Just imagine it: learning from top professionals, getting to make a difference in your field and maybe even living in a new city. Scoring your dream internship would be so cool, and with a big picture that glamorous, it’s easy to overlook the details of actually getting the internship in the first place.
Whether you’re not assertive enough, proactive enough or informed enough, you may overlook important steps when applying for internships. Sure, we know you’re the perfect candidate for the job, but recruiters don’t—yet. And making these mistakes can keep your potential employers from ever finding out just how fabulous you are!
1. You don’t reach out to your connections
It’s easy to type “Engineering internship + Boston” into the Google search bar and hope you find gold, but you’re unlikely to get your dream internship with a simple search alone.
You’ve got plenty of other options. Many students find opportunities on internship websites that make it super easy to find the perfect gig by listing top positions in one place.
Often, though, college students get so wrapped up in their internet searches that they forget their closest resources: the people around them.
Vicki Salemi, career expert and author of Big Career in the Big City, says that students shouldn’t neglect the people they’re already connected to during their internship searches. Sometimes the people you know— such as professors, former employers or even family and friends—will know of a position that you’d never find on your own.
“When searching for internships, [students] should tap into their networks,” Salemi says. “Sometimes just searching online will end up with little to no results depending on timing. [For example], in bigger companies there are deadlines to be met, and if you miss it for the summer, you’re out of luck.”
Joan Snyder Kuhl, author and founder of the speaking and consulting company Why Millennials Matter, also recommends contacting an HR employee or alumni at the company you’re interested in through LinkedIn.
LinkedIn can be an excellent resource for networking with your university’s alumni and others within specific companies. If you have your own LinkedIn profile already, an easy way to find alumni at a specific company is to search your university in the LinkedIn search bar. Once you’re on your university’s page, click on the Students & Alumni tab. Then you can search a company or organization within that section to find alumni who work there.
Although you may not be able to contact alumni directly through LinkedIn (unless you connect with them!), you may be able to use the information you find on their pages to look them up on Google. Some professionals provide their contact info on their own websites.
However, if you have a dream company in mind that isn’t offering an internship, sometimes it’s worth a shot to contact that company directly.
2. You don’t open your mind to different positions
You’re dead-set on public relations. You just know you’re going to be an epic PR guru someday. So why would you ever take a journalism internship?
For one, keeping your options open to multiple types of internships will help you cast a wider net. More applications mean that you’ll probably hear back from more places. You don’t want to have your heart set on only two or three perfect internships and then end up not hearing back at all.
Keeping an open mind can also help you figure out what kind of jobs are good fits for you. Internships are great opportunities to experiment, and your dream internship might end up being something you never expected!
“Definitely open your mind to different positions,” Salemi says. “Part of the fun about internships involves career exploration. Let’s say you take an internship in marketing and absolutely hate it! Well, then you can literally cross marketing off your list of potential job paths.”
In your internship, you won’t just learn about what you want to do—you’ll also learn about the environment you’d like to work in.
“This is your opportunity to try on a company for size to see what fits,” Salemi says. “Even if you have your heart set on a large, global corporation, why not try a boutique firm to see how you like the vibe?”
You may realize that you actually adore your small company’s culture, or maybe you’ll realize it’s not for you. Either way, you’ll have a better idea of what you want after graduation by expanding your options.
3. Your company research only skims the surface
Just about anyone can spend 30 minutes scanning an organization’s website. If you really want to stand out, you need to understand the company, its products and services, its clients and its culture.
An outstanding candidate will be able to use this research to tailor her resume, cover letter and interviews to a company’s specific needs and values. Effective research can also let you know what kind of culture and environment you’ll be walking into if you get the internship.
“Research sometimes falls short in the area of companies in the news,” Salemi says. “Yes, you’re looking for a stellar internship to gain skills, experiences and valuable connections, but what if the company recently went through a downsizing situation? What if they’re being acquired?”
In other words, you need to know more than that the company is cool and that this internship would look stunning on your resume. What kinds of customers does the company serve? What are its top products? If it’s in the news, what big issues is it facing? You can even check stock prices and business performance. Form opinions about the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and get a feel for where you will fit in once you land your internship.
If you do this, you’ll be better able to address the company’s needs, something that will definitely set you apart from other applicants.
4. You don’t tailor your resume to each application
Salemi says that many students make the mistake of assuming that recruiters will always read their resumes. “When I worked in recruiting, it wasn’t uncommon to literally see hundreds—if not thousands—of resumes sitting in the applicant tracking system,” Salemi says.
That means that if you want to get hired, you need to get your resume past screening software. These applicant tracking systems (ATS) help recruiters more efficiently select candidates by scanning resumes for relevant keywords.
A great way to get past these systems is to carefully read your internship description and mold your resume to include relevant keywords, or exact words and phrases that appear in the internship description in your resume. For example, if your internship requires “oral communication skills,” you should put those words on your resume rather than “public speaking experience.”
No matter how fantastic your experience it is, it won’t mean a thing to your potential employer unless he or she gets the chance to read it.
“There’s not enough time in the day to read each and every [resume],” Salemi says. “And they’re all similar after a while, so you need to make your resume tailored to the position you’re pursuing and definitely try to wiggle your way in the door through any connection you have to actually get noticed.”
5. You don’t address the company’s needs in your cover letter
Maybe you’ve got hundreds of volunteer hours, killer work experience and top-notch academics. Even if you could write a novel-length cover letter detailing how perfect you are for your ideal internship, that doesn’t mean you should.
Many students go on and on about their successes and desires and end up with absolute disasters of cover letters. The worst part? Sometimes these lengthy essays don’t really address the company’s needs.
“Cover letters should be succinct and really pop as to why you’re filling the company’s need,” Salemi says. “They shouldn’t be incredibly long; let your resume do the talking. Instead, just let the cover letter shine by being brief and addressing why you can immediately solve their problem.”
Pick no more than three or four qualifications listed in the internship’s description that you think the company particularly stresses, then provide a specific, concise example of how you meet those qualifications.
Like your resume, your cover letter should be tailored to each company. Research your company thoroughly and find its core values. What kind of culture do they have? Try to reflect this in your cover letter and save all your other great qualities for the interview.
6. You don’t do a mock interview
If you’ve got an interview lined up, that’s an accomplishment on its own. But it’s also the most nerve-wracking (and often trickiest) part of the application process.
“Students struggle with confidently articulating how their experiences translate into the work responsibilities of the role they are interviewing for,” Kuhl says. “This requires research about that company, its work, the demands in similar roles and, most importantly, a lot of practicing their own responses.”
A mock interview can help you gain the confidence you’ll need by getting you used to talking about yourself, your skills and the company you want to intern for. You can ask a friend or family member to ask you questions, or you can go over questions on your own in the mirror or in your computer’s webcam. Your university’s career center may even offer mock interviews during the school year.
Practicing for an interview might feel silly, especially if you’re just interviewing yourself in a mirror, but it’s extremely important. If you don’t have another person to interview you, look up common interview questions online and write out answers to help you get a feel for how your experience is relevant to your desired job.
7. You don’t follow up after the interview
“When it comes to following up, just do it!” Salemi says. “Many students miss this key step. First, definitely send a thank-you email or snail-mail note within the first 48 hours. But then also follow up within a week to two weeks to inquire about the status and next steps.”
Following up after your interview leaves a good impression in your interviewer’s mind. Plus, it shows your potential employer that you are serious about the position.
But following up isn’t just for after interviews. After you send out your initial application, it’s a good idea to follow up with questions or comments after a week or two, as long as you do so in a professional, considerate manner. This kind of follow-up can be as simple as briefly restating your interest in the position, giving a sentence or two about your qualifications and asking about the status of your application.
Applying for internships can be stressful and, yes, even overwhelming. But if you take your time and put the effort into each one of your applications, something good is sure to turn up. And remember, even an internship you hadn’t originally considered could become the internship of your dreams!