Internship Insider: Six timeless tips for landing an internship

6 insider tips to get an internshipEveryone knows how important college internships are. If they weren't, the market wouldn't support a cottage industry of companies that charge parents thousands of dollars, as the Chicago Tribune recently reported, to find their son or daughter an unpaid summer job.

Since internships are so critical and competitive, students surely take them seriously, right? They probably take special care when applying and interviewing for these coveted positions ... don't they?

That's what employers might assume. It's probably what students' parents assume. It's certainly what I assumed when I started my job three years ago at Columbia College Chicago helping students find internships and employers find interns. But it wasn't long before I was reminded of the adage that one should never assume anything.

I've learned it's always appropriate to start from scratch when it comes to advice on how to get an internship.

Rule #1: Dress appropriately

Sounds like common sense, but it bears repeating -- especially to a generation that grew up with routine "pajama days" at school. Jessica Wylie, who helps hire marketing and communication interns for the YMCA of the USA, says applicants' mistakes include "not being dressed appropriately in business attire, such as wearing jeans, t-shirts and gym shoes.'' From others, I've learned of intern applicants dressing skimpily or, even more far-fetched-sounding, wearing ... well ... sleepwear. A magazine editor told me of a student who showed up wearing flannel soft pants and moccasin-looking footwear. When he asked the student what the shoes were called, he answered, "They're more like slippers.''

Rule #2: Double-check your application materials

Have at least one person read over your application materials for spelling, punctuation, grammar and just plain sense. Don't rely on "spell check'' programs, which might not realize you've misused "their'' for "there.'' And while this may fall into the "duh'' department for many, don't use curse words in application materials. Find other words to show how clever and offbeat you are.

Rule #3: Treat phone interviews as seriously as an in-person meeting

John Patrick, student programs coordinator for CNN says: "We have students apply from all over the world, so a lot of our first-round interviews are done on the phone. People should be as focused and free of distraction as possible. I've interviewed people who sound like they're washing dishes, or are driving home with their windows down and lots of background noise. I had someone who was interviewing in the middle of her 'spin' class on her cell phone.

"I've heard career counselors say you should 'dress up' for a phone interview to get yourself in the frame of mind for an interview,'' Patrick says. "That might sound kind of extreme, but you should have your resume in front of you and be able to concentrate.''

Rule #4: Research the employer prior to the interview

Even a simple Web search can yield background information about the organization. Read it. Then find more and read that. Then read it all again and come up with questions. Show some understanding of the history and current work done by the employer.

"It's impressive when applicants do research beforehand about the organization or company,'' said Wylie. "Also, if the applicant has a passion for or personal connection with the organization, he or she can stand out by sharing this immediately in the cover letter and during the interview.''

Rule #5: Sell yourself

Students often come to me for help in starting their resumes, lamenting the fact that they don't have experience in their field. But that's what college and internships are for, gaining that experience. In the meantime, include the experiences you do have. Were you "just'' a camp counselor? Play up the fact that you were responsible for the time management, safety and happiness of a group of children -- a mark of responsibility and trust that you shouldn't undersell. Were you "only'' a fast-food worker? Then you learned to handle orders, complaints, money and a host of unseen complications quickly and efficiently.

"Since many intern applicants do not have a lot of work experience, it's a plus when (they can) communicate what they learned on smaller jobs, volunteer work, extracurricular or even a class project,'' says Wylie. "Even the smallest experience can provide an opportunity to build skills.''

And in an era when resumes are submitted online, know that computers are helping to screen applicants, so sell yourself "digitally'' as well. "If we need someone with Final Cut Pro editing skills, then resumes that (list those skills) are going to go to the top of the searches,'' Patrick says. "List all computer programs you know by name, all cameras and software. Those words will be picked up in the searches.''

Rule #6: Treat an internship like the 'real' job that it is

Even if you're not getting paid for your work, you are making a strong impression on the people around you. You want an internship to end with a recommendation or letter of reference from your supervisor, so you want to leave a good impression. A common mistake Wylie sees is students trying to arrange internship hours around vacations and other activities, rather than treating it as a priority.

"The first impression is everything,'' Wylie says. "I began as an intern at my current job and approached the internship as if I was already a full-time employee. I worked hard to make a contribution to our team and several months later I was hired.''

None of these rules are complicated or burdensome. They might not guarantee someone an internship, but they could well put the applicant ahead of their classmate who didn't take an extra few minutes to proofread ... or hop off the bike ...or get dressed.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Send suggestions for story ideas to
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