Six Tips to Secure an Internship

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Betty from College of the Canyons asked:

“I’m having a hard time finding an internship position. What’s my next step?”

Hello Betty. As a student, you probably hear how important an internship can be to your job search success later. In fact, according to this article in the Atlantic, “The Thing Employers Look for When Hiring Recent Graduates” the most important elements in hiring a recent graduate were “experiences outside of academics: internships, jobs, volunteering, and extracurriculars.” So, finding and securing the right internship is really important and can create a lot of pressure on students. It may seem like an overwhelming task. Where do you start? Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

Below are six key tips to finding and securing an internship.

Clarify Your Target Career

Take a step back to think about the type of job you hope to secure when you graduate. By focusing on where you ultimately want to end up, you can have a much more focused internship search. Start looking at actual job postings and find out what skills are required for that job. Why? Because internships provide a great way to fill in any skills gaps that could make you less competitive in your job search later.

Let’s say you want to be a Sustainability Research Analyst and you have many of the technical skills from your coursework but you are missing: relationship management skills, project management skills, and advanced Excel data analysis skills. Seek an internship that will provide skills you don’t have now (but need to be competitive in your field). In this example, look for an experience that will allow you to interact with clients, take the lead on a project, and allow you to do more advanced Excel data analysis. If it is not clear that you will gain these skills, don’t be afraid to talk with the manager to see if they would be open to helping you engage in projects that would allow you to gain these skills. Ask for their advice on shaping the experience to provide these skills. Finally, look at the LinkedIn profiles of professionals who hold that job title and see what kinds of internship experience they had.

Make a List of Target Employers and Connect with Them

Once you have a clearer focus of the type of internship you will be pursuing, create a tracking system of employers and internships that you are targeting. This will help you stay focused and organized. It can be a simple Excel spreadsheet. Be sure to add the URL links to that employer’s internship website, the application deadline, and list anyone you may know there or that you can reach out to to set up a short 20 minute informational interview to learn more about that employer (while developing a rapport with an insider). Join LinkedIn groups in your targeted field and use the member list to find companies of interest and people working at these companies. Apply early, well in advance of the deadline if possible. Employers may schedule interviews on a rolling basis so early applicants may have an advantage.

Having a connection to someone who works at that organization is critical. According to this article, a recent study showed that, “Referrals account for about 30-50% of hires in the U.S.” Employers do not like to take a risk on candidates that are unknown, even if they look good on paper. At the very least, take time to reach out to the internship hiring manager after you apply. Introduce yourself, express your enthusiasm for the internship or the organization, and highlight 2-3 experiences, skills, or attributes that make you a top candidate for the role. The purpose here is to get the manager to take a more careful look at your application after they hang up. Not many candidates take the time to do this so you will stand out. Of course, if the internship posting says “No calls” you will have to respect that but in most cases employers are impressed with candidates that go the extra mile.

Work with Your Career Services Office

Don’t forget to set up an appointment with your career services office at the College of the Canyons. The staff there are likely to be familiar with employers that regularly hire their students for internships. Tell them what type of opportunity you are seeking. Ask if they know of any internships that would be a fit. If you know what employers you are targeting, ask if they have any alumni contacts working at these places and reach out to them to introduce yourself and get their help and advice for securing an internship. Friendly alumni may be willing to facilitate an introduction to a Hiring Manager in a department that interests you. You may also be able to pitch an internship idea to them if they don’t have a formal internship program.

Look for Top Internship Posting Sites

In addition to creating a list of targeted employers and their internship posting sites, start bookmarking other top internship posting sites and visit them regularly. Set aside a weekly day and time to review them.

Below are 10 places to get started.

Discover Hidden Opportunities

Tell everyone you know what kind of internship you are looking for (since you never know who might be able to provide you with a connection or an opportunity). I was doing volunteer work for an endangered species publication at my university. I told my supervisor what kind of internship I was looking for and he kept an eye out for me. He ended up telling me about the perfect internship opportunity at the National Wildlife Federation, which I secured and it resulted in a 12 year career with a great organization.

Join LinkedIn groups in your professional field of interest and consider posting a discussion item asking group members for their best advice in finding an internship in your field (be sure to describe what you are looking for). There may be thousands of members in that group–many of them professionals in your field of interest. Some of them may look at your LinkedIn profile (so be sure you have a strong profile that is up to date) and if your profile looks good, they may encourage a hiring manager to reach out to you or tell you about an internship available with their company.

Create Your Own Dream Internship

You can create your own dream internship. How? Often you can pitch an internship idea to an employer if you have done your homework. Reach out to employers that interest you to set up brief 20 minute informational interviews. Do a lot of research about the employers before you speak with them. Find out what departments they have and identify which ones are a fit for you. Ask your university career service staff for friendly alumni contacts that work there. Send the alumni contacts a brief email requesting an informational interview to learn more about the department and to let them  know you are interested in a possible internship. During your meeting with the employer, ask questions to learn about a specific project and find out what skills are valued. Let them know you are interested in doing an internship to work on XYZ project, highlight the skills that you would bring, and ask for next steps to help you make it happen.

Some employers may be able to make an internship happen and secure funding to pay you (especially if you have strong skill sets and they are in need of help on a particular project or in a particular department). This is the best case scenario!

In other cases, you should contact your career service office, financial aid office, and other university departments that have internship funding that you could apply for and use as leverage with an employer. At the University of Michigan where I used to work, the graduate program and many other departments had internship funding for NGOs and agencies. Most employers (especially nonprofits and government agencies) would love to have a “free” intern that comes with their own funding. Pitching an internship idea to an employer when you have your own funding gives you tremendous leverage to say what you would like to do and to really create a customized experience that will benefit you significantly.

Good luck! I hope these ideas inspire you in your internship search.

Lisa Yee-Litzenberg

About the Author

Lisa Yee-Litzenberg

Lisa Yee-Litzenberg has spent over 22 years as a green career expert. In 2016, Lisa launched her own Green Career Advisor company. She helps students, recent graduates, and career changers nationwide to find and secure their dream green jobs. Prior to that, she led the University of Michigan's graduate environmental career services for a decade. She assisted hundreds of students to secure top jobs and internships and cultivated key relationships with thousands of green employers. Lisa is also a certified Global Career Development Facilitator, a National Career Development Association member, a Preferred Career Coach for the U-M Alumni Association, and a Career Thought Leader Associate. Lisa completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan and also spent 12 years working for the National Wildlife Federation on water policy, wolf conservation, and environmental leadership development efforts. Outside of work, Lisa is an avid soccer player and nature nerd. Connect with Lisa via LinkedIn and Facebook.

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