Within weeks of stepping onto Vanderbilt University’s campus as a college freshman, I became obsessed with the notion of a summer internship. Despite it being more than nine months out, I was ready for a summer where I’d finally trade in my classic camp counselor tennis skirt and sweaty, whining elementary school children for chic, cropped pants and mature, polished professionals. As summer turned to fall and juniors began interviewing on campus for fancy consulting, investment banking, marketing, and advertising jobs, my own internship search began.
I’ve always been interested in business, but when it comes to which particular industry, I haven’t always had an answer. Over my four years in college, I interned in hospitality, digital healthcare, consulting, wealth management, and venture capital. Today, I’m a management consultant and don’t specialize in any specific industry, and I’m thoroughly enjoying getting experience in many different specialties.
Despite my nonchalant mention of the five internships I held during college, the process of discovering and ultimately selecting them was all but casual. As anyone who embarked on the job search knows, finding a job and/or internship is hard. While I’m no expert, I am hoping that by sharing my tips for strategically selecting an internship, I can make the process less painful for you than it was for me.
1. Know Your End Goal
Before you even begin your internship search, consider what you are looking to get out of it. This is not only a good practice to understand your personal objectives, but it’ll also likely come up as a question during the interview process. For some of my internships, I was looking to explore a particular industry (i.e., experience in hospitality), whereas for others I was searching for a specific role (i.e., a role in corporate development). Knowing what you are looking for will help to narrow your focus, and will make it easier when searching for jobs. Further, it’ll potentially open up opportunities.
For example, I was not particularly interested in digital healthcare prior to my internship, but I did have a strong desire to work in corporate development. As I was relatively industry agnostic, I honed in on looking for corporate development roles, and by chance found a position at a digital healthcare company. It turned out to be one of the best internships I had over my four years in college, and it opened my eyes to an industry that I knew little about but developed a passion for. That’s the great thing about internships—they offer such an incredible platform for exploration and discovery in cultivating your own “brand” as a professional.
2. Get to Know the Brand
Before agreeing to any internship, be sure to know and understand the brand. How does the company advertise itself? What other companies/brands does it engage with? What do the people who work/have worked there say about it? Read through the company’s values, look for any social initiatives or campaigns it has launched, and search for its name in the news. The culture of where you’re going to work is vitally important; think of it as the company’s personality. Good cultures tend to indicate good people, and good people are what make a great work environment.
3. Meet the Team
Arguably more important than the company’s personality is the people who you’ll be working with. What’s an innovative, hip brand if it’s full of uninventive, rude people? One of the best pieces of advice I can give to you is to get to know the people at any company where you’re applying. The interview process is as much about the company getting to know you as it is about you getting to know them. As a consultant, we say that there are three things you look for on any client engagement: 1) the team 2) the work and 3) the location. The point is that any work and any location can be fun when you’re working alongside good people. A few ways to do your due diligence on the team include: 1) reach out to current employees about their experience at the company 2) ask former interns/employees about their time at the company, and 3) scour online forums (i.e., Glassdoor) for employee reviews.
4. Understand the Role
One thing many prospective students fail to do is actually read through and understand the role. While “Corporate Strategy Analyst” may sound appealing, if the job description includes too many administrative tasks, like “open and sort mail” and “provide front office support,” you may want to re-assess. During the interview, ask your future boss about why he/she is looking for an intern, and what specific value an intern could provide to the team. I know many professionals like to say that millennials and Gen Zer’s demand too much and have no appetite to actually work, but on the flip side, I think we’re a passionate, determined generation of people who will work hard, especially when it’s related to our interests and goals. Of course, as an intern, you still have to earn your stripes, but you’re also there to do more than print papers and deliver coffee. Know your worth, know your goals, and know what you’re getting yourself into.
For some jobs, being an office admin is the reality of breaking into the industry. However, that’s not the case in every industry. In fact, of my five internships, only one required an imbalanced amount of time standing at the copy machine. While at the time I complained quite a lot about the agony of watching pages print for what felt like endless hours, in retrospect, I checked back to find that the internship description had stated such duties quite clearly. Later, when interested candidates reached out to me about my internship experience at that particular place, I was honest about the amount of administrative work it required. That’s my other piece of advice in this arena – ask former interns about what the role was like. The best people to learn from are those who have experienced it before you.
5. Trust Your Gut
Once you’ve understood your objectives, educated yourself about the companies you’re applying to, met their respective teams, and gotten a good handle on the roles they each offer, it’s time to make the decision. The great thing about making decisions is that you’ll never really know what the alternative would’ve brought. All five of my internships were incredibly rewarding (yes, even the one that involved a lot of copying/printing), and they each taught me several things that added to my professional skill set. When deciding between one or more internships, my best piece of advice is to choose the one that feels right. While some indicators may sway your decision one way or another (namely money and the company’s renown), be sure to think deeply about which company and role fit your goals the best and offer the most natural cultural fit. Chances are when the time comes, you’ll know. So trust your gut. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else does.
Choosing an internship can be a mix of emotions – daunting, stressful, exciting. However, if you think through the process strategically, you can generally ease some of the worries and enhance the anticipation. Regardless of what happens, the most important thing to remember is that no experience is a bad one. Sometimes, it’s the internships we dislike that tell us more about what we want to do than those that we enjoy. Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone—we’ve all been there before—and good luck on your internship search. You’ve got this!
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