Recently, we explored the importance of pursuing relevant work experience prior to seeking full-time employment. But how does a student with no experience and a limited network find these opportunities?
Let’s begin by looking at the terms internship and co-op. These terms are often used interchangeably, though there are some important differences. Internships are usually short-term or temporary assignments and can sometimes be unpaid. Although many students are familiar with the concept of a summer internship, it’s just as common to intern throughout the school year. In contrast, most co-ops are longer-term assignments coinciding with classes or as alternating terms of work and class. Co-ops are almost always paid and are usually close to full-time. Sometimes co-ops are part of the school curriculum, earning credit toward graduation.
Despite the differences in terminology, it’s important to understand the requirements upfront. A student taking a full-time course load will be hard pressed to succeed in a full-time co-op. And a student requiring credits may need to decline an unpaid internship in favor of a co-op.
Next, visit the school career planning services office or web site. Locate key information and timelines for work programs. Is campus hosting any relevant events? If possible, setup an appointment to discuss your goals with a staff counselor. Keep in mind, many schools give precedence to upperclassmen. Don’t get discourage if this isn’t a quick win.
Don’t forget to map your major to one or more specific job titles. If unsure, turn to recent graduate statistics. Include information from competing schools. Look for bios of public figures in aspirational roles, noting degrees and career progression. See what jobs students landed with your major and degree and which companies hired them.
For some fields, there could be an overwhelming number of job titles that align. For others, specializations might be required to narrow the list. For example, a student studying computer science should decide if she prefers programming, systems design, security, hardware, or some other facet of information technology. If unsure, an internship or co-op might be just the thing to provide direction and focus.
Throughout the process, keep in mind interests and skills. Although the point of an internship is to gain experience, don’t expect employers to teach everything. A student that hasn’t learned to code shouldn’t expect to land a role as a programmer. She might initially be better suited to program management or business analysis until completing the right coursework.
Armed with job titles, perform an Internet search. Include one or more specific job titles and the keywords intern or co-op. Add the word job for good measure. If the results are overwhelming, refine your search with more keywords. Make a note of which companies are currently hiring. If postings are old, note the dates. This will help build a timeline for future roles.
Don’t assume all companies follow a prescriptive timeline. Many now offer ongoing intern programs with rolling starts. But nearly all companies want to fill roles months in advance. Students waiting until February to start searching may find themselves out of the running for summer roles.
In addition to the search approach, try looking directly at company sites. Many post internships alongside full-time roles. Some have dedicated sections for internships and co-ops. Use the graduation data gathered earlier to target specific companies.
Important data includes where the role is located. If you live on campus in the east, don’t put in for a west coast role unless it’s 100% remote. It’s also important to understand housing and transportation requirements. Some companies provide housing and/or transportation. Others leave it up to students. Accepting a 3-month summer internship only to find you must sign a 6-month lease for crazy expensive housing can be a soul crushing experience.
If necessary, force rank the opportunities based on your skills, interests, and fit with the company. Fit should include products, services and company culture. If you are anti-fossil fuels, it may not be a good idea to apply for roles in the petroleum industry. Similarly, if you tend to be shy, companies with a dog-eat-dog reputation might not be a good fit.
Finally, it’s time to start applying. A polished resume and customized cover letter for each role are must haves. If the resume is sparse, include relevant projects and coursework. There are many different styles of resume. Find a common template that works for your situation. Make the resume look visually appealing. It should also be error free. To the extent experience allows, the resume should echo back the posting in order to pass automated screening or AI checks. This might not be possible for junior intern roles where experience is limited.
Next, understand the application process. Some companies will perform on-campus recruiting whereas others prefer you apply online. Still others may participate in career fairs or similar recruiting events. If possible, meet with the company representative in person. The opportunity to hand-deliver a resume with 30 seconds to sell yourself is priceless. Rehearse a short elevator pitch explaining why you are a great fit. Be prepared for an on-the-spot speed interview. This in-person interaction is the best way to ensure you get consideration.
Use your student network, LinkedIn, and any available resources to see who works at these companies. You may be surprised to find direct connections. Another student, recent graduate, relative, family friend or even a university alumnus may be connected and willing to help. Don’t hesitate to pull that lever. Candidates that come with a referral, or better yet, a hand-delivered resume, are significantly more likely to land the role.
If this approach proves fruitless, don’t despair. Another alternative is to look for on-campus jobs. Most schools leverage students to fill a variety of roles. The key is finding work relevant to your degree. If given the choice between a janitorial post and a computer lab assistant, a computer science student should take the lab role, even if the janitorial role offers more hours or better pay. It’s about building relevant experience to demonstrate for a future employer. Although the janitorial job may show grit and other personal qualities, unless it’s paired with more relevant experience, it’s unlikely to impress employers.
One more great place to look is your local community. Look for help wanted signs. Visit businesses and inquire in person. Be prepared to offer a paper copy of your resume on the spot. Many small businesses and non-profits have ongoing needs. These roles can be extremely rewarding, and are often under the radar, meaning there’s little competition. As an added bonus, many smaller businesses are used to having part-time help and will often work around classes.
The key to finding a great experience is to not get discourage. Expect dozens of rejections. Learn from them and refine your approach. Only one company needs to say yes. After that first experience, the second and subsequent internships are easier to land.
Armed with knowledge, finding a great internship doesn’t have to be as elusive as finding Bigfoot. So, open your favorite search engine and get started today. What are you waiting for?