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What is an Internship and How Do You Land One?

by Yvette McKenzie
Posted: June 02, 2015

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You’ve probably heard about internships being the lucrative career goldmine - a foot in the door at exclusive companies, invaluable experience and increased chances of scoring a job in an industry that you love.

However, infamous stories of endless coffee runs, crappy jobs and unpaid near-exploitation (ok we’re being dramatic here) can make you think twice before you consider it as a wise career move. Our Open Colleges guide will help you land the right opportunity and make the most of this exceptional career learning curve.

But firstly, what is an internship?

Simply put, it’s usually unpaid work experience (known as a cadetship in the US) that can last anywhere between a week and six months with mutual gain for you and an employer. Bigger companies (most famously, Google) have proper trainee programs with the aims of grooming you to be their future stars, while smaller boutique firms, usually in demanding and creative industries with low budgets, utilise interns as welcome free labour - while granting them insider access to glamorous jobs (think fashion, PR and film).

We would recommend an internship if you are fresh out of study and have little work experience on your CV or are completely changing industries and need to get a foot in the door afresh. Here is how to ensure you land a terrific one.

1. Research the company beyond their website

Think about your life in five years time - do you want to work for a big corporate, a small company team of five or running your own agency? This will determine the scope of the organisation you should aim for - at least for now. If you are not sure and want to experience a variety of environments, you should still select one or two key players in each and research them diligently. This goes beyond a careful scour of their website - sign up to their twitter feed, Google updates and read company reports. Do the same for their industry competitors. Internships at good companies are competitive, so to stand out at your interview (we’ll get to that later), you need to show that you’ve done your homework.

2. Perfect your CV

It goes without saying that your CV should be immaculately proofread, formatted and spell checked before you send it to anyone at all. Then, with your company and ideal job position in mind, you must accurately tailor your existing experience to meet your desired role’s needs. Even in a big company like Open Colleges, you can choose to work in the education, marketing or accounts departments. So how will your listed experience demonstrate that? Keep your CV succinct and stick to relevant experience only. Even if you worked in seemingly varied jobs, tie them together with common threads. No matter the industry, employers look for soft skills such as your ability to assess a situation, analyse data, think both logically and laterally, work well in a team - while having basic to intermediate computer skills is also an advantage. Also, make sure you don’t lie. Employers can see straight through experience embellishment so bending your strength can cost you the role before it even began.

3. Network, network, network

Knowing someone in the industry greatly increases your chances of scoring an interview, rather than just applying to companies cold. So scour your network, old classmates, Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts for anyone who may know someone in your chosen organisation. Reach out with a polite and friendly message and ask if they can shed some light on the organisation’s hiring process. Be consistent and stay in touch - successful careers are built on good relationships. Let everyone know you’re looking for an internship too. You never know who people know and who you may meet to mentor you and help you get your foot in the door.

4. Gain some side experience

Your internship should not be your only work experience - to demonstrate your passion for an industry, you must have some side projects that show an employer this role could be a way of life for you. For instance, if you are wanting to work in fashion design, show your potential employer some designs you’ve already sketched. If you’d love to be a writer, start a blog. If you want to work in finance, show where you have been trading stocks already. This shows some initiative and that you’ll bring something to the role. If you’ve been studying, your assignments can go a long way to demonstrating your aptitude and skill. However, a CV with nothing but course work is unlikely to get picked up.

5. Ace the interview

At the end of the day, an internship is much like any job - you will be a part of the company culture, exposed to important internal projects and be dealing with valued clients. An employer needs to feel assured that you’re a fit for their organisation. Show this by being perfectly prepared for the interview by doing excellent company research (see point 1). Focus on what you can bring to the company - not what the company can do for you. How will you make a difference? Why should they select you over other candidates? What strengths and skills do you have? The interviewer will also likely ask curly questions to discover more about you - how you think laterally, collaborate and solve challenges. Be prepared for these. Emphasise that you’re keen to learn and ask how you can make the most pf the internship. At the same time, show that you are flexible, not afraid of hard work and are willing to do anything you can to learn and help out.

In this day and age, employers are looking for someone who is gracious, dedicated and demonstrates a noble work ethic. If you treat your internship as an opportunity to fully serve your chosen company - all the while absorbing knowledge like a sponge - your initiative will show that you are someone they would love to have on your team. Even if an internship doesn't work out or lead to long term prospects, this type of experience is invaluable - and something your next employer is sure to pick up on.



Yvette has over a decade of professional experience at some of Australia’s largest media corporations, including Southern Cross Austereo and the Macquarie Media Network. With a degree in Communications (majoring in Journalism), she covers stories on education, new knowledge technologies and independent learning.

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