How to Find a Great Internship

Internships are a great way to begin your work experience, learn new skills and build your portfolio while still under the safe learning environment afforded by an upper-education institution. Internships let you put theory into practice which means you can tell future employers that, not only do you understand the job, you've already gotten your toes wet and have work to demonstrate your knowledge.

Not all internships are created equal: some are superb, some are mediocre and some are worth avoiding. The signs that you are on to a great internship will start in the description and continue in the interview. If it's a bad internship, you'll receive red flags as early as the internship description.  This article gives you the tips on what to look for and what to ask in the interview to help you find your best match.

Read Between the Lines

RESPONSIBILITY: First off, almost no internship will let you take the lead on every project and make a major impact in the company; it's entry-level work, after all.  If they ARE giving you that much work, it's because they're understaffed and/or want cheap or free productivity. Red flag number one: if the description is listing full responsibility for many projects, discard it and keep googling (you're bound to find a few, especially with unpaid internships). Instead, look for a description that lists full responsibility for one or two projects.  Responsibility for one or two projects is the key to building your portfolio without overwhelming you or taking advantage of you.

SKILLS: Internships differ from your usual entry-level position in a key area--they are a learning experience. Ideally, the employer should take the time to teach you knew skills and round-out your skill set (especially if they are looking to hire you after graduation). The internship description should say things like "Intern will learn..." or "Intern will improve and expand skills in..."  Be careful with descriptions that demand a long list of pre-existing skills and don't list which skills you will learn from the company.

HOURS: Look for an internship with decent hours. Nine to 10 hours a week is about the minimum; anything less and you probably won't have the time to develop worthwhile projects.  Also, if you are at a fast-pace company, like a design firm or public relations agency, the minimal hours will put you out of the loop.  

POSITION: While searching for internships, keep in mind that you can broaden your search beyond major-specific internships. For example, if you are a public relations major you could also consider a marketing communications internship as it may require many of the same skills depending on the employer's needs. And since it's not 100% the same, you'll have the opportunity to learn new skills (like advertising writing). Graphic designers should also broaden their search, as I did. My internships were in communications but they required all of my skills in advertising, public relations, social media, photography and lots of graphic design. Graphic design is my passion, but I did not lose when I chose communications internships nor did my design portfolio suffer. These sort of rewarding internships aren't hard to spot; in all three of my internships the need for graphic design and other visual skills like photography were listed in the internship descriptions. You may find the broader experience rewarding and there might be more opportunities or less competition for these positions.

The Interview is Like a Date

Most are probably familiar with Jerry Seinfeld's joke about the similarity of dating and interviewing, but there is truth here; the interview will show both you and your employer if the two of you will be a good team. The interview is your first glimpse into how the employer can round out your education, help build your portfolio and it's your chance to communicate how you can benefit the employer.  Like dating, this process needs to be done with care and sensitivity or one of you might escape through the bathroom window.

BENEFITING YOU: It's always good to ask questions of your interviewer; it shows you did your homework and that you care enough to ask about the company.  But it's also the first step in discovering if you and the company will make a good team.  Ask them questions like "What were past intern projects?" and "What are some major projects the company is working on that you're most excited about?"  If you're not excited about what excites them, you're starting on the wrong foot before your first day of work. You wouldn't like to date a person whose passions bored you and they would probably feel the same about you.  Asking questions like "What were past intern projects?" is an excellent way to discover what portfolio projects and skill sets the company can offer without being rude.

BENEFITING THEM: Here is where you can discuss all those skill sets you have worked so hard on over the years.  When they ask about you, say things like "My passions are layout design and typography" or ask questions like, "I've worked on photo projects for many years.  Do you have projects that would benefit from studio photography?"  Of course, don't forget to bring your work so you can show them how you could be useful.  Be prepared to discuss a project or two in detail, how you conceptualized and completed to project and how you feel it would be useful to the internship. Say things like, "I would be excited to use my digital design skills from this project and apply it to your social media campaigns."

OFFICE CULTURE: This one is so crucial and so easy to spot in an interview.  It is crucial because the office culture and how you fit into it will largely determine if you are happy or miserable for the next few months. It is easy to discover in an interview simply by asking, "So show me where I would work. Can I see where everyone else is?"  

Remember sensitivity?  Save this question for the end of the interview.  If you fear any pretentiousness, reword the question as "So where is the intern's desk usually kept?" When they give you a tour, look for where your spot would be and where everyone else is. You want to be in close proximity to the other employees and within walking distance of your boss. The environment should allow for both serious work and friendly community. 


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