How to Get an Internship [Step-by-Step Guide for 2020]
Are you close to graduating from university? Not sure what to do and the threat of unemployment is breathing down your neck?
Then it’s time to apply for an internship.
This change in your life marks an important transition period from university to the real world.
To smoothen that change and make sure you’re prepared, getting an internship is the perfect way to kickstart your career.
You might find, however, that even some internships demand work experience - what gives, right?
If you want to get rid of the existential dread (i.e. unemployment), this guide is for you.
We’ll be covering everything you need to know about getting the first internship that’ll give you a smooth start in your career.
If you’re a recent graduate with little to no experience and want to land your dream internship after finishing university, read on to find out how:
- How to Get an Internship - The Basics
- Step #1 - Create a Convincing Resume (0 Experience Needed)
- Step #2 - Convince the HR Manager with a Cover Letter
- Step #3 - Find the Right Internship Opportunities [3 Main Ways]
- Step #4 - Ace the Upcoming Interview
- Key Takeaways
Ready to jump-start your career and start climbing the corporate ladder?
Let’s dive in, beginning with:
How to Get an Internship - The Basics
Getting an internship is your first taste of the real world after graduating college.
If you have no real experience in the field you want to be working in, an internship is an ideal way to determine if the said field is indeed the right fit for you or not.
Internships can sometimes lead to full-time positions or open up doors to more opportunities.
So, they’re a great way to get your foot in the door and get some real, hands-on experience.
Now, you might not necessarily be doing a lot of important things in the beginning, but at least you’ll be working with professionals and colleagues who will.
On your first internship, the number one thing you should be focusing on is learning.
As an intern, your main goals should be:
- Talking to colleagues to figure out who does what (and how!)
- Learning how organizations work as a whole
- Soaking up as much knowledge about your field as possible (and deciding if it’s actually something you want to pursue)
Keep in mind, though, that in a lot of cases, you might decide that the field is just not for you. Or sometimes, you just won’t get offered a full-time position at the end of the internship, even if you tried extremely hard.
Even in these cases, the internship can still be very useful for you long-term.
After all, you’re not limited to that one specific role you start out with.
There’s a lot you can put your new-found knowledge to.
You could, for example, take that experience and start somewhere else, whether it’s an entry-level role, or an internship for a different field.
Paid vs Unpaid Internship
When talking about internships, one common topic that often comes up has to do with paid and unpaid internships.
Do you accept an unpaid internship? Is it legal, even? Isn’t it just slave labor?
Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Yes, there are unpaid internships. No, that doesn’t necessarily it’s going to be slave work and that you should run.
First, let’s explore the question - why do companies offer unpaid internships? Are they really that evil?
Well, no, it’s more complicated than that. The thing with internships is that they’re (in most cases) training programs. The company has to spend a lot of time and money getting you up to speed on how to do the job. And in some cases, it’s just not worth it for them to also pay you on top of that.
Now, to answer the questions - do you accept an unpaid internship?
Well, it depends on the following factors:
- Does the company have a good reputation - If you’re applying for a reputable company, an unpaid internship could be worthwhile. You’ll know for sure that you’re going to get valuable experience. For the less popular companies, on the other hand, an “unpaid internship” might be an actual job, but, well, without pay.
- Is there a lot of competition in your field - Depending on your field, it might be either easier or harder to get a paid internship. If you're a marketer, for example, you’ll be facing a lot more competition (and might have to go for unpaid). If you’re a software engineer, though, you’ll be selling yourself for if you’re not getting paid for your work
Now, what about the other said of the coin - the paid internship?
They might be rarer, but if you find one, and it’s better than the alternative (unpaid one), then you might want to lock in your choice immediately.
If the company is generous enough to pay you during your training, then you should, by all means, consider staying there.
Though money is not “everything”, it’s still an extremely important factor and you should always have it in mind when looking for an internship.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the first step in landing your first internship: creating a resume.
Step #1 - Create a Convincing Resume (0 Experience Needed)
To land that dream internship, you need a good resume.
After all, there’s a LOT of demand for internships. The HR managers get hundreds, sometimes thousands, resume from students on the daily.
So, you need to somehow stand out from the masses, even though you have 0 work experience.
How is this even possible?
Glad you asked.
Even though the experience section is a very important part of a resume, it’s not mandatory (especially for a student or recent graduate).
You can create a very impressive resume, even if you’ve never worked a day in your life.
How to Create a Resume (With a Resume Builder)
Before you can start working on your resume, you need the right tool to guide you - the resume builder.
Why use a resume builder?
Well, the process of manually creating a resume isn’t easy. You need to keep so many things in mind, including:
- Getting your resume layout right
- Picking the right resume format
- What’s the best resume font, size, and format
With a resume builder, though, all of that is done for you for free. All you have to pick the right template, and the builder helps you perfect it, every step of the way.
Novorésumé templates were developed together with recruiters and employers in mind.
They’re ATS-friendly (HR screening machine will not skip over them) and stand out from most cookie-cutter resumes.
And the icing on the cake?
It’s completely free (with premium options for that extra push), and guaranteed to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward when applying for that internship.
So, ready to craft your dream resume?
Open up the builder, and let’s move on with what to put on a resume.
What to Put on a Resume
So, what goes in a resume, anyway?
The whole process sounds simple, right?
Simply list all of your relevant qualifications and send it in.
Well, not quite.
The truth is, choosing what to put on a resume can be a real struggle when you’re just starting out.
You don’t know what the recruiters are looking for, how to pick the best resume format, what to include in it and how to list your experience.
There’s a lot of room for error within each section and each resume is different.
Depending on your experience and background, your resume might look completely different.
Here’s a brief overview of all the sections you can use - from top to bottom:
- Contact Information - full name (typical format is Name, Last Name), email (professional, ideally something like [name][lastname]@email.com), and sometimes, your social media profiles (LinkedIn / GitHub / Medium / etc.)
- Resume summary or objective - the difference is that if you have 2+ years of experience, you need a resume summary, if not, a resume objective. The summary simply summarizes your resume, while your objective lists your motivations and what you hope to gain from the job.
- Work experience - most typical format is chronological (starting with the most recent), we’ll cover how to manage this section if you have 0 experience in more detail below.
- Skills - there are two types of skills: soft and hard ones. Soft skills are attributes and habits that describe how you work with other people (e.g. communicative, leadership, openness, etc.). Hard skills refer to skills that required technical knowledge or you’ve gained through experience (e.g. specific software, tools, languages, etc.)
- Education - mandatory sections include: university name, program name, years attended. And optional ones: GPA, honors, academic achievements, minor program. If they’re relevant to your internship position or noteworthy in some other way - feel free to include them.
- Other sections - if you have space left (whole resume should be 1 page), feel free to include your hobbies or personal interests, certificates, and personal achievements.
Now, most of this sounds pretty straightforward, right?
You follow our instructions and create your first resume, only to realize that there’s a giant gap where you work experience should be.
It is arguably the most important part of any resume, and it’s THE section that can make or break your job-search.
But what if you don’t have a lot of experience?
Well, what if we told you, you don’t necessarily need it?
What to do With the Work Experience Section (When You Have None)
No experience? No problem!
Here’s a little insider secret.
Most HR managers don’t expect a student to have a lot of work experience.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not actually need 5+ years of experience just to get an entry-level job.
In reality, all you need to do is focus on other sections of your resume instead.
Especially if it’s for an internship position. Most recruiters are not going to expect for someone with 5+ years of experience to be applying for that position in the first place!
Instead, they look for other sections in which you excel at instead.
If you’re a student or a recent college grad, here’s what those sections may include.
5 Must-Have Sections for a Student
Here’s what most job recruiters look for in internship resumes:
Feel free to include any relevant coursework within the education section of your resume.
The more specific the example is - the better.
For example, an intro to financial spreadsheets class can definitely be a plus if you’re applying for a finance or data analysis related internship.
And if you were top of the class - that’s even better!
You have to start somewhere. Any relevant knowledge or applicable skills that you gained throughout your university is a huge boost.
As we mentioned before, you should mention both hard and soft skills in your resume.
Being in university is an almost effortless way to improve your soft skills and there are many ways you can improve your general skills while there.
Think of the skills you can develop at the university:you can apply for an RA position, work at the university magazine, become the professor’s assistant, and more.
In these positions, you can gain many different transferable skills, which are helpful for just about every position.
For example, everyone values communication and time-management skills. No matter the job position you’re applying for, those skills are going to come in handy.
Even if you did not necessarily apply to a lot of assistant positions during college, you still probably participated in campus events or helped out in some other ways.
This is a great way to prove you’re self-motivated and not afraid to get involved in group projects.
You can’t go wrong with volunteering.
If you don’t have a lot of work experience - this is the next best thing you can focus on instead.
Volunteering is a great and simple way to quickly fill up your resume with valuable content.
And the best thing is that almost anyone, anywhere can start volunteering - right now.
If you don’t have work experience, there is no reason as to why you shouldn’t start volunteering right away.
Even if you’re volunteering to gain some real-world skills, you’re still helping other people along the way. Employers recognize this and see two values behind that.
One, you’re being self-driven by taking the time out of your day to help other people.
Two, you’re most likely a kind person who wants to positive change in the world.
Getting on the HR manager’s good side is always a good way to stand out.
Were you involved in any projects while at the university? Started a book club or were part of the student council?
Feel free to include this information as it shows initiative on your part, and that you’re not afraid to take charge.
Anything that is a passion project on your side is a great way to show off your personality and stand out from other candidates.
If you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s natural to rely on other sections to show off your personal qualities and attributes.
(Irrelevant) Work Experience
Most people take their summer and minimum wage jobs for granted and not list them on the resume.
They’re not relevant, right? So, why include them?
Because - it’s better than nothing.
For example, even if you’re applying for an entry-level marketing internship, the fact that you worked as a waiter last summer shows that you’re used to hard work and have some people skills.
And as long as you have that, you also have transferable skills to customer service and general sales skills.
Step #2 - Convince the HR Manager with a Cover Letter
Once you have your resume down, the next step is to perfect your cover letter.
Cover letters can be terrifying for recent graduates - what do you even write when you don’t have a lot of experience and hardly covered your resume to reach 1 page?
Most people list their work experience and other qualifications - but what should you do?
Look at it this way.
If you’re a recent grad - you need to make use of any possible opportunities to get ahead and charm the HR manager.
A good cover letter can make your application stand out and be the final push to land every internship you apply for.
The main idea is this: with the internship, your main goal is to learn and gain some real practical experience.
With the cover letter - you show your motivation for the job and the company.
You don’t need to mention ANY experience (especially if you have none), as long as you provide solid reasons as to why you want the job you’re applying for (which you should).
So, how do you explain your motivation, exactly?
Your love of not being unemployed is not a good enough excuse, for one.
In simple terms, you need to explain WHY you love the job and WHY you would love to work there.
The key is to sound authentic. So, do some research, and provide specific examples as to what motivates you.
At this step, most people just make stuff up or use buzzwords.
But let’s face it, just about everyone is “motivated to work hard and passionate about [insert position here]”.
See how fake that sounds?
And HR managers go through hundreds of this and can sniff out a when someone is making stuff up from a mile away.
If you want to stand out, make sure you’re not rushing and actually put in time for the research instead.
If you know what you’re going to be doing in advance (hint: check the job ad) use that specific language and examples in your cover letter too.
So, for example, let’s say you’re going to be doing social media marketing in your internship. In the job description, you can find what the position will involve. Something like :
- “Creating and scheduling social media posts across all platforms”
- “Helping develop social media campaigns and optimizing Facebook Ads”
- “Writing clean and engaging copy for social media posts”
You get the point, right?
You’re pretty much guaranteed to find specific information in the job ad as to what you’ll be doing.
Now, with that information ready, you can do some research on the topic, and get a better idea of what that would involve.
Just do some Googling - you’re guaranteed to find the right stuff.
Here’s a good example of what a cover letter looks like:
What does this cover letter do right?
First, it’s written from a soon-to-graduate college student, who does not have a lot of working experience. So, he does not mention his experience at all.
Instead, he describes his education background (major, minor, and background), and why he’s interested in that agency specifically (government campaigns, opportunity to learn what he’s interested in).
Finally, he mentions any other relevant experience (in this case, another internship), specific skills (Adobe Creative Suite, Photoshop, InDesign), and signs off with his contact information.
See how simple that is?
If you want more examples and inspiration, check out some other cover letter examples for 2020.
Finally, it goes without saying that your cover letter should be tailored to the specific internship opportunity.
But to do that, first, you need to find the right internship to apply to.
Step #3 - Find the Right Internship Opportunities [3 Main Ways]
Now that you know how to submit an application that gets results, it’s time to look for the right companies and the right internship openings.
The truth is, there are many different openings available out there, but the important part is finding the right one where you’d be an ideal candidate.
If you start sending out your resume to every internship opening though, you probably won’t get far.
So, the best places to look for an internship include:
- Job and internship boards
- Job fairs
- Cold emailing the company directly
Now, here’s how to do each.
Job and Internship Boards
Thanks to the power of the internet, there are countless job boards where you can start applying for internships.
Now, the problem with that is, there really is an almost endless amount of job boards to choose from. So, if you were to start looking for and applying board-to-board one-by-one, that approach would simply take too long, and land you very few actual openings.
And if that wasn’t enough, there are also countless people competing against you, for the same spot.
To beat the competition though, make sure you’re filtering the job boards to your location. This way, you’re at least only competing with people in your region.
Here’s a list of some of the best job listings boards you can find an internship on:
- Glassdoor - traditional job-board with a twist - you can read reviews on employers and decide whether a specific company is right for you
- AngelList - job board for startups of all sizes. If you’re the entrepreneurial type, you might want to try interning at a startup
- WayUp - jobs, internships, part-time positions from startups to Fortune 500 companies
- Google (search for “internship + (your location)”
- Google for Jobs
- Dice - jobs in the tech industry. Find salary estimations, career path tips, and so on.
- Idealist - search engine for all things career development: internships, jobs, volunteering, and more.
- Facebook groups - look for university career development groups and job fairs near you.
- ErasmusIntern - still in university or a recent grad? You might still be eligible for an Erasmus internship with a scholarship!
All of these sites offer both regular positions, as well as internships. As a given, most of them also have good filtering options (you can filter by industry, job type, and so on).
While applying to the above websites, make sure you’re constantly checking for new openings, at least weekly.
As long as you keep at it, it should just be a matter of time before you land that awesome internship.
Job fairs might seem scary at first, since they require you to be physically there and network.
But if done well, they can really open up a lot of doors and get your foot in the door on the spot.
You’re likely to find job fairs and opening at university and school campuses.
The next time you see one, do your research on who’s going to be presenting there and make sure you spend some time talking with the hiring managers there.
You don’t even have to be good at networking, as long as you go there, and show you’re motivated to start (should be easier in person), you’re likely to come out of the job fair with a few leads.
It’s easier to build rapport with the HR manager if you’ve done your research on what they do.
In turn, they’ll appreciate that you took your time and as long as you stay memorable, you’ll have a real chance of getting that call back.
While networking might seem scary at first, as long as you come prepared - it’s going to be a breeze.
So, before you got to the next job fair, see who’s going to be there, research to see if you’d like to intern for any of them, and then, get there prepared (ideally, with resume in hand).
Cold emailing the company directly
The cold email is far from dead.
What’s so great about this approach is that if you have a company in mind you’d like to intern for, and even if they don’t offer any openings, if done well, you can still get your foot in the door.
Sounds easier said than done?
Well, the process is actually fairly straightforward.
You find the manager’s email address or contact information and ask for an internship.
Yes, you have to be very direct for this. No, it’s not rude.
If anything, this approach shows the recruiter that you’re self-driven and your initiative.
To find companies you’d be into, simply google “(company type) + (location)” for some companies doing business in your region.
For example, you can Google “social media marketing agencies”, which will bring up a number of agencies you could email, or you can switch to the Maps view for a list of agencies near you.
Once you have a company in mind, you have to shoot out an email to one of the decision makers. You can try and find their email from LinkedIn, or if it’s not that, from their personal website.
When emailing, make sure you’re polite, brief, and explain your situation in a very straightforward manner.
No need to tell your whole life story.
Your email needs to be a summary of your cover letter.
Learn key facts about your agency in mind, what attracts you to them, and then explain your motivations in the email, while attaching your resume inside.
Spend 1-2 sentences introducing yourself, and share one of your biggest achievements that can help the company
The aim of the email is to get them to sit down with you so that you can explain your situation better.
Once your score the interview, here’s what you do next.
Step #4 - Ace the Upcoming Interview
This is it.
This is what everything’s been building up to and the final gatekeeper standing between you and the internship.
If you made it this far, your resume and cover letter both were a hit. If you got a response from the HR manager, that means they see something in you.
Now it’s your turn to live up to those expectations and show them what you’ve got.
Are you ready?
No? Well, don’t worry. The truth is, most recruiters ask the same old interview questions.
Yes, that’s true, and what that means is, with a little bit of preparation, you’ll be walking into the interview with full confidence.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should memorize your answer, because you’ll never be able to predict their questions in advance. Instead, have a general idea of how you’re going to answer.
Here’s what you can expect:
3 Most Common interview questions
As a general advice, be ready to answer any questions related to the internship itself. For example, if you’re applying for a social media marketing position, you will probably be asked…
- Why you’re interested in social media marketing?
- Do you have any experience with social media?
- Why do you want to work for this company, specifically?
And so on. Just make sure you’re on top of your game in terms of what you want to do, and you won’t have any trouble here.
Other than that, you should also be prepared to answer the following common questions...
Why do you want to work here?
This question is mostly a test of knowledge.
If you’ve done some research (which you should have), it should be a breeze.
Mention what you like about their specific company, position, and how you can be a good addition to the working environment.
Show the interviewer that you’ve done your research and that you’re not making up random facts about their company on the spot.
Make sure to be as specific as possible.
- I’m passionate about startups, and I believe that XYZ Inc. has a very cool software product, as it [some cool product feature]. Plus, from what I’ve read online, XYZ Inc. is an awesome place to work, and I’d love to be a part of it.
- I would like to work at XYZ Inc. because software and technology is very cool, and I’m very passionate about not starving to death.
Why should we choose you?
This question is guaranteed to come up in almost any interview ever.
Because, guess what.
Companies are actually interested in you. Interested to see if you’d be the right fit for the position (skillswise) and if you’d be the right fit within their team (culture-wise).
To answer correctly, make sure you don’t dive into an hour-long rant about how you discovered your love for social media marketing.
Have a short elevator pitch about how you can help the company, how interested you are in the position, and that you want to learn more.
Make sure you share just the right amount of personal information too.
Don’t mention anything that controversial (religious/political beliefs, of any kind). And in general, just come off as likeable and natural, which shouldn’t be too hard.
- Because I’m super passionate about marketing. Other than taking most 400-level elective courses, I also did a lot of learning on my own through online courses, such as X, Y, and Z. I’ve also attended [Workshop #1] and [Workshop #2] at my university.
- Well, I majored in marketing mainly because advertising sounds really cool, and I really want to give it a go.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
This is another extremely common question.
And don’t worry, they’re not expecting you to be a fortune teller.
To answer correctly, say that you want to be still working within the same field, because of how interested you are in it.
In short, it’s best if your answer is focused on the company and the position you’re applying for.
They want to see if their investment is going to be worth it and that you’re not going to run away within a year.
- I would like to learn as much as possible about sales during the internship, and eventually work full time as a Sales Associate at XYZ Inc. Within the next 5 years, I’d love to grow to be a sales lead for one of the product lines.
- Well, I’m still not sure what I want to do, so it really depends. I might do sales full time, or I might go back to university and get a degree in engineering instead.
While we tried to be as comprehensive about interviews as possible, we can’t really do that without making this guide a 40-minute read. If you want to discover ALL the common interview questions (and their answers), check out our guide!
If everything goes well, landing the perfect internship can jumpstart your career.
But getting one might seem complicated at first, especially if you’re just fresh out of college and have little to no real world experience.
The good news is though, that you don’t in fact need a lot of hands-on experience to land an internship.
So, to recap here are the steps necessary to land that dream internship:
- Start with creating a convincing resume. Your resume should look awesome even if you have 0 work experience (you can use a resume builder to help you with this).
- Then, make sure your resume has all the necessary information about you: your contact information, resume summary or objective, work experience, skills, education, and other optional sections.
- To really convince the HR manager you’ve got what it takes, make sure your cover letter is up to par as well.
- With your resume & cover letter ready, make sure you’re looking for an internship in the right job and internship boards, you’re checking local job fairs, and if needed, even cold emailing your dream companies.
- Once you get that call back, do your research, prepare for the job interview questions and put on your best clothes.
Remember, finding an internship is a numbers game. If you’re following the above steps, it’s only a matter of time until you land one.
Need some other advice?
Check out our career blog and keep your job-hunting skills sharp!