Applying for internships and work experience placements

You should approach applying for internships in much the same way as looking for a job. Therefore much of what appears on this page about CV writing and covering letters for full-time jobs and career advancement will be relevant if you are trying to find a placement for work experience or an internship. The tips and ideas on the job interviews section are also relevant to seeking and applying for and successfully gaining internships and work experience placements.

It’s essential to research prospective internship employers. And plan this well in advance. People who leave things until the last minute reduce their options, and increase the amount of competitive pressures involved. Also, planning and researching early in the process will maximise the chances of identifying and securing the best placements.

Employers will be impressed by people who have clearly planned ahead of the rest. Employers will not be impressed by those who’ve obviously left things late.

Be creative about the way you research your employer market sector(s). First decide on the sector(s), and what you want to do.

Answer this:

Do you define your target sector(s) ‘vertically’ – according to ‘vertical markets’, such as retail, solicitors, accountants, charities, healthcare, transport, sports, leisure, etc.; or do you prefer to define your target employers ‘horizontally’ – according to services and professions that are used across all industries, such as administration, sales, financial, legal, creative, production, quality management, business management, human resources, training and development, etc? Or perhaps a combination of the two, for example, I want to get an internship as a HR person in a charity, or as a production designer in a hi-tech manufacturing company?

However you define your target sector, it’s important to do so, because this gives you something specific to aim at. Clarity here is extremely valuable. Clear aims have a much greater chance of being met than fuzzy or indeterminate ideas. This is because we can build an action plan around a clear aim. We can’t build a plan around a vague idea.

The action plan starts with researching your target market or sector, however you define it. Focusing on a defined sector helps because certain economies of scale come into effect: commonalities exist between similar organisations and situations which save our time and enable efficient use of our efforts. We can get into a groove and a mind-set that will work in lots of similar situations. Being vague and having no focus makes it impossible to derive these advantages. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s not helpful in putting together a targeted action plan, where focus, consistency, familiarity, knowledge, expertise and professionalism are the important criteria for success.

Research is relatively easy using the internet – but remember the phone as well, especially when you locate a contact who might guide you. Try to identify the focal points where information is gathered and disseminated for your target sector(s). Most vertical industry sectors – and professions – are represented by at least one trade association or professional body or institute. Large sectors will be represented by many different trade associations, bodies and institutes – each of which represents a sub-sector or ‘niche’ within the main sector. Each representative body will generally have a trade magazine or journal, and also probably a website. These pivotal points will enable you to find out most of what you need to know so as to identify prospective internships (and employers). Use the phone to talk to people in these organisations – editors and secretaries are very knowledgeable and many are very helpful. Try to network and seek referrals from contacts, each time asking politely for help – just be honest and courteous about what you are trying to achieve and many people will be extremely helpful. Accept the fact that you will find yourself barking up the wrong tree on a few occasions – no problem – move onto the next point of contact. Sooner or later you will find what you seek.

What you seek of course is of course a good list of potential employers (and relevant contact details) who fit your criteria. Your criteria will extend beyond market sector and job function. Geography, organisation size, market position, style and culture might also feature in your ideal profile of an internship organisation. Again, define and describe to yourself what you are seeking – an employer profile – and use your research sources to compile a list of the organisations that meet it.

Researching individual organisations on the internet and by telephone, and by requesting details from them (sales brochures, annual reports, etc) helps to build up a feel of the market and or professional sector early on, and this individually focused research is very beneficial later in the process when you begin to tighten your specification and list of prospective employers. This detailed research will directly improve your written approach, and you performance at interview.

When approaching organisations for internships or work experience placements, resist the temptation to send out lots of emails. Letters are best. Emails give a far lower rate of response than letters. Letters have to be opened, but emails don’t, and many are binned as junk or spam. Follow the principles on this page to write and send the most impressive CV and cover-letters possible. It’s not necessary to have had loads of work experience to create a great-looking impressive CV. See the notes above about writing CVs with little or no work experience.

See also the tips on business writing and also the techniques for writing introductory sales letters, which all relates to the process you are undertaking. Remember, you are selling yourself. For that matter you should also look at the sales training page too, which contains a lot of useful guidance about identifying what people want and developing a proposition to meet those needs, both of which are central to what you are doing.

Telephoning before writing is a good idea. This enables you to qualify the good opportunities and remove the no-hopers. Phone the PA (personal assistant) of the decision-maker, so as to make the introduction, to ask about and qualify the opportunity and process of application and selection, and ask them to look out for your letter. If you are referred to another person or department go with their flow unless you are convinced it’s taking you to the wrong place.

Carrying out telephone follow-up to the PA’s, and your overall persistence after you’ve sent your letters and CVs, will also greatly improve your success.

Also helpful is networking (asking contacts for referrals and suggestions about other opportunities) to find the opportunities that best suit your capabilities and aspirations. Networking among smaller business in the same sector can be very effective and would be a useful tactic for example if you wanted to find a placement in a small firm situated nearby or connected with lots of similar providers. Many owners and directors know each other well and are often quite happy to refer you elsewhere. Just because firms compete with each other does not prevent them from referring this sort of interest between themselves when asked. So ask.

Editors of trade journals will often have a good idea of who are the biggest graduate recruiters and who offer most internships within certain sectors. Research can be as easy or difficult as you make it. Try to find the people who know most about what you want to discover and seek their help.

When it comes to sending letters and CVs to your selected organisations, writing personalised letters that explain why you’d like to work for the particular practice gives you a significant advantage over other people who send out an obvious mailshot-type letter, oriented to nobody in particular.

Emphasise what you can do for the employer and your passion for the field or profession or industry, rather than being seen only to seek what they can do for you.

Be flexible on fees and salary rates. Depending on your circumstances and the significance of the opportunity you might even offer to work for minimum wage or for free. It’s called ‘delaying gratification’ or ‘investing in your future’ and under certain circumstances it’s a very effective technique. Good employers will in any event generally pay a fair rate irrespective of what you ask for, and they’ll typically be very impressed by people who love their field so much that they are prepared to make personal sacrifices as an investment towards learning and experience.

“Everybody’s got to have a first [internship] somewhere. My advice is, hey, if you can find any way to afford it, try to work for free somewhere. Do anything to work in your field.” (Richard Hieb, astronaut, from from The Internship Bible, 2003 Edition by Mark Oldman and Samer Hamadeh, as referenced by The Princeton Review.)

Enthusiasm and passion and commitment go a very long way with high quality employers. The decision-makers you will meet in these organisations usually love their work and their chosen field. They’ve become successful because of their passion and determination.

The best employers want to employ interns who demonstrate this same level of commitment.