your liking.
Network, network, network. An internship is a great way to meet insiders in the industry of your choice. Don’t limit yourself to your immediate co-workers or supervisors. Introduce yourself to others at the organization. Ask them to spend some time talking with you about their jobs and careers. You’ll learn a lot about potential jobs and career paths, and potentially meet mentors, sponsors and friends who can help you in the future.
Talk about your expectations for the internship with your contact or supervisor. This will help your internship employer know what you want to do and give you the sort of experience that you want from your internship.
Don’t burn bridges. You will learn that in the working world everyone has something to offer. At your internship see everyone as a potential source of advice, contacts and career growth.
Take full advantage of perks. If you’re given the opportunity to attend a lecture from the CEO or go to a conference, go. In addition, many programs organize social events for the intern class. Attend as many as you can; you'll likely cross paths with your fellow interns again, and they may be in a position to help you or the other way around.
Stay in touch. Make sure you get the contact information of everyone you’ve met at your internship and keep them posted on your career and educational progress.