Young guy enjoying his internship

Finding a great internship is hard.

Even if you have a few ideas of what you’re interested in, how do you find the right opportunities? Can you tell if your next internship will make you happy or leave you filled with dread and cursing about your manager? Or do you think it’s impossible to stand out amongst hundreds of other candidates applying for the same roles?

Let me tell you: with the right strategy, you can find an internship you love and blow the hiring manager away in your interview.

The key is to come prepared. Don’t just shoot off a dozen resumes – but do you research before you apply to a role. Go beyond a quick Google search and find out what you’re REALLY interested in. Dive deep into different industries, companies and whether the internships match what you want to do in your future career.

Let’s go through the process of researching and finding your dream internship step-by-step.

Step 1: Define what a great internship means to you

We all look for different things in an internship. Some look for prestigious opportunities with the highest pay. Others look for a great team, full of inspiring people, and want to work on creative projects. Knowing what you want to get out of your internship can help you find opportunities and land great offers.

Start by making a list of your values and priorities. What type of work environment do you thrive in?

Are you looking for a fast-paced and varied job where you can make split-second decisions? Or you prefer working slowly and methodically on long-term projects. Are you looking for a lot of guidance and mentorship from your manager, or do you want to work independently? What do you hate in a job – long working hours, office politics, or large teams?

All of these values and expectations need to be considered in your research. It could be that you like offering advice to solve business challenges, but if you hate switching projects every few months, working in a large management consultancy might not be the right fit. Or maybe you’re fascinated by science and experiments, but hate the bureaucracy and paperwork that comes with working in a lab.

Sometimes a certain role sounds interesting, but other aspects of the job don’t appeal to you. This is totally normal. Defining your values is as much about coming up with great internship ideas as it is about ruling out bad ones.

Step 2: Brainstorm internship opportunities and research each role

Now that you have a few ideas of what you’d be interested in, you don’t want to go straight to LinkedIn and blast out applications at anything that looks good.

Instead, it’s time to brainstorm potential careers and job titles. Write down anything that comes to mind, even if you think you don’t have the right qualifications or experience. Then head over to job sites like LinkedIn to take a look through internship descriptions. If anything stands out, write that down too.

Also, think of skills you already have. If you love taking care of your neighbour’s pets, why don’t you search for opportunities where you get to work with animals. And don’t be scared of thinking outside the box. If working as a riding instructor or dog trainer is what you’ve always wanted to do, put it on your list.

Once you enough ideas, it’s time to narrow down your search. Take the most appealing few and spend an hour learning everything you can about the role.

  • What would your day-to-day tasks look like?
  • Do you need any specific qualifications?
  • What types of companies are there in the industry and what’s their vibe?
  • Can you find paid opportunities?
  • What do people do after finishing this type of internship? And does that appeal to you?

The mores specific you can be with these questions, the better. It’s good to learn both the positives and negatives ahead of time. If you notice that an industry or role is not for you, move on to your next idea.

Ideally, you will come out of your research with a few clear ideas of what you want to do. Don’t just say you’re looking to work in HR or marketing. Instead, be ultra-specific and really nail down those job titles. This is the type of depth you are looking for:

‘I want to work as recruiting intern at a venture capital firm in London’

‘I’m hoping to do a learning and development placement at a San Francisco-based scale-up’

‘I aspire to work as a graphic designer in the renewable energy industry.’

Don’t be afraid of closing doors and leaving great opportunities on the table. You can always make a switch later if you feel like you’ve gone down the wrong path. Most importantly, don’t just sit around waiting for your passion to fall from the sky – that barely ever happens. Start looking for opportunities – and testing them, until you find something that sticks.

Step 3: Prioritise your ideas

Suppose you have three ideas – and you don’t know which appeals to you most.

Take another look at the values you identified in the first step. Is there one role that fits your values better than others? Just start with that.

Or find someone in the industry and ask them out for a virtual coffee. That way, you can learn more about their day-to-day and get answers to any open questions you might have from your research.

For your coffee meeting, it’s often best to find someone in an entry-level role. They know what working on the lower rungs of the company is like. And they are much more accessible and willing to help than some top-level CEO, who is playing a totally different game.

Here’s a script you can use to reach out to people and set up your first coffee meeting:

Coffee outreach template

For the meeting, I’d suggest you come prepared with a list of questions. This will help you find out more about what interning in the industry would be like and can be a nice conversation booster if your contact is shy or doesn’t know what to say.

Hopefully, by the end of your meeting you will have a clearer idea of which type of internship you want to look for. If you are lucky, your interview partner might even be able to recommend a few companies to check out or suggest other roles that could be interesting for you.

Step 4: Look for opportunities in the right places

Now that you have a clear idea of what you want to do, it’s time to find the best opportunities. I would suggest you start looking on sites like LinkedIn, as they allow you to filter internships by title and location.

For example:

LinkedIn Job Search Tool
Job search filter feature

Another great place to look is your university careers centre. They often have a list of internship opportunities and may even have their own job board. With this, do keep in mind that you are potentially competing against other candidates from your university, and will need to find unique ways to make good impression.

Lesser-known ways to find great opportunity are:

  • Looking through company websites to see if can find which other businesses they partner with or work for. For example, Accenture has a section on their website where they share successful projects like this AI-based ventilation system that they helped develop for the Metro de Madrid. Other companies might share case studies on their blog, LinkedIn or social media too.
  • Finding potential employers through company lists and rankings. For example, the site Seedtable maintains a ranking of European start-ups that you can search through by city and industry. Similarly, you can look for ‘Top 10 companies in XYZ industry’ or ‘Best 100 places to work in ABC City’ to opportunities you would not otherwise consider.

Step 5: Select the most rewarding opportunities

If you’ve found some good opportunities, you’ll want to strike a balance between the quality and quantity of applications. Try to apply to the best opportunities, but also have a few alternatives in case your top choices don’t work out.

Before you write a resume and cover letter, make sure that you’d actually feel comfortable working for the companies you’re apply to. You’ll be spending anyway between 30 and 50 hours a week on your internship for the next months, so it better be something you enjoy. Don’t waste your time seeking offers you know you wouldn’t want to accept.

Also, keep in mind that companies want to find the best candidates. This means they’ll try to write appealing internship descriptions to win over prospective applications. But not every opportunity is what it seems – and some companies use buzz words and marketing lingo to portray their internships in a good light.

For example, I recently applied to a company for an internship that would have me communicating ‘with participants and trainers’. But in my second interview with the company, I found out that 99% of the work would be sending out pre-written email templates to participants, and I would barely get to talk to trainers at all.  

To spot such differences between the advertised and actual role, I suggest that you read between the lines in job descriptions and find out as much as you can about the internship before you accept the offer. This includes:

  • Asking lots of questions during your internship interview
    Your internship interview is your opportunity find out if the company is a great fit. You can ask about almost anything that matters to you, from standard working hours and responsibilities to the challenges which the team currently faces and what plans they have to develop in the next 3-6 months.
  • Reading about the experience from previous employees
    Looking for employer reviews on sites like Glassdoor, Kununu or Payscale can give you a good insight into what works well and what doesn’t in a certain company. I’d recommend taking a look on company review platforms, as you’ll get a much clearer view of the dark sides of your prospective company.
  • Checking out the leadership team and your future manager on LinkedIn
    By taking a look at people’s education, interests and career paths, you can already tell a lot about their values. It’s pretty safe to assume that someone who has worked for five different start-ups in the last nine years will value quick decisions and an entrepreneurial mindset. Similarly, a manager who has cooperated with big-name brands might value status and prestige over efficiency and innovation.

Now that you’ve done such thorough research on the companies you want to apply to, find out how to write a great resume and negotiate your internship salary.

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