Millions of students across the country compete for internships every year, but many have no idea how to find the right position -- let alone actually get an offer. Submit a generic cover letter or say one wrong thing during your interview and you could find yourself in the reject pile. Here are seven simple tips to help you navigate the dizzying process.
Do your homework. Trying to distinguish yourself from scores of other qualified candidates can seem daunting. But it's not impossible. You may think it's a no-brainer, but researching a company beforehand can really help set you apart from the crowd. Forget using the same cover letter for all your applications. "You should be able to write a cover letter and resume that is very tailored to the position that you're applying for," University of Michigan internship coordinator Genevieve Harclerod says. "Really answer the question, 'I'm looking to work for you because…" Beyond what you actually say or write, employers simply like to see that you've put some time and effort into the process -- an example of how you'll approach the job once you're there.
Don't panic. While career counselors stress that students should generally accept the first good offer they receive, you shouldn't feel pressure to give an answer right away. "Employers don't always have the expectation that you will immediately say yes," Harclerod says. "You can ask for some time and that's OK." So what's an acceptable amount of time to deliberate? Waiting too long could move you back to the reject pile, but sign on too quickly and you could miss out on another offer somewhere else. The best advice? Just be upfront and ask how long you have to consider. It might seem like an awkward question, but companies don't want you to make a hasty decision either. Generally speaking, a week is fair -- ample time for you to follow up on your other applications and to make living arrangements if you do decide to accept.
Weigh all your options. When receiving multiple offers, many students stress over picking the right internship. Is this really the right company for me? Will I end up doing a lot of grunt work? These are common questions. "People rush into internships sometimes just for the sake of saying they got an internship," Harclerod says. "We encourage students to think about what they are trying to get out of the internship." To ensure that you fully understand what you might be getting yourself into, make sure to ask questions both during your interview and after you receive an offer. But do it tactfully. Remember, until you actually work there, they're still interviewing you. When it comes down to making that decision, try making a pros and cons list for each internship, but also trust your gut. Getting a good vibe from a company is incredibly important.
Don't be star-struck. Students are often enamored by a big company's name and reputation. A well-known firm can have its advantages and often looks good on your resume down the road, but career counselors also say that interns can get a lot more hands-on experience working for a smaller company.
Remember, money isn't everything. Unpaid internships are, unfortunately, a reality. Working for free can leave students discouraged and strapped for cash. But sometimes an internship can lead to bigger things down the road. "There is a huge inherent value in an internship, paid or unpaid," Harclerod says. Consider it an investment in your career. Often, companies are more flexible with unpaid interns -- allowing them to negotiate their hours and free up some time for a part-time job. There's also the possibility of college credit. The decision to take an unpaid internship largely depends on your financial situation. You don't want to go broke doing it, just make sure you're keeping the bigger picture in mind too.
Don't burn bridges. Declining an offer can be tough. Especially when you've gone to great lengths to convince someone that you want the position, only to turn it down for another offer. The key is to be upfront and not play games. Make sure you thank whoever made the offer and lay the groundwork for staying in touch. You never know -- you could wind up interviewing for a real job at the very same company once graduation rolls around.
Learn something. Fetching coffee, making photocopies, and answering phones are every intern's worst nightmare. While all internships inevitably come with a few administrative tasks, selecting the right position and being proactive once you're there can make for a much more rewarding experience. If an employer starts listing menial responsibilities during your interview, red flags should go up. And if you do land a good internship, try setting up periodic meetings with your supervisor to see how the internship is going from their perspective and inquire about what else you could be doing. "Not every office has an hour to talk to their interns every week, but try to tap the expertise of the people around you," Harclerod says. "This is your chance to ask a lot of questions." While you shouldn't make a pest of yourself, take advantage of the opportunity to learn all you can while you're there.