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How to get an internship (the ESSENTIAL 2020 reference)

The average internship gets 250 applicants in 48 hours. I’ll show you how to beat all of them and win the internship using the Truffle Principle.

Ramit Sethi

Years ago, I got a job as an intern at Sun Microsystems. I actually ended up beating out several Stanford MBA students for the job…as a sophomore in college.

That’s right. A skinny teenage college student beat out people getting their masters in business for an internship. And I landed the role because one key element separated me from the rest of the other applicants: I was a truffle.

The Truffle Principle

Interns are like salt.

Salt is a commodity. You don’t care which brand of salt you get…they’re all the same to you. You can substitute one brand of salt for another and nobody would be able to tell the difference. And as a result, the price of commodity salt is extremely low.

Much like interns.

Interns are easily substitutable bodies that only serve to fill headcount requirements. You do NOT want to be a commodity. I’ll say that again:


If you are, you’re exactly the same as the next 100+ interns. And that means it’s harder to get hired, harder to stand out, and harder to get meaningful work and experience.

Instead of being salt, you want to be a truffle.

truffle principle

A truffle is so unique and valuable that people will pay disproportionately to get one. If you’re a truffle, hiring managers won’t be able to even conceive of substituting you because, through your application, you’ve shown that you can uniquely solve their problems so deeply that you’ll be considered “one of a kind.”

When that happens, not only have you secured the internship, but you have laid the foundation for increased job opportunities down the road.

That’s the Truffle Principle.

Why most internship applications don’t get read

A while back, I was hiring a content curation intern for IWT and received a TON of applications. In fact, so many apps came in that I could only afford to spend 15 seconds on each one.

Think about that. A hiring manager will receive 250+ applications in the first 48 hours of posting an internship opening. The vast majority of people consistently produce mediocre applications that look like everything else out there (salt). Yours must stand out (truffle).

Whenever I’m going through job applications for IWT, my first objective is always to DISQUALIFY people so I can move through the huge stack of apps.

When it came to the internship, I began to notice a few insights:

  • It only takes one bad line to disqualify yourself. For example, when I asked if the applicant was a self-starter and resourceful, one replied:“For one, I am filling out this survey for the curation position, usually I would have glanced over it, thought to myself, ‘Wow, that seems like a cool job,’ and then tell myself, ‘I’m not qualified for it.’ Yet here I am wanting to learn and put myself out there. ”Your application is not a therapy session!!! Highlight why you’re the best for the position.
  • Every finalist, including the winning candidate, DID THE ACTUAL JOB instead of just talking about how good they were. They built a system that curated content and sent me a link to the system or a video of it working so I could see for myself. Now THAT’S a great way to stand out.
  • I could separate a salt from a truffle after the first 10-15 applications. Yes, it’s actually that easy to tell if someone is qualified for the role versus someone who isn’t worth the time to glance at the application.

It hurts to hear — but it’s true. Salt candidates will say, “Waaaahhh…you should spend more time to be fair.” Winning candidates already know this is how the game works, so they spend their time making sure their application stands out immediately.

Fight the Shrug Effect

I get it. It’s easy to brush all of this off. It’s much more comforting to say, “Yeah, but it’d be way easier to get an internship if I had connected parents/the right major/elite college/whatever.”

Don’t put up your own psychological barrier of why other people are different than you! That’s the Shrug Effect and it’s debilitating when it comes to applying to any sort of job.

Yes, maybe 5% – 10% of people who get the best jobs and internships were born with rich parents or they’re naturally gifted — but the rest of them worked their asses off, and that counts much more.

And that’s exactly what you’ll have to do if you want an internship.

Here are the 4 steps you can take today that’ll take you from being a salt applicant to a truffle.

How to get an internship

Step 1: Specify the exact role you want through SMART objectives

When people hear “get specific,” they’ll typically nod and shrug. “Yeah, yeah. Ramit, I got it.”

And yet hardly anyone actually does it!

For example, if I asked you right now, “What’s your dream internship?” how would you respond? 99.9999999% of us would say something like:

  • “I’m looking for an internship that’s challenging and rewarding.”
  • “I want to work with the guys on Suits.”
  • “I want to learn something that lets me really make an impact.”
  • “I want to work with people!”

Pure, unadulterated salt.

That’s because the problem with typical goal setting is that the goals set are too broad — and you have no idea where to start. So when you set a goal like, “I want to work with people,” you end up spinning your wheels.

That’s why I’m a big proponent of SMART objectives.

SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-oriented. And with each element in SMART objectives, you’re going to want to ask yourself a set of questions that’ll help you develop a winning goal.

  • Specific. What will my goal achieve? What is the precise outcome I’m looking for? What do I want to learn from this internship?
  • Measurable. How will I know when I’ve accomplished the goal? What does success look like? What size company or industry do I want to target?
  • Attainable. Are there resources I need to achieve the goal? What are those resources? Do I have connections or unique abilities that could help me land a position? (Yes, you do.)
  • Relevant. Why am I doing this? Do I really WANT to do this? Is it a priority in my life right now? How does this internship improve my future?
  • Time-oriented. What is the deadline? Will I know in a few weeks if I’m on the right track? How long before intern season ends?

Knowing this, we’re going to want to reframe that “I want to work with people” goal into something much more specific and actionable, such as, “I want to intern in client management at a boutique advertising agency in fall 2017 using my sister’s ex-girlfriend to introduce me.”

Here are some other SMART objectives a truffle would have:

  • “I’m looking to intern in the inside sales department at a social networking company in Los Angeles to help my career in sales.”
  • “I’m interested in interning in development at a women’s issues nonprofit in Washington DC.”
  • “I want to intern at an independent publishing house focused on fiction in San Francisco to see if I really want to go into publishing.”

Do you see how much better the SMART objective is than just vague goal setting? When you get specific, you know exactly what you want. That way, when it comes time to go to your network and start asking around for internships, you’re not wasting anyone’s time by making them do the work for you.

In other words, if someone comes to me and says, “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” that’s a long discussion that I, frankly, don’t want to have. If they say, “Do you know any sales managers at B2C tech companies in Silicon Valley?” I’ll introduce them to three within 10 minutes.

A while back I conducted an interview with my friend Noah Kagan. He’s a master at helping people get laser-focused on their goals. In fact, he actually helped me set the goal to write my first book.

Check out the video of our interview below. Pay special attention at 3:53 where he talks about the strategy that he learned from Mark Zuckerberg that has brought him success.

Bonus: If you want to stop making excuses and break yourself out of a rut, download my Ultimate Guide to Habits.

Step 2: Leverage your network to find the perfect internship

Luckily, if you’re in college, you already have a massive network you can draw upon to find internships. If you’re not in college, you’ll still be able to find a great internship — though you’ll have to be just a little more creative in your search.

Resources for internships can be broken up into these distinct areas:

  1. College career center
  2. Internet
  3. Friends and family

From these areas, you’ll be able to draw upon a well of seemingly infinite internship opportunities.

College career center

If you’re in college and looking to get an awesome internship, you’re in luck. The vast majority of colleges and universities have career centers dedicated to finding you a job you’ll love. Some even offer services like resume consultations, mock interviews, and networking events. More on that later.

Any career center should have an updated database of internship opportunities available either at the actual center or online (most likely both). Your first step should be to go through this database and cull through it for the internships that are germane to you.

Remember that SMART objective you set? Use that as a parameter by which you’ll filter and decide on which internships you’ll apply to.

You should literally be writing down the information for each one — you’ll need it when you actually start the application process.


A few great sites to check out:

  • LinkedIn. Aside from being an amazing networking tool, LinkedIn provides a handy job search tool filled with companies looking for top talent.
  • Craigslist. You read that right. Up-and-coming businesses are constantly turning to Craigslist every day to look for interns, and it’ll be easy to set yourself apart from the rest with the Craigslist Penis Effect.
  • A great resource to find remote internships if you don’t feel like buying a plane ticket to fly across the country.
  • WayUp. Formerly, this site offers opportunities from over 30,000 companies. 

Go through these websites and do as you did with your college career center database. Write down each one that’s relevant to you and your goals.

PRO TIP: Is there a company you’re already a big fan of? Maybe you love reading Cosmo? Or watching Conan every night? If it fits your SMART objective, be sure to check if there’s an internship at the company you admire — mention you are a fan on the application and why that makes you better than the other 249 applicants (already know the house style, how Conan picks his video games, how Anna Wintour likes her coffee, etc…).

Use your family and friends to network

Be sure to talk to your friends, parents, parents’ friends, parents’ friends’ friends, your friend’s friend’s uncle twice removed…

You get the picture. There are a lot of companies that offer internships — companies the people you know already work at.

So ask around! Not only might you find an internship you love, but you already have a leg up on the application process because you KNOW a person working there (I’ll touch on that more when we talk about referrals).

Keep it all organized

Be sure to record all of the internships you’ve found in a Google or Excel spreadsheet so you can keep track of them all as you’re applying.

When recording, I suggest you write down the company name and role, the length of the internship, a due date, and whether or not you’ve applied yet — at MINIMUM.

When you put it together, here’s what it might look like:

Company – Role Internship length Due date Applied
IWT – Editorial Intern Summer 2017 05/16 Yes
CAA – Script Reader Fall 2017 06/06 Yes

Of course, you can be as detailed as you want with your spreadsheet and include things like application requirements and whether or not you need an essay.

Be sure to keep your spreadsheet updated and safe. It will come in very handy when you’re actually applying to the internship.

Step 3: Find the perfect referral

This is typically where the Shrug Effect comes in. People LOVE to talk about how they don’t have a network so they can’t get referrals. When I ask them, “Well, who have you tried to reach out to?” they respond with a blank look and shrug.

  • SALT: “I tried but I just don’t know anyone! I emailed a couple friends but they have no idea. It’s frustrating when it’s all about WHO you know. How can they expect me to know all these people when I’m just a student?”
  • TRUFFLE: “First, I checked my LinkedIn profile and sent out some emails. I tested 3 emails and the third is performing best — I’m getting a 50% response rate. I set up 3 coffee meetings for next week. Then I went into my college career office. I also mentioned exactly what I’m looking for when I was talking with professors, and one of them knew a director at a company I want to work for! So we are having coffee tomorrow.”

See the difference? The salt applicant just asked a few buddies before giving up. When truffles decide to find an internship, they draw upon their network and connections to find the roles that aren’t even public.

They can send a few emails and bypass the entire hiring apparatus and get a meeting with a hiring manager. These will be friends who’ll vouch for them saying, “You really need to talk to this person,” which profoundly changes the tenor of the conversation.

Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes and imagine being introduced to someone who you “need to talk to” rather than a random applicant desperate for college credit and a little bit of money. Who do you think would get your interest?

Once you find a few potential referrals, you should ask them to…well, refer you. This can be as simple as taking them out to coffee or shooting them an email.

Here’s a template you can use to meet just about anyone along with analysis on why it works.

To: Jane

From: Samantha

Subject: Michigan State grad — would love to chat about your work at Deloitte

Hi Jane,

My name is Samantha Kerritt. I go to school at Michigan State and came across your name on our alumni site. [TELL THEM HOW YOU CAME ACROSS THEIR NAME SO YOU DON’T SEEM LIKE A CREEP.]

I’d love to get your career advice for 15-20 minutes. I’m looking to get an internship at the Acme Company and know that you’ve worked there before. [THE FIRST SENTENCE SAYS WHAT SHE WANTS. MOST PEOPLE ARE FLATTERED THAT PEOPLE WANT/VALUE THEIR ADVICE.]

Do you think I could ask you some questions about your role at Acme and what motivated you to choose the company? I’d especially love to know how you made your choices after graduating from Michigan State. [“MICHIGAN STATE” REINFORCES SHARED BOND.]

I can meet you for coffee or at your office…or wherever it’s convenient. I can work around you! [THE BUSY PERSON IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU. TREAT THEM ACCORDINGLY.]




One of the best things about this email is its brevity. There’s zero fat in the message and it just tells the recipient what she needs to know.

PRO TIP: Remember that spreadsheet? Referrals are a perfect addition to it if you want to keep them organized as well — it is super awkward if you ask the same person for two referrals.

Step 4: Expertly prepare for the application and interview

Yet another area where salt applicants are willing to shrug off. “Yeah, yeah. I know I need to prepare.”

You don’t just “need to prepare.” You need to be willing to go above and beyond what “needs” to be done in order to be ready for the interview.

  • SALT: “I spent an hour browsing their website and Googling around for news about them. I also talked to a friend on the phone for 5 minutes about what kind of questions he thought I should expect.”
  • TRUFFLE: “I’d already met with 3 people on the team before the interview, so I knew exactly what their challenges were, and even the words they used to describe them. I wrote all those notes down, then compared them with what I found on the web. Then I crafted my narrative. I invited a friend over — he’s a management consultant so he knows how to ask tough questions — and we conducted a mock interview for 2 hours. I recorded the video and stopped every 15 minutes to calibrate.”

Sound hard? Good. Most people won’t do the hard work, giving you the upper hand when you DO.

The people who put in 2x the effort get back 10x the results. Yes, you’ll have to work harder — BUT you’ll get the first pick of internships, while other people fight over scraps.

Create a mouthwatering resume

The resume is often make or break when it comes to job applications. That’s why you’re going to want to craft one that’ll leave the hiring manager clamoring to hire you.

Before you start writing down every job you have including going door-to-door selling girl scout cookies, you need to know the two elements that it takes to create a fantastic resume:

  1. It needs to have a narrative. Great resumes aren’t just a list of facts. If that’s all that’s in your resume, you’re not going to be memorable enough to catch the hiring manager’s attention in 15 seconds. Instead, craft a narrative. Ask yourself, “After someone reads my resume for 10 seconds, what is the one thing they should remember about me?”
  2. Cut the fat — leave the filet mignon. The second most important part of crafting a world-class resume is cutting the fat. Every word must earn its place on the page. If it’s not adding to and improving the narrative, cut it. If it is, ask if there’s another word or phrase that would do the job better. I’ve hired dozens of people at IWT. That means reading thousands of resumes. Most of them were 1-2 pages and 50% – 60% of it could have been deleted. When I see resumes like this, I assume that they don’t know how to write a resume (not a good sign) or they don’t have anything better to share.Don’t do this. Make every word count. It’s better to have a shorter, more meaningful resume than a long one filled with garbage.

Check out my 15-minute video on creating a winning resume. In it, I show you the exact techniques as well as the resume I used to land me all of my internships in college.

PRO TIP: Remember to keep referring to your spreadsheet to make sure you’ve applied to all of the internships on your list by marking “yes” in the applied column.

Dominate your interview with The Briefcase Technique

This is one of my absolute favorite techniques to utilize in interviews, salary negotiations, client proposals — whatever! And the beauty of it is that you’ve already done 90% of the work before you walk into the interview.

To any boss or hiring manager, the best incentive to give you an internship is knowing that you WILL add value to the company. Knowing this, you’re going to want to prepare a case for yourself to showcase how you’re a person completely deserving of the position.

That’s why I want you to utilize The Briefcase Technique and compile a proposal showcasing the specific areas in the company wherein you can add value. You’re going to bring this 1-5 page proposal with you when you interview, so you can pull out the document and outline how exactly you’re going to solve the company’s challenges during the interview.

Simply say, “I’d love to show you something I put together,” and then literally pull out your proposal document detailing the pain points of the company and EXACTLY how you can help them. IWT bonus points if you actually use a briefcase.

By identifying the pain points the company is experiencing, you can show the hiring manager where specifically you’re going to add value — making you a very valuable hire.

I go into even more detail on The Briefcase Technique in this 2-minute video. Check it out below.

Of course, because you’re a winner, you’re going to want to prep even more for the interview. So here are a few great resources from IWT that’ll help you:

Always remember: For your interview, what do SALT applicants do? And what should a TRUFFLE applicant do?

I want to give you a head start. Today, I’m giving you access to a video on how to master the art of interviewing. In the video, you’ll meet Karen — a recent college graduate with no experience who used my Dream Job material and coaching to land not just one, but TWO dream jobs. You can use the same strategy to get an amazing internship you’ll love.

Master the Internship Interview

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