The Insider’s Guide to Scoring a Top Internship

An internship is the career equivalent of a movie trailer, the tasting menu, the 10 day free trial. It gives you the entire experience without the full commitment. While this piece won't solve your commitment issues, it will certainly help land that juicy corporate role. Upfront, please resist the urge to take those cheesy selfies with captions like #InternSZN or #StartedFromTheBottom... that behavior is a magnet for you to get tons more printing work.

An internship is simply a temporary job position typically reserved for college students and recent graduates. Interns tend to work in exchange for a base pay* (which can be a stipend or allowance) and often to log hours as part of an accredited professional qualification.

*Sometimes interns work in exchange for cold pizza & Red Bulls (they don't tell you this at career recruitment).

Through an internship, you gain knowledge about the culture and day-to-day operations of a company. You also get taken out for great lunches and team drinks. Forget Excel blunders, wardrobe fails or firing off the wrong emails... drinking too much at colleague networking is the one career limiting move every intern should avoid.

Internships can last anywhere from several months to a year. It's really helpful for anyone who hasn't yet decided on a career path. Most importantly, spending time in an intern role gives you a chance to see whether you really envisage a career within a space.

Let's face it, few people REALLY know the precise job they want to land. Even if they do - when you land it, it's often a completely different story. For instance, corporate law definitely isn't anything like an episode of Suits. No better time for a hard hitting realization than when it's 3AM and you're printing and binding 300 page documents which nobody will ever read.

Securing the bag

Hunting for an internship is very similar to searching for a regular job. I know, it should be easier than finding a regular job but it really isn't. It's highly competitive, roles are limited and it's absolutely crucial to start planning early.

Here are the pro-tips:

  1. Make a shortlist of companies you want to work for (very important)
  2. Have a base cover letter you tailor for each opportunity (generic cover letters kill opportunities)
  3. Refresh your profile (that's your CV/ LinkedIn profile)
  4. Get a strong letter of recommendation (think professor & community leader... not bouncer from your favourite nightclub)
  5. Let people know you're available to intern & get the word out there, leverage the relationships you have
  6. Prepare for your interview as if your life depends on it

Let's explore each of these steps in more detail.

  1. Shortlist the companies you want to work for

Most people adopt the "any experience is good experience"' approach and take whatever they can get - this can be risky. Ultimately, if a company doesn't resonate with you and represent who you are, your entire performance will end being sub-standard. Make a list of companies you feel it would be beneficial to work with based on their products, core values, industry expertise & any other factors that inspire you.

Personally, I make a list of companies I would like to build my professional career in. If I can picture myself in a full-time role at a firm, it's easier to picture myself as an intern. Search the companies' websites to make sure they offer internships, check their social media posts and reach out to talent development programme managers on LinkedIn. Aligning to a core set of value is becoming increasingly important in the modern era of work.

2. Writing a killer cover letter

Most companies require a resume and a cover letter when you apply for an internship. If you're seeking an internship, you likely have little to no professional experience which really makes your cover letter a dealbreaker in the process.

Review the job description for keywords that apply to your background and include them on your resume. At large companies it's likely they use AI screening to screen initial submissions, you want to capture those keywords and stand-out.

Your internship cover letter gives you a chance to express your reason for applying to the internship but it's also a great opportunity to explain what you can do for the company. Most interns see this as a one-way channel to learn and gain experience but companies value people who can also provide insights through critical thinking and share their opinions, even if they are junior.

If you need help writing or perfecting your documents, many colleges and universities offer free resume and cover letter review services. Considering the upside and versatility of having the perfect cover letter, it's also worth paying a professional for a review.

Whatever you do, NEVER just hit forward on a generic cover letter - always tailor your responses.

Here's a great list of example cover letters

3. Keeping your skills/ experience list sharp

Set aside 30 minutes at the end of each month to record any new skills or experience you developed. There is no way you can really remember everything you achieved over a four-year degree in one sitting with a 20min deadline left to submit your internship application.

On your internship resume, include an objective statement clearly listing your professional career goals. Include ALL relevant experience you have that might be helpful for the employer which includes completed coursework, volunteer work and leadership roles in clubs (not nightclubs) and organizations.

Make a note of a story or experience which highlights the development of these skills. You will often be asked "tell me about a time when...". That's not the time to start thinking of examples. Have your story ready, prepped and rehearsed. The application of skills is far more important than just putting skills down on paper.

4. Get a strong letter of recommendation

A letter of recommendation is a statement provided by a relevant professional explaining why you would be a great candidate for a position. Many students ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation for them. Opt for someone who knows you and your work well. Provide your reference writer with background such as the internship job description, your resume and plenty of time in advance. This can be important when your prospective employer is seeking some background information about you and your work. Don't try and cheat the system - people who write your references are actually called up and asked to confirm their views.

5. Leverage your relationships

Remember, the importance of an internship is to acquire a job experience which should fit in with your professional goal. So focus more on the practical learning process itself and treat it as priority. If you're interested in working for a company that does not offer an internship program, don't give up right away. Consider contacting the company's human resources representative to see if they would benefit from hiring an intern in the near future. Let people know you're in the market and actively looking. Be proactive! The best opportunities often come from the unlikeliest of places. You might open the door to adjacent/ related opportunities such as part-time positions, workshops or other career development offerings in the industry. Stop holding out for the "perfect" opportunity and hustle hard to just get a foot-in. The perfect opportunity doesn't exist and the world will move past you.

6. Prepare for your interview

If a company requests an interview, take time to prepare by reviewing the job description, developing answers to common interview questions and researching the company. Understanding the company's core values, mission statement and history can help express your excitement about the role. It's an audition that can change the entire trajectory of your professional life - treat it seriously.

Standard internship hours and duration

The length of an internship can vary based on the industry, employer and role. In many cases, people look for an internship that allows them to balance their school workload with their internship hours.

Here are the typical types of internships:

  • College internship: A college career-length internship is usually found on the campus of your university. These positions are usually reserved for science, healthcare and research students, as well as those intending to pursue a master's degree or PhD. Other universities categorize this as a compulsory Industrial Training (ranging from 6 months - 1 year), and it is part of the student's curriculum.
  • Externship: Externships are shortened internships. Most externs work for their company for a few days to a few weeks.
  • Single semester: In a semester-long internship, a student usually works ten to twenty hours a week for a 2 to 3-month period in return for school credit or hourly pay.
  • Summer/ Winter internships: Many students prefer a summer/ winter internship because it offers a chance to focus exclusively on work rather than balancing the internship with schoolwork. The length of summer internships varies, but tend to last between 2 and 3 months.
  • "Life on the edge" internships: These are where you spend a 3- or 6-month stint within a company rotating through divisions and permanent placement offers are made to the best performing interns at the end of the period. It's also where Game of Thrones meets Survivor.

The benefits of having options

  • Developing and refining your skills: Internships can help identify your strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of your industry. You can use this information to set personal career goals to improve over time.
  • Potential for a higher starting salary: Having relevant experience can increase your earning potential at every level of your career. Some companies might consider you an entry-level candidate with internship experience in the industry. Because you already have a certain level of relevant knowledge, the company could save money on training costs, which may be something to discuss when negotiating your starting pay.
  • Networking: Some internships lead directly to jobs within the company. However, if the company doesn't offer a job after an internship, interns can still develop a professional network with that business. This network and its extensions can lead to other jobs and opportunities.
  • An easier transition into the professional world: The transition from college to a professional career can be difficult without knowing what to expect. An internship can help you understand the basic inner workings of a business and how you might contribute to an organization.
  • Exploring your future career path: Internships offer you the chance to temporarily explore an industry or position. Even if you don't enjoy the internship, you will be able to use that knowledge when searching for another position or making decisions about your major or career path.
  • Earning an income. Many internships provide compensation for your work. You might also be provided with school credit. If you're unsure, ask the employer during the hiring process how you will be compensated for your work

With all the benefits associated with an internship, it's a great option for college students or anyone really to break-in to an industry. The experience and resources you receive can help build a rewarding career. I would strongly advise all college students and graduates to take out some time and apply for as many internship opportunities as possible. And if you do run out of opportunities, Forage provides tons of virtual internships from top global partner firms, to help you with the skills necessary to compete globally and professionally. Now, you have no excuse not to grow in your career path.

The Secret Sauce

In the space of four years, I have had the opportunity to intern at a public firm - Nigerian Ports Authority and a private firm - Flutterwave. After my last internship with Flutterwave, I became acquainted with virtual internships like KPMG's Data Analytics, and Bright Network's Virtual Consulting, which were useful, especially during my final year as an undergraduate. These virtual internships not only taught me about getting started in the professional world, but also exposed me to a huge network of students and professionals that shared the same interests as me. Although it can be overwhelmingly difficult to find an internship, two of the things that really helped me break in were - taking advantage of my network and reaching out to industry professionals.

Taking advantage of my network meant that I had to inform people I knew (which could literally be anyone), about me being open to internship opportunities. This network could range from your friend or family member, to your neighbor or acquaintance. Informing my network helped get my first internship opportunity back in 2016. I got my last internship through sending out emails. It is definitely a skill worth having, because it can be used in different life situations. Here is a link to a few tweets I think could help you in learning how to let people know you're actively seeking opportunities. There is always something to learn from someone, and I am still mastering the art.

Because having an industrial experience was embedded in the requirements for acquiring a degree in my school, I did not know early enough that one could apply for internship at a firm without it being a requisite from your school. I had always thought that companies would only accept interns if it was from a certain school. There are organizations searching for interns to fill in for a particular period; and if that period is favorable (could be an end of semester's break or a long vacation), you can apply and end up saving up some money to spend during Christmas or take care of yourself when you resume school.

Don't commit too early

Most interns can find it a bit difficult to leave a firm, because their employees or coworkers influence their decision to remain at that firm. They can also be enticed to stay; through the little fringe benefits or stipends they receive from the firm every month. Interns who get drawn into this mostly don't think too much about next steps, and so they get sucked in while they are young and promising, finding it difficult leave the firm when they've discovered what they really want to do.

Deciding to stay-on for an extended period can sometimes mean your salary doesn't recalibrate as fast as it should (your base is an intern salary). It can sometimes make it difficult to acquire a new set of skills within a role (which is paramount in a fast-changing world) and suffocate their chance to grow professionally and in other ways.

Interns who through their internship experience, have been able to gain clarity on what career path to take, tend to excel professionally. This is because they are not focused on the present fringe benefits, they receive monthly, but on growing professionally and preparing themselves for the type of career they want to pursue in the long run. So before making that life altering choice of working for that company long term, a short-term work experience through an internship should guide you in making the right decision for your future professionally. 

The job market is TOUGH. There are thousands of strong candidates are fighting it out for a few limited permanent roles - landing an internship is one way to supercharge your chances and really stand out.

Start now!

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