Don’t put off looking until the last minute
You’re going to need to start looking for your internship the semester before you actually want to do it. This is because the most competitive internships (i.e. paying ones, ones that involve travel, or ones that offer amazing work experience) usually open their applications a semester or two before they actually begin. If you’re going for a high-profile internship, start looking into it around 6 months before you’d like to do it, so you’ll be sure to meet all the deadlines. If your internship doesn’t involve a formal application, start working on it the semester before you want to do it, especially if you’re cold-calling or trying to network your way into a business. Also, give your professors a heads-up so that they can help as much as possible by setting you up with class credit or letters of recommendation.
Do talk to your professors
This is the best first step for anybody looking for an internship: talk to the professors within the department or career field in which you’re trying to intern. Many professors receive emails or notices about internships from national associations, and they’re more than willing to connect an outstanding student with a good internship opportunity. They also have many contacts within their field, and they may be willing to ask around and see if any of their colleagues will take you on. Even if you look elsewhere for your internship, you’ll probably need to get references from your professors at some point, so talk to a couple of them before you apply anywhere.
Don’t be afraid to cold-call (or email)
This was how I ended up getting an internship with a local law firm, so I know from experience–it works! If you’re not having any luck with professors or networking, don’t be afraid to Google local businesses within your field and just give them a phone call. Tell them you’re a student trying to get some hands-on experience, and you’d be super grateful if they’d let you come in and shadow their employees, answer phones, or help out around the place for the experience. (Pro tip: smaller, privately-owned businesses are going to be more open to taking on interns this way than larger corporate businesses, so think local).
Do dream big, but keep realistic expectations
You’ve never had an internship before, but you can totally snag something that pays hundreds a week, lets you set your own hours, and includes free travel to NYC, right? Um, no. You’ve got to stay realistic during your search and realize that there’s probably not going to be a “perfect fit” like something straight out of a movie. Most new interns won’t get paid (although if you can find a paid position, go for it!), the tasks you’ll perform may be less than exciting, or your hours might be ungodly early. While you don’t want to accept an internship you already know you’ll hate, you have to be willing to compromise on some things. Remember: the goal here is just to get experience, and most experience (even the boring, early-morning kind) is a good experience.
Don’t be afraid to take an internship outside of your major
Say you’re a geology major, but this writing internship looks interesting. Should you go for it? The answer depends on several factors, but ultimately, having internships outside of your field of study will likely make you seem more versatile and multitalented to future employers. Things to consider: is the internship only open to people within a certain major? If you’re about to graduate, would it be more beneficial to get an internship in your field of study? Will the skills you learn in this internship be transferable to most fields of study? (For example, a writing internship teaches skills you’ll need in virtually any job, while an internship at a vet’s office may have a more narrow range of applicable skills). If you consider these factors and still think that the internship outside of your major looks like a good idea, go for it! Remember: most experience is good experience.
Do be sure to get class credit for your internship
Most departments have a certain “class” you can enroll in that’s essentially an open internship class. Typically, this allows you to get 3 credit hours for a semester-long internship, provided you work around 15 hours a week (though requirements may vary by department). This does a couple things: it legitimizes your internship by displaying it on your college transcript, and it allows you to count the time you spend at your internship as class time (because if you’re not getting money, you might as well get credit!). Some departments will require that you make one discussion post a week about what you’ve learned from your internship so far, and most require a short summary essay of your experiences at the end of the semester. Talk to your professors or department chair to find out who coordinates the internships in your department.
Don’t forget to polish your resume
Always, always send a copy of your resume to any place you’re trying to intern, even if it’s not required. This is especially true if you’re emailing or calling businesses to try to set something up yourself; it will show that you’re legitimate and that you’ve got skills and previous experience to bring to the table. But wait, you might say, I’m applying for this internship to get experience I don’t have yet, so what do I put on a resume? The trick here is to think of experience in a broader sense, as basically anything you did that taught you something. Did you get a black belt in karate as a kid? You’ve shown discipline and dedication. Did you volunteer in high school? That’s initiative and community awareness. Even if you don’t have “work” experience, you can demonstrate skills you’ve learned through more unconventional experiences. Also, if you need help polishing your resume, click here to go MTSU’s Career Center. If you email them your resume, they’ll read it and respond with some recommended changes that will make it look polished and professional.