Finding an internship

Getting Experience to Land a Great Internship

Career Academics

Internships, and other meaningful experiences during college, have become a critical part of the educational journey. If you want to find employment in your field quickly after graduation, you have to start early and gain a breadth of experiences. But finding these experiences and landing a great internship can feel daunting.

Below, Colleen Sump, a Career and Academic Planning Coach (CAP Coach) in the IDEA Center, gives her take on a variety of common questions around internships and how to best prepare to move into your field of choice.

Why are internships important?

Internships allow a student to gain professional skills while being mentored by someone in their field. Landing a job after graduation is easier if you have had at least one internship since it signals to employers that you understand workplace expectations and have some good skills to start building on. 

So, where can students start in their pursuit of internships?

It’s important to remember: There are a variety of ways students can gain valuable experience in college, with a high-quality internship being the pinnacle students should strive toward. Experience that provides a great foundation includes work-study positions, summer jobs, volunteer experiences, class projects, and campus involvement. These experiences build the skills needed for opening doors to internships and post-grad opportunities. Students in some majors, like nursing, social work and education, have hands-on elements built into their curriculum, allowing students to gain valuable experience through clinicals, practicums and student teaching.

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What other ways can students gain valuable experience, outside of an internship opportunity?

Class projects are actually experience, too, and “resumé-able!” Students should look at these experiences as opportunities to build skills in leadership, time management and teamwork. Faculty notice students who take these projects seriously, and it’s these same faculty who could help students start building their networks by introducing them to professionals, alumni and opportunities. 

Studying abroad is also a big cultural fluency piece that employers look for. Having been immersed in and engaged with another culture is a great experience that really helps a student to stand out in a sea of applicants.

Summer jobs can provide skills for future careers. For example, for nursing or social work careers, summer camp counseling jobs can provide relevant experience in building interpersonal and relational skills. For business majors, working in any job where you are interfacing with customers or working on a team helps build skills that future employers will look for.

Taken strategically, all of these experiences can combine to make a truly remarkable candidate, even though none of them are formal internships. The IDEA Center can help students articulate their experiences onto a resumé, cover letter and LinkedIn profile. Instead of “Work Experience” as a section header, we use just “Experience” so that all of these great, rich opportunities can be gathered under one umbrella. “Relevant Experience” is used later on in the resumé to capture skills more specific to the job being pursued.

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What are the most important experiences or skills students should look to develop and highlight when considering an internship? Are they major-specific? Or more focused on soft skills?

Employers look for candidates with strong communication skills, like writing and presenting. Standing out in these areas can put students ahead, but be specific when describing your writing and speaking skills. This isn’t just about talking with others, it’s about articulating points to persuade, inform or educate others. 

Increased responsibility or leadership over the course of your years in college is also great on a resumé. Intramurals team captain something as simple as that! Employers want to see students who step it up a little bit and look for opportunities to lead. Be involved! Be well-rounded!

Finally, critical thinking and problem solving are huge. For instance, be able to articulate how group project work processes brought you to certain problem-solving methods and conclusions.

How can students make their resumés stand out even with light job experience?

To start, students can reframe their approach from identifying job experience to highlighting experience in general. I imagine most students have much more experience than they think, simply because they’re stuck in a job-oriented mindset. 

Volunteering is a great way to build some resumé-worthy skills, but it should be intentional and targeted. That’s really important. For example, marketing majors can help nonprofits with social media campaigns, and cinematic arts majors can shoot short videos for them to use on their websites.

Be proactive in building skills that will lead to internships and jobs. The ball is in your court! If you work at the Coffee Cottage, offer to create a Valentine’s Day promotion to bring in more people around a certain drink special. These sorts of things show you are proactive and have the courage to try something new. Employers like innovators and people who know how to think outside the box.

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It seems like some internship opportunities come through parents’ networks. What if students’ parents aren’t highly connected? How do they get a foot in the door of hard-to-find internships?

Professors are a great resource! They are well-connected to their industry and often stay in touch with graduates who are working in their fields.

Utilize LinkedIn to identify people in your field, particularly alumni, and ask for informational interviews to build your network. The IDEA Center can show students how to utilize this vast online resource.

Students can also pursue partnerships with outside organizations. One exciting resource is the Emerging Leaders Program, which offers well-paid internships for students of color.

Talk about the value of paid vs unpaid internships.

The availability of paid internships can vary major by major, and depends on experience and industry. Even so, whether they are for credit or not for credit, paid or not paid, it is the experience that matters most. In the long run, it’s all about adding valuable skills to your resumé.

We would like to see all students get paid internships, but if the one you’re offered is unpaid but provides valuable possibilities, it might be wise to not do it full time. Consider spending 10-20 hours a week in an unpaid internship and then working the remaining hours at Target or Starbucks to pay the bills. That way you get the experience for the future while sustaining yourself and managing your costs.

What does it take to get into one of those high-demand internships? How do you get a challenging position that is relevant to a student’s field of interest?

Start early. Beginning freshman year, start building your skills and work your way up. Don’t expect to land a high-quality internship without doing the groundwork with those other experiences I talked about. Lay the foundation and you will reap the rewards when you are a junior/senior.

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If you had to choose, would you prefer a position at a less-known business that offers more experience, or at a business with a big name where learning might not be as challenging?

There is no right or wrong answer here, but I feel that choosing the location where you will build the most skills will be more beneficial in the long term.

Here’s a tip: Early in college, look at job descriptions for internships you are interested in and make a note of the skills you need to land those internships. Then, use that information as a roadmap as you choose courses and other experiences so that you have the necessary skills when you are ready to start applying.

How is an internship good practice for job hunting?

Applying for an internship is the same process as applying for a job. So, you’ll get practice creating the right documents, knowing how to follow up with an application, and articulating who you are and what you have to offer in an interview. The more you practice, the more skills you’ll build in these areas. 

The other big benefit to internships is that they help you identify what you are interested in professionally. Your experiences in various internship roles will certainly make a difference in the types of jobs you look for in the future.

In the IDEA Center, we coach students to understand the process so they are prepared for a lifetime of doing it over and over again. Be prepared for multiple IDEA Center meetings over your time at Fox because coaching is a process, and we want you to take advantage of all the great resources we have to offer.

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What professional skills are most important for students to practice before and during an internship?

To be successful in a job or internship, things like showing up on time, not asking for time off, asking good questions, finding projects without having to be told, practicing good customer service skills … these things are critical. That’s where work-study and summer jobs come in handy, because you have had to start practicing those professionalism skills in those positions.

Is there any danger in students limiting themselves or specializing too much too early?

There’s no danger, necessarily. However, the benefit to looking at more general internships is that they can provide students with views into various career paths. Take the wide and broad view when possible so that you are opening yourself up to learning about related fields and positions when you are in your internship.

What IDEA Center resources are there to help students with internships?

We offer individualized coaching as much as a student wants or needs. We run elective career classes students can take on finding their career paths and landing jobs and internships. We can help students develop cover letters, resumés and interview skills. We use a program called Big Interview, which is an online video platform where students can record themselves answering a variety of interview questions. Practice is key to nailing an interview and being offered the job.

We also host a number of events with professionals/employers including career fairs and career exploration events, as well as partner with faculty to deliver presentations in the classroom.
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What resources outside of George Fox should students explore to help them land an internship?

Students should get involved in the professional associations and organizations related to their majors. Student memberships are available with organizations like the American Marketing Association or the Oregon Media Production Association. These organizations have networking events, as well as job boards and opportunities for getting involved. Professionals often love helping students in their field, so now is the time to start building these relationships!

Any other advice?

Get involved! It all counts! Everything starts from you saying “yes.”

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Colleen Sump

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Colleen is a Career and Academic Planning Coach in the IDEA Center, so she makes sure students graduate on time and are ready for grad school or their first professional job. She has three children in their 20s who she is constantly trying her career coaching techniques on! On the weekends you can find her outside running, climbing, hiking or biking.

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