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Internships: the gateways to career success and how to get one yourself

As my hand anxiously hovered over “submit,” I never knew what clicking on that button would bring for my future. That just four months later, I’d be standing in the East Room of the White House, listening to President Obama eulogize on the importance of “relentless optimism” in American life. Or that I’d meet and learn from brilliant political minds like Denis McDonough, Jen Psaki, and even Joe Biden, all of whom have taken on the highest posts in the US’s current administration.

You see, I was a White House Intern in the Spring of 2016. The internship presented me with opportunities beyond my wildest imaginings. Although I had served at the very bottom of the governmental food chain, I had the honor of serving both my president and country every day, if just in small ways. It equipped me with deep insights into our democracy and the pressing issues impacting not only American citizens but also people worldwide.

In fact, internships have consistently grown my perspectives and given me unforgettable experiences; I also worked for the National Parks Service in Alaska, where I got to live among the eye-achingly gorgeous sights of the Wrangell mountains and Teach For America, where I consulted on challenging educational projects for nonprofits in Chicago, Nashville, and Santa Fe.

While internships aren’t all grandeur and excitement (they can also be difficult and tiresome at times), they do offer an excellent chance to learn real-world skills in areas of interest to you and figure out the answer to that perennial question: “What do you want to do with your life?” I’d recommend that every student give internships a try at least once in college or even high school.

So, how exactly do you get the internship of your dreams, whether it’s in the great outdoors or among the towering skyscrapers of Wall Street? Well, it comes down to three things: reaching out to people, writing excellent cover letters and resumes, and attending recruitment events on campus or online.

1. Reaching out to people

If there’s an organization you want to intern with, a good first step is to contact individuals working there, whether through sending an email, messaging them on Linkedin, or even giving them a call. While this may make you feel a bit uncomfortable, most people you contact will be incredibly receptive and helpful. One of my colleagues from the White House, Alex Smith, landed a job at Facebook through connecting online with employees at the company. Here’s some great advice from him and here’s a wonderful guide to emailing/messaging others about a potential internship.

2. Writing excellent cover letters and resumes

These remain incredibly important to the internship application process because they are often the only materials a hiring officer will see before deciding to interview you. Therefore, make sure to review and follow Thinktown’s guidelines for both of these.

For resumes, make sure to keep them to one page maximum, unless otherwise indicated by your application; have separate sections for Education, Work Experiences, Volunteering and Extracurriculars, and Skills; most importantly, use strong action verbs and numerical details to indicate your contributions in previous experiences. Here is a guide to get you started on writing a resume.

For cover letters, you need to convey 1) why you want to work for the organization you are applying for, 2) how you will contribute to the organization, and 3) what skills and past experiences you would bring to the internship position. They should be succinct (about one page) and should follow this standard format.

Additionally, our editing specialists offer a great resource for you to work on and improve your application materials, not only for college admission but also when applying for an internship. The most important points to keep in mind when writing a cover letter/resume is to emphasize what value you can bring to the organization, showcase relevant skills, and utilize specific, quantifiable details when possible.

3. Attending recruitment events in college

You should take advantage of these events since they allow you to meet face-to-face with employees and make lasting connections at various companies. Even if you don’t immediately receive an offer through recruitment events, you can leverage the connections you make to get an internship later on!

If you go to the career center website of your university, you’ll often be able to find a calendar of the recruitment events planned for the academic year. For instance, here is this year’s recruitment calendar for my alma mater, Duke. Through this website, I could register for a variety of career fairs, for instance, those for startups, tech companies, and nonprofits. If you’re having trouble finding a list of recruitment events for your school, never hesitate to email or call your career office.

When attending recruitment events, make sure to dress in professional attire, bring copies of your resumes and cover letters to hand to recruiters, and be ready to talk about your past experiences and why you’d like to work in a given organization. Your career office will likely provide a list of employers coming to a career fair, so definitely do your research beforehand and identify which companies you’re most interested in!

If you do these three things, you’ll set yourself up for admission to a fabulous internship program, one that could be in a wide variety of fields. Truly, there’s an internship available for every conceivable type of work you could be interested in. For instance, take a look at this diverse list of amazing internships you could apply for (even during high school):

  • Finance, Business, and Economics

Now that you’re equipped with all this knowledge, what are you waiting for? Go out there and apply for some internships, and begin uncovering your career interests!

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