Summer Internships: 6 Best Ways to Get One

Students Study

Last Updated Mar 29, 2010 9:52 AM EDT

The summer internship and summer job outlook looks bleak for college and high school students. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who'll get summer jobs this year will be even lower than last year's record low 28 percent, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Just a decade ago, nearly half landed summer work.

But just because the odds are tough doesn’t mean you and your kids should be discouraged — it just means you need to have a good strategy and work a little harder. An intern’s foot in the door can be a giant step toward a real job post-college, and unless the economy picks up speed in a hurry, your children are going to need any advantage they can find as they enter the workforce. “The pressure is on and competition is fierce,” says Ellen Gordon Reeves, Harvard graduate and author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview? Finding, Landing and Keeping Your First Real Job.

Some internships pay, some are unpaid, and some you’ll pay for, since many colleges now require tuition in exchange for course credit for internships in students’ chosen fields. We grilled employment experts and recent grads to find out how to beat the odds and land a position. Here, then, is the college student’s six-step action plan for landing a summer job or internship.

1. Network Strategically

“Stop sending your resumes into cyberspace. It’s a black hole,” says Reeves. To help zero in on the right contact at a place you want to work, figure out who you know who can give you a leg up. Given the competition, you need to make actual contact with a human being to have a fighting chance. Can’t think of anyone? Here’s where cyberspace can help out: Tweet and post on Facebook: ‘I’d love to intern at Sirius Radio. Does anyone know someone who has worked or interned there?’”

Your web of relationships is the single most powerful tool you have at your disposal when it comes to landing this job — and every other job you get for the rest of your life.

University of Michigan senior Corey Friedberg brainstormed with housemates to exchange contacts and skillfully worked his various networks. “It has helped me to leverage my relationships,” says Friedberg. “I’ve used every contact, from my father to the recruiters I met on campus.” His diligence paid off. As a junior, Friedberg landed a summer internship at Bloomberg Financial in New York City. The company offered him a job after he graduates, but so has an investment bank. He’s going with the bank.

(Parents of teens should network, too. Ask your eighth-grade daughter’s friend’s dad if he could talk to your son about internship opportunities at his company. It’s just a conversation, not a commitment.)

2. Push Your Passion

“I’ve always been a political junkie,” says Hannah Lloyd, who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis last spring. Lloyd knew she wanted to get into politics after college, so in February 2009 she started applying for House of Representatives internships online and then spent her spring break in Washington, D.C., handing out resumes. “I wasn’t connected in Washington, but I’m very driven and motivated,” she says. Lloyd landed an unpaid internship the summer after graduation with Rep. Russ Carnahan, a Democrat from Missouri. The internship led to a paying job as a staff assistant for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

3. Mine the Web

One way to use the web for an internship search is to hone in on the most targeted Web sites for the field you hope to pursue. Alexander Altvater, a Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management major who graduated last year from Clemson University, logged onto the Student Conservation Association site to apply for his summer internship at Congaree National Park in South Carolina. The internship helped propel Altvater into becoming a park ranger for the National Park Service.

The other way is by using a broad database site such as Internships.com, Indeed.com, or, if you want to spend your summer overseas, GoAbroad.com. With these, after you type in the type of internship you want and the location, the site pulls up every match it has. If you’d prefer to intern at a nonprofit, try Jobs.change.org, an offshoot of the social entrepreneurship site, Change.org.

4. Research All Your Options

Make a beeline to Web sites of all the companies you’d ache to work for, read every word in their “job and internship opportunities” areas, and then pursue a few prospects relentlessly. Piggyback any networking possibilities and remember: Persistence and virtual pavement-pounding pays.

John Conte, a Penn State senior and captain of the hockey team, began scouring NHL team sites in November of junior year. At the bottom of Tampa Bay Lightning site, he found a lead about an internship. A family friend who worked for the team told him the right person to speak to (see, strategic networking works); Conte ultimately snagged the unpaid gig, along with 19 other interns. “The internship ended up costing me money, but this is a business I would love to pursue,” he says.

5. Study Up

Before an internship interview, learn how to walk the employer’s walk and talk the employer’s talk. At the interview, you’ll want to look as though you’d fit in and dazzle the recruiter with your knowledge about his business and industry.

For his financial firm interviews, Friedberg always wore a black or navy suit, a shirt with French cuffs, and a tie, keeping the campus dry cleaner busy. Lloyd knew she had to dress conservatively to be taken seriously for a Capitol Hill internship, so she wore dark pants, a turtleneck and a jacket.

Friedberg always crammed the week before an internship interview, reading the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to track the markets and get news about prospective employers. “It was definitely very time consuming,” he says. “But they’d ask you, ‘Where do you think the price of oil is going and why?’ You either had to nail it on head or look like a fool.”

6. Last Resort: Buy One

This may sound ridiculous, but for a fee of $5,000 to $10,000, an outfit called University of Dreams will guarantee to find an unpaid internship in one of eight U.S. cities or six international spots, or it will refund your “tuition.” The cost includes housing, meals, transportation (other than air travel), weekend trips, seminars, and resume-building instruction. “It’s almost like a study-abroad program with an internship. Pack a suitcase and fly to London and we’ll cover your entire time there,” says Scott Bergner, vice president of marketing. “Seventy-five percent of our candidates are being offered positions or being asked to come back and work for the company again,” he says.

While the idea of buying an internship sticks in the craw, think of it as an investment. If it results in a job come the spring of 2011, you’ll have earned a pretty good return.

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