Tales From the Expert: How to Get that Ultra-Competitive Internship
Internships: they’re more than just an excuse to dress up in your parents’ business casual clothing before the age of 22. They’re also a great way to gain valuable “real-world” experience and pump up your resume before, during, or even after college. Let’s hear it for pantsuits!
That being said, not all internships are created equal. Some internships offer more benefits or are associated with more prestigious organizations. Some might give students the opportunity to travel or do amazing things that they may never have been able to otherwise. However, the better the internship, the more competitive the application process is likely to be. After all, if you feel like you’d do anything to intern at NASA, it’s likely that there are many other kids who share the same sentiment.
The hiring process for a competitive internship can be intense. If you’re wondering how to navigate the emails, interviews, stress, and strain involved with getting a competitive internship, then break out your notepad and your sensible office-appropriate shoes — I’m going to be talking about my experience applying for and getting an internship at the Center for Court Innovation, and offering you some tips on how to snag a dream internship of your own!
Choosing an Internship
For the sake of writing a helpful blog post, we’re going to assume that you already know which competitive internship you’d like to apply for and that you understand what the requirements of the position are. On the other hand, if you know you want an internship but don’t know where to begin to look for one, don’t worry! A good place to start is the website idealist.org, or your school’s job posting website or bulletin, if they have one.
During the spring of my sophomore year at Columbia, I found my internship at the Center for Court Innovation through the website idealist.org. I knew that I wanted to do something that involved writing and social justice, and when I found this position that would allow me to write about important issues relating to criminal justice reform, I was hooked! I realized that my experience writing blog posts for CollegeVine for the past several months would be relevant for this position. I also noted that they were looking for applicants with audio/video experience, which I have. Not to mention, the position was paid! I knew that I wanted to spend my summer working at this organization, and so I decided to go for it.
If you’ve decided which internship you’d like to apply for, you should try to make yourself familiar with the responsibilities that the position requires. You should feel confident that you would be able to fulfill these responsibilities to the best of your ability — after all, you’re much more likely to be offered the position it’s something that you’re well matched for. Be sure to also take note of any requirements the position has that might prevent you from applying.
At CollegeVine, we’re all about aiming high and achieving as much as possible, but if you’re still in high school and the internship you’re applying for requires a master’s degree and three years of C++ proficiency, chances are you’re probably not going to get it.
The Hiring Process
Before you reach that stomach-churning moment of hitting send on an email to your hopefully-future-boss, you should try to get a clear picture of what the hiring process looks like for your position. Instructions should generally be available on the organization’s website or listed in the job posting.
I looked on glassdoor.com immediately to see what the interview and hiring process at the Center for Court Innovation would look like. I noted that one usually has to interview multiple times at CCI before being offered a position. I also saw that in addition to a cover letter and a resume, to apply for the position I would need at least 3 professional references.
Pay attention to details and be sure not to leave out any required components. Do you just need to send in your resume and cover letter, or do you need references as well? Do you need to submit a separate application? Complete an interview? Undergo a background check or drug test?
Some aspects of the hiring process might not be revealed to you until they become necessary. You might not know, for example, whether your first interview with an organization will be over the phone or in person. This being said, you should try to make yourself aware— to the best of your ability—what the steps ahead of you will be.
Sending Your Resume
If you have a working copy of your resume, great! Now is the time to update it, proofread it and make sure everything is in ship shape. Luckily, when I applied for the position at the Center for Court Innovation, I already had a resume. Before I emailed my future boss, though, I was sure to look over it and make sure that it highlighted my published writing experience as well as the fact that I am majoring in Creative Writing and American Studies at Columbia. I also checked that my experience in multiple social justice and activism communities was present on my resume. I added my audio/video editing experience in the “skills” section of my resume as well.
If the word resume sounds like something you would order off of a french menu, don’t fret! Here are some CV posts that explain how to build your perfect resume:
Be sure to include and highlight any areas of experience that might be relevant to the position you’re looking at. For example, if you’ve worked at your local animal shelter for the past 4 years, and you’re applying to intern at an animal rights organization, then this should probably be one of the first items on your resume.
Writing a Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be used to say what your resume can’t. You want to use this as an opportunity to connect the dots and form a narrative from your experience that works in the context of the position you’re applying for. Don’t be afraid to get showy (but not too showy) with your language skills and add in some unique or specific details about yourself that connect to the position you’re applying for. Have you known about this project or organization since you were 5? Does this position connect to your ultimate life goals and aspirations? This is the time to say so! After all, what employers really want to know is why you are interested in working for them, and what you have to offer them that makes you stand out from other applicants.
In my cover letter for the Center for Court Innovation, I discussed how passionate I am about the issues that this organization is fighting for. I talked about my experience volunteering on various progressive political campaigns and my experience as a legislative intern for state Representatives and Senators. I talked about my experience as a published writing, especially publishing articles in blog format. I mentioned that I am skilled in social media work as well and concluded by summarizing why I would be a great candidate for the position, also adding in a quick list of my relevant skills.
This should go without saying, but NEVER copy and paste a cover letter from another internship you’ve already applied for! There’s nothing worse or more obvious than a generic cover letter. Employers can tell when you didn’t put in the effort to write a unique cover letter, and if this internship is something you really want then you should be able to give it your full attention.
If you’re applying for multiple internships or if you have never written a cover letter before, this article should help you better understand how to format one. While it’s never okay to copy and paste a cover letter, there are some instances in which you can re-use language in order to save time. For example, the introductory paragraph in which you talk about your school, major, availability, and future career plans can probably stay the same, and you can probably reuse some of the body of your cover letter if you happen to be applying to lots of similar positions.
Sometimes, competitive internships will ask you for a certain number of references. These should come from trusted individuals who have worked with you in a professional capacity and who can vouch for your work ethic, reliability, and any other traits that might be required of you during your potential internship.
The Center for Court Innovation required that I send in three professional references. I decided to ask my supervisor from a former internship at a State Senator’s office, a retired professor that I do administrative work for, and my academic advisor at Columbia. I sent each individual an email explaining what the opportunity was and why I was interested in it, and then I asked if I could list them as a reference. It’s a good thing I did this, because after my second interview my future boss called all three of them and asked for them to speak about their experiences working alongside me.
When listing your references, you should choose people who have seen the best side of you — basically, you should feel confident that these people would speak highly of you if they were to receive a call from your future employer. An obvious go-to for a reference would be a former boss. That being said, if you have limited or no work experience, you might be confused about who can vouch for your abilities.
If you’re in college, a professor or advisor might work well as references. If you’re still in high school, think about teachers or guidance counselors. It is important, also, to understand the difference between general/academic references and professional references. If you are being asked for professional references, then these must be people that you have worked with. If your work experience is limited, however, don’t panic—think about the people you’ve babysat, dog-walked, or done odd jobs for; you might be able to list them.
Your listed references should not be family members, friends, or anyone else who might have a clear and obvious bias about you as a professional. In addition, you should always, always be sure to ask your references for permission before listing them on an internship application. In any case, they’ll need to be aware of the fact that they might receive a call about you in the near future. Use this opportunity to catch up with them; tell them about the position you’re applying for and why you’re so excited about it!
While you usually won’t know what questions will be asked in your interview prior to having it, you can still try to prepare the best you can. Think about what you plan to say in response to common interview questions like “tell us a little about yourself,” “why do you want to work with us,” and “What are your biggest strengths/weaknesses in the workplace?” You might consider rehearsing your answers to these questions with a trusted peer or even holding a mock interview at your school’s career center (if you have one).
Before the interview, you should also be sure that you have done extensive research on the organization or program. You want to do your best at demonstrating your competence as well as your enthusiasm and knowledge about the project or tasks you would be working on. Be sure to have a few good questions prepared to ask your interviewer about the position as well — by asking the right question, you can show your level of interest in the position, as well as the fact that you have done your research.
When I interviewed at the Center for Court Innovation, I remember being so nervous beforehand that I worried I might faint in the conference room. When my future boss walked in and shook my hand, though, I realized that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain from this interview. I tried to convey to her how excited I was about the organization and their work, and we ended up really hitting it off and having a great conversation. The next week, I was asked back for a second interview with my boss’ boss. He brought with him printed out copies of the writing samples that I had sent, and at first I was very intimidated. Once we had started talking, though, he told me that he thought I was a strong writer and he started to ask me more serious questions about the vision that I had for CCI’s blog project were I to be hired. I felt excited to be taken seriously and I talked candidly about what I planned to do and why I felt that this project was so important.
If all goes well with your first internship interview, you may be asked in for a second (or even third) interview. Don’t panic; this is a good sign! Just be aware that questions may get more difficult/more specific as you go through each step of the hiring process. For more tips on interview prep, you can check out these posts:
If you feel compelled, you can send your interviewer an email within a day or two of the interview. Highlight your strengths and why you would be a good fit for the position, and be sure to recount specific moments from your interview with them. If the two of you are a fan of the same football team or grew up in the same town, be sure to throw in a quip about this! Writing something nice and specific will help you be remembered more easily among the piles and piles of resumes.
I was thrilled to hear back from the Center for Court Innovation within a week of my second interview. I had a wonderful summer working on their blog project, and in fact, they actually decided to keep me on as an intern during the school year! While the hiring process was by no means easy, I’m glad I stuck in there and ended up getting this opportunity that has benefited me both personally and professionally. Not to mention, sometimes the kitchen in our office has free food!
If you still haven’t heard back within a week of interviewing (and your interviewer didn’t give you a time frame of when you might expect to hear back), then be sure to send an email. You want to make it clear that you are still interested in the position.
On the other hand, if you’ve still got a few days until you’ll be given an answer, then you can sit back, relax, breathe, do some yoga, maybe even visit our Zen blog. The hard work is done and now all you can do is remain confident and hopeful.
While applying for a competitive internship may seem scary at first, but it’s really about finding one that’s the right fit for you. Sure, it’s cliched, but if it doesn’t work out then it probably wasn’t meant to be! At the very least, you managed to gain some valuable insight as to what applying for jobs is like. We know that it’s scary, but even if they don’t call back, you should be proud of yourself for putting yourself out there.
For more tips on internships, check out these posts: