A Guide To College Internships

From one intern to another

When you’re in college you have one, and only one, responsibility: learn.

Learn about yourself. Learn about the world. Learn about what you love to do.

In my four years at Northeastern I’ve learned the most from:

  1. Co-Op/Internships
  2. Late night conversations with the people around me
  3. Clubs and organizations on campus
  4. Classes

Co-ops and internships are normally viewed as places where you do dull intern work in the hope of gaining connections and a good company name on your resume. That doesn’t have to be the case. Internships can be the bridge between the conceptual work you do in class and the real world application. They can provide you with context for everything you’ve learned, and more importantly help you discover what you haven’t learned.

The question is how do you maximize that learning? How do you make sure you’re getting the most high value learning for the time that you put in?

Finding what you love to do

What do you want to be when you grow up? We spend the first 20% of our life searching for an answer to this question.

In college you take a variety of classes that lead to degrees which in turn learn to various fields of work. Internships will immerse you in those fields, and by the end of it you’ll know if it’s for you.

When thinking about your co-op search there are two main “states” that should influence your research:

1. I don’t know what field I want to work in and I want to find out.

Internships present a great opportunity for you to try out a new role and see if you fall in love with it. If you do, you’ll know where to focus moving forward, if you don’t you’ll have crossed another off the list.

If possible, think about working in a small company. The smaller the company the more likely your job will overlap with many other departments and roles allowing you to see different possibilities of roles you can go into.

2. I’ve found what I love to do, now I want to become the best in the world at it.

You know what field you want to go in and you know what role you’d like to work in. Now it’s time for you to begin building your skill set within that field.

Optimize for learning

When thinking about where to intern the most powerful question you can ask is:

Where can I learn the most? What place will provide the most high-value learning?

Usually that comes from one of three things:

1. A great mentor.

Ideally this is someone who’s the best in the world at what they do. But even more importantly, someone who is willing to give you their time to help you learn and grow. No matter how talented they are, if you’re interacting with them once a month it won’t help much.

How to identify opportunities like this: Ask the mentors in your life who’s the best person they know in the field you’re interested in. If you’re interested in a certain company find out who works there, read the things they’ve written on the internet. Take a look at this terrific post on finding a mentor.

2. Great company culture.

A company that is know for excelling in your field. If it’s engineering, think of Apple, Tesla, Nest, etc. If it’s design think Airbnb or IDEO. Even if you’re not working on the most exciting project, you stand to learn a lot from the people around you and how they work.

How to identify opportunities like this: Culture is something that permeates everything a company does. Their website, the way they phrase their emails, everything they do is a reflection of their culture. Study the company based on what’s available online. If you can, find someone who works there, buy them coffee or shoot them an email with questions you have about the company.

3. Extremely challenging work.

When you’ve acquired a certain skill set sometimes the best way to grow that is to work on challenging problems. Problems that will require you to learn new things and apply what you’ve learned in completely different ways.

What you want to avoid: An internship filled with menial work. At the end of the day you’re a Co-Op/Intern and you will still have to work on things that aren’t extremely exciting. However this shouldn’t be all you work on. Make sure you know what you’ll be working on and with who before you accept an internship.

Creating your list

Typically when students search for co-ops they update their resume, throw it up on the job portal and hope for the best. When you do that you give up control of the internship experience that you want to have.

Make it your job to find or create the best experience

Searching for an internship shouldn’t be a passive activity. Make it your full time job to research, find, reach out and create the internship experience that you want to have. This all starts with creating your initial list of companies to go after. So how do you find these companies in the first place?

1. Start with Google.

Look at the companies website, how is it designed? What does the about/story page say about them? Look at what the media says about them, use google news search to find recent articles about the company and their developments. What are they currently working on? Starting with those two things will give you a good baseline impression of what the company is like.

2. Who works there?

Once you have a basic feel for what the company is like, find out who works there. This can be done either through LinkedIn or through the companies “Team” page (more on LinkedIn below). Google them, what have they published on their blog or in journal articles? What are the things they’re tweeting about? Get a feel for what these people are like.

3. Ask the people you respect what they think

Whether it’s a former coworker or a professor you respect get their thoughts on the companies in your list. What have they heard about them? Do they know anyone that works there? Or, even better, in their opinion who is the best at X?

Once you’ve compiled this list make it your job to reach out to these companies and convince them why you’re the best person for the job.

Reaching Out

Once you’ve created your list it’s time to get the company to notice you. You should go into the co-op search with the mindset of doing something every week that gets the prospective company to notice/think about you.

Constantly ask yourself, what have I done this week to push the needle forward? What can I do to keep my name on their minds.

Let’s look at the different tools at your disposal.

1. Nothing beats a warm introduction

The single most effective thing you can do to get on their radar is to have a former colleague/connection of yours introduce you to a connection of theirs that works at the company. It beats a cold email, and it gives you much higher chances of being noticed then hoping your resume gets picked up out of a pile by a recruiter.

How do you find those connections?

Tool: LinkedIn, former colleagues

LinkedIn is a powerful tool that allows you to see how you’re connected to certain companies. In the logged in home screen you can search the name of a company and it’ll show you how you’re connected to people that work there. If you know one of your mutual connections well, shoot him an email asking for an introduction.

2. Make a great first impression

Making a great first impression is extremely important. The last thing you want is to have your resume be the first impression you make on a company. Write a cover letter, tell them why it’s the only place you want to work and why they should hire you. Attach a critique of your first experience with their product, write about a product idea you have for their company. Show them you’re willing to go the extra mile to get an internship there.

Tool: Cover letter, blog post, product critiques

3. Stay on their minds

Every week you should be asking yourself what can you do to keep your name on the company’s mind. Can you comment on their blog post, tweet at the recruiter, send them an email with something you think they’d find interesting? Show them that you’re constantly thinking about them.

Define your experience

You get four years in school, four years to define the experience you want to have, the things that you want to learn and the person that you want to become. Don’t sit back and let someone else decide the things that you will learn.

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might never get there.” — Yogi Berra

What’s your process for finding the right internships? If you have any questions I’m happy to discuss further, you can find me on twitter here.

Thanks to PradeepHongDerekBenJacob and John who have helped shape and improve my own process.