How to Get an Internship: 5 Tips for Standing Out
Years ago, our founder Ramit Sethi beat out several Stanford MBA students for an incredible internship at Sun Microsystems. Oh, and he was just a sophomore in college at the time.
That’s right. A skinny teenage college student beat out the cream-of-the-crop students getting their Master’s Degree in business.
“How did he swing that?” you might ask.
Great question! Getting an internship isn’t quite as hard as you might think and getting your dream internship is far more achievable than you’ve led yourself to believe.
You just have to follow a few simple steps (don’t get us wrong, it’ll still take hard work) and soon you’ll be getting your ideal internship in college.
By the end of this guide, you’ll be empowered (and psyched) to go out and land your ideal internship at your dream company.
Why it’s difficult to get an internship
The truth is, an internship can be a great way to get your foot in the door at your dream company. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic way to see if you actually enjoy doing the work you’re going to graduate in.
There are countless upsides to getting an internship.
Yet so many college students treat it like it’s just another boring task on the way to graduation — like they’re just signing up for another class to check another box before they can walk across that stage and get a shiny diploma in the mail.
This is the ABSOLUTELY WRONG way to approach it.
Instead, you’ve got to look at it like this:
Understanding “The Truffle Effect”
Most college students trying to get an internship are like salt.
Salt is a commodity, which means you literally 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.
Most companies see interns as easily substitutable bodies that only serve to fill headcount requirements. But guess what?
You DO NOT want to be a commodity.
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 convert your internship into a meaningful career.
Instead of being salt, you want to be a truffle.
A truffle is so unique and valuable that people will pay disproportionately high amounts of money 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.”
You DO want to be 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.
The reason so many college students fail at getting a quality internship is they approach it like salt — spattering applications everywhere, all as boring as the next student’s.
It’s not your fault. It’s what society and tradition have taught you to do. But that doesn’t make the “salt” approach a viable path to success.
It takes time and effort to “unlearn” everything you’ve been taught about money (like cutting back on lattes is really going to somehow make you rich someday). Luckily, we’ve developed an in-depth guide to making money where we teach you how to think about money, how to get a raise, and how to make money on the side—plus lots more.
How to land your dream internship
With that understanding, let’s dive deep into what it really takes to land a high-quality internship at a company you love.
If you follow the steps we outline below, we can almost guarantee your hard work will pay off. It won’t be easy, but it will be 100% worth your time and effort.
The first step in getting the internship you want is to know exactly what you’re looking for.
1. Define what you’re looking for
When people hear “get specific,” they’ll typically nod and shrug. “Yeah, yeah. I got it.”
And yet hardly anyone actually does it!
For example, if we 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. Blech.
Instead, you should get serious about this and set a SMART goal to help identify exactly what you want out of an internship experience.
Remember: Internships are about WAY MORE than just getting course credit so you can graduate. Keep that in mind as you follow the next section.
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Set a SMART goal (Get hyper-specific)
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 we’re 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 the 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 2021 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 us and says, “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” that’s a long discussion that we, frankly, don’t want to have.
If they say, “Do you know any sales managers at B2C tech companies in Silicon Valley?” we’ll introduce them to three within 10 minutes.
It’s all about finding your ikigai and keeping your eye on the goal.
List out your dream companies
Next, take your SMART goals above and start listing out all your idea companies.
Honestly, it doesn’t even matter if you know whether these companies offer internships at the moment or not.
The idea here is to identify 20-30 “dream companies” you’d LOVE to have an internship with — paid or not.
PRO TIP: You can literally ask for an internship at any company you want. Just because they don’t have any openings posted, doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to “wow” someone and make them interested in working with you. It’s a harder way to do it, but it’s definitely a more “truffle” way.
Most people do it backward
What’s scary is how many students do this completely backward.
Instead of listing out the companies they’d like to intern with, they just hit up job boards or Facebook and see what’s out there.
So they end up taking some lame internship they hate and want to quit before the end of their first day.
That’s just “salt” mentality, straight up.
A truffle, on the other hand, starts with what THEY WANT. The first step is to make your dream list.
2. Leverage your network
Once you’ve become super clear on what your internship goals are and have listed 20-30 companies you’d love to intern with, it’s time to get to work.
You’ve got to start leveraging your network to find internship opportunities that match your SMART goals and your dream list.
Here are a few places you can start.
Your 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.
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. (More on getting organized below.)
Wish you could connect with more amazing people, and not feel awkward in social situations? Download our FREE Ultimate Guide to Social Skills below.
Internship sites & job boards
After you’ve exhausted your search in the career center, it’s time to move on to the more saturated and time-consuming option: the internet.
Since everyone is searching the web for internships, it’s more competitive than other outlets but nothing beats the speed at which you can rack up a few great ideas and opportunities.
Here are a few sites you can start with on your journey to finding the right internship:
- 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.
- Internships.com. A great resource to find remote internships if you don’t feel like buying a plane ticket to fly across the country.
- WayUp. Formerly Looksharp.com, this site offers opportunities from over 30,000 companies.
Go through these websites and do exactly what 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 watching Conan every night — or you’re an Apple fanboy/fangirl? There are internships for that.
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
Finally, 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).
In fact, you might even find out that some companies aren’t officially offering an internship, but would love to talk to you about becoming an intern anyway just because you have a mutual connection. More on this later.
But what if I don’t know anyone?
Leveraging your network can be really exciting if you know a lot of really cool people. For everyone else, it can feel overwhelming, embarrassing, or like a waste of time.
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 we 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 of 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 three emails and the third is performing best — I’m getting a 50% response rate. I set up three 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.
Subject: Michigan State grad — would love to chat about your work at Deloitte
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.]
Would it be possible for us to meet? [A BUSY PERSON CAN SIMPLY REPLY TO THIS WITH A “YES” — PERFECT. NOTE THAT I DIDN’T ASK FOR THE TIME/LOCATION AS THAT’S TOO MUCH INFORMATION IN THE FIRST EMAIL.]
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: In the spreadsheet below, 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.
Wish you could connect with more amazing people, and not feel awkward in social situations? Download our FREE Ultimate Guide To Social Skills below.
3. Organize your search
As you begin to take in all this information from the sources above (and elsewhere) the smart thing to do is to keep it very 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, we 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.
Be sure to keep your spreadsheet updated and safe. It will come in very handy when you’re actually applying to the internship. (We’re almost there, we promise.)
4. Prepare your materials
Next, you’ll want to arm yourself with everything you’ll possibly need in order to land that dream internship.
A few key materials are found below and you may have extra material depending on your profession of choice (for example, an Interior Designer might need a portfolio).
The material we’ll focus on include:
- A mouthwatering resume
- A customized cover letter
Create a mouthwatering resume
The resume is often make or break when it comes to job applications. This can be particularly true when trying to get an internship.
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 had in the past — including going door-to-door selling girl scout cookies — you need to know the two elements that it takes to create a fantastic resume:
- 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?”
- 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.
We’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 we see resumes like this, we 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 Ramit’s 15-minute video on creating a winning resume. In it, he’ll show you the exact techniques as well as the resume he used to land all of his 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.
Draft a custom (rockstar) cover letter for each application
In addition to a resumé, you’re going to want a rockstar cover letter for each application.
Each cover letter should be customized to the position you’re applying for.
And by “customized” we DON’T mean:
- Changing the address at the top of the page
- Adding the person’s name to the salutation
- Changing “your company” to “Adidas” (or wherever you want to work)
No, take the time to ACTUALLY write a stand-out cover letter.
If you’re not sure how to do that, this in-depth article will be super helpful.
Even if there’s no job posting, you can still reach out and ask.
5. Ace the interview (Ramit’s proven technique)
Your moment has finally come. You’ve followed all the steps we outlined above and you’ve landed an interview (or lots of them, we hope) with dream companies from your list.
Now is not the time to blow it.
So let us share with you Ramit’s proven “Briefcase Technique” that helps you get hired (and even get a raise later on).
This is one of Ramit’s 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 we 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.
“But, this sounds like a lot of work…”
I know what you might be thinking at this point:
“But this sounds like a ton of work…”
Well. Yeah, it is.
But you know what’s worse than putting a ton of working into getting your dream internship?
Working at an internship you hate. Only to get a job you hate. Only to be miserable for the rest of your life.
It’s how the “salt” lives. Not how the “truffle” lives. And YOU… you’re a truffle.
Our advice to you: Fight the shrug effect.
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 from 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 to get the internship of your dreams.