How to land your first internship – 5 essential tips

Tips to start your internship search

As a senior in college, I’ve done four internships so far. Each one required weeks—sometimes months—of prep before signing my offer letter. If you’ve never done an internship, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are some key tips I’ve learned along the way.

Why do an internship?

Before we dive in, let’s define what an internship actually is. No, it’s not a money-saving scheme for companies. No, it's not a guaranteed full-time offer (approximately 70% of employers offer interns full-time jobs). In short, an internship is a short-term learning experience that an organization offers to beginning professionals who are usually (but not always) students.

Internships are a great way to get industry exposure, expand your network, and refine your career goals. They can also build confidence as you apply your knowledge to a real-world setting. Interning in your field allows you to get a better feel for what you’re stepping into, like a trial run for your career. More than being a resume builder, internships are an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what you’re skilled at. Truthfully, I could write a whole essay on the benefits of internships, but let's talk about how to get one.

1. Start early!

Internships aren’t like exams—you can’t wait until the last minute to start prepping for them, or you’ll be left with limited options. If you’re looking to do an internship in the summer, a safe bet is to start your applications by January. Chances are you’ll have some spare time during winter break. Spend a couple hours browsing job sites or revamping your resume. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.

Don’t forget to check the recruiting timeline for your desired role. Some industries, like consulting, have earlier deadlines and can be more competitive. In this case, you’ll want to start your prep as early as the summer before. Depending on how urgently the job needs to be filled, the entire process can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.

2. Get that resume checked

Your resume is essentially a one-page summary of who you are—your background, skills, and expertise. It’s what gets your foot in the door. Don’t you want it to be as professional as possible? Before sending out applications, stop by your school’s career center and ask an advisor to proofread it.

Pro tip: Tailor your resume to the position you’re applying for. For a financial analyst internship, you might emphasize your financial modeling skills and intensive finance courses. 

Feel free to showcase your involvement on campus. Are you secretary of your sorority? Do you have a work-study job as a Resident Assistant? As small as some positions may seem, it’s worth putting them out there. In my college career, being an editor for a student-run magazine has allowed me to hone my writing skills for my internships. Getting experience writing website content and blog articles helped me take on similar roles more confidently.

Don’t be afraid to show off your accomplishments—just make sure you’re not stretching the truth. If you only know a few phrases in Spanish, don't flaunt your “fluency.” When it comes to applications, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you want to take it a step further (hint: you do), write a cover letter. It’s a formal letter giving more in-depth insight into your qualifications and why you’re fit for the role. It’s meant to be a supplement to your resume, not a replacement, so treat it like so. If you’re going into the creative industries, make sure your portfolio is polished so you can give employers a taste of what you’re capable of.

3. Go to that career fair you’ve been avoiding

Yes, people really do land jobs from connections made at career fairs. Anyone can apply for jobs from their dorm room, but nothing makes you stand out like meeting an employer face-to-face. Career fairs are an opportunity to grow your network and dabble into roles you may not have considered before.

Here's how a typical fair works: Each employer sets up a booth and students line up to meet with a representative. Dozens—sometimes hundreds—of companies are present. The goal is to establish professional relationships and chat about potential job opportunities—nothing too crazy. The bulk of the work goes into your prep.

Before the big day, research your top 5-10 companies and come up with questions. Print out copies of your resume and perfect your elevator pitch. Dress for success in business attire, and you’re ready to go. No career events on campus? Hop on a virtual career fair session and meet with employers on the spot—no waiting in line.

4. Network, network, network

As they say, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Networking is a skill that can take you to places you never could’ve imagined. For me, that place was the home page of Italy Magazine following my semester abroad in Milan. What started as a short assignment for a class eventually became a published article thanks to my professor’s connection with the editor. Your network is also a great source for recommendation letters. It’s always good to know someone who can put in a good word for you. Besides making you visible, networking allows you to learn from professionals who can teach you the ins and outs of the industry.

If you’re wondering who’s included in your network, think professors, classmates, alumni, club advisors... the list goes on. Networking isn’t as scary as it sounds; all it is is meeting people and building relationships. It can be as simple as chatting with peers on LinkedIn® or contacting alumni for an informational interview.

Pro tip: Always send a personal note when connecting with someone on LinkedIn®, especially if you don’t already know them. It only takes a couple minutes and can go a long way.

An easy way to network is by attending your professors’ office hours to ask about their careers. For example, one of my professors did the same master’s program that I want to do, so I set up a meeting with him to talk about his experience. Looking to expand your network? Go to networking events (like career fairs), join professional organizations (like the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)), or ask people you know for referrals. Having connections can give you a leg up in the application process, or let you skip it altogether.

5. Job boards are your best friend

If you want a hassle-free way to find internships, do a quick search on websites like Indeed, LinkedIn®, or Handshake. These platforms allow you to filter searches by location, experience level, industry, and even company. If you’re looking for paid roles only, you can filter for that too. There are also industry-specific job sites like Media Bistro for roles in the media realm. You can also apply directly on company websites. Because you aren’t able to verbally showcase your skills online, it’s especially important that your resume, cover letter, and other application materials are polished.

Most websites will show the status of your application, such as “Applied” or “Reviewed.” In the best-case scenario, the company will reach out to you promptly with an interview offer. As a rule of thumb, if you haven’t heard back after a week, it’s a good idea to follow up with the hiring manager.

Things to remember when applying

Don’t get bogged down by details like how many internships to apply for or the exact time to follow up. The important part is that you’re carving out time for your job search regularly. Most importantly, don't limit yourself to one strategy. When browsing job sites, look for previous interns to add to your network. Attend a career fair while you wait to hear back from a company. Of course, don’t overwhelm yourself as your focus should still be on school. Finally, be confident! You’ve worked hard for this, and any company would be lucky to have you.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

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