Student guide to internships

Student interns often work together to deliver an end-of-placement project

Student interns often work together to deliver an end-of-placement project
Image source: GaudiLab

Get relevant work experience in a field that interests you and you’re far more likely to get the career head start you’re looking for. But what kind of placement should you go after; how do you go about applying, and what should you do when, having nailed the interview, you begin your internship? Here we give you the lowdown on internships – what to look for, what to avoid, and how to make a great impression when you get there.

What is an internship?

Mentors and their interns share ideas about a task

Mentors and their interns share ideas about a task
Image source: fizkes

An internship is a period of work experience at a place of employment. Many top firms use them to sift through potential graduate candidates, often choosing to recruit from their pool of interns rather than go to the open market for new employees. As a result, getting an internship is often just as competitive as the graduate recruitment process itself.

At its best, an internship gives you the opportunity to gain vital experience in your chosen career, while at the same time, introducing you to job roles you may not have considered before. But internships are a complex area, and sometimes controversial, with horror stories of zero pay, long hours and exploitative working conditions making the national news.

To make sure you get the experience you’re looking for, do your research. Make sure you read up about the organisation you wish to join, know what’s expected of you, and understand the terms and conditions of your placement. One of the most common complaints interns make is that they’re expected to work hard for little or no pay. If your internship is part of an accredited university course, or you’re volunteering for a registered charity, you’re not entitled to a wage. However, if you’re a worker, you’re entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

How to find an internship

Not all internships take place at a desk

Not all internships take place at a desk
Image source: Zapp2Photo

Many top firms in industries as diverse as law, accounting, fashion, advertising and media, through to government agencies like GCHQ, offer internship programmes. Either go direct to the company website, or search through the internships advertised by your university careers service. Another excellent place to begin your search is via graduate recruitment specialists, Prospects.

If you can’t find a scheme that appeals, or the firm you want to work for doesn’t have a formal internship programme, you need to take matters into your own hands. Making an unsolicited application for an internship is trickier than applying through an established scheme, but a worthwhile employer will appreciate your initiative in seeking out an opportunity.

Your first job is to thoroughly research the company you want to work for. Figure out how the skills and experience you’re learning on your course would be of benefit to the firm to which you’re applying. If you’re not applying through a scheme, contact the firm – get a name – find the person most likely to be able to help you. This could be a contact in HR or it might be a head of department – you’re much more likely to succeed if you’re asking the right person.

Get your C.V. ready and complete the relevant application form. What kind of person do you think the company is looking for? What skills do they need? Figure out how you match the requirements and tweak your resume to match. Now submit your application, leave it a few days and follow up with a phone call. Be persistent – but don’t hassle.

How to prepare for interview

Do your research before interviews for internships

Do your research before interviews
Image source: Dean Drobot

Read everything you can about the firm or organisation you wish to join. Check out the company website, look through news articles relating to the firm, and read around the wider issues affecting the sector as a whole. The more you know about the organisation and the context in which it operates, the easier you’ll find it to ask and answer questions.

Read the internship description and, assuming there is one, the person specification. Most big organisations have a process for reviewing the thousands of applications they receive, selecting interviewees, and awarding internships – it’s a tick-box exercise. To give yourself the best chance, and to steal a march on all those who haven’t read this guide, the person specification is your friend.

Usually the person spec is a bullet point list of essential and desirable skills and attributes the ideal candidate will have. Your job is to convince your interviewer(s) that you match the spec. You read about the person they’re looking for, you figure out how you satisfy their wish list, and throughout your interview, you answer every question with internal reference to that list of skills. That’s it.

How to dress for the interview

A suit is always a safe bet for an interview for an internship

A suit is always a safe bet
Image source: tsyhun

First impressions count. You need to look the part which normally means you need to be suited and booted for your interview. This means putting some of your student loan aside to make an investment for now and for your graduate future – you need to buy yourself a mens suit.

Forget high fashion – the suit you’re looking for is contemporary but classic; it’s the kind of ensemble that in five years time, will still cut it at the office. The fit is single breasted, with flat fronted trousers in a colour and fabric that won’t raise eyebrows – essentially, you’re looking for light to medium weight worsted wool, in navy, grey, or charcoal. A light pattern is OK – try a Prince of Wales check, or perhaps a pinstripe.

Choose a shirt with a sensible fit – even if you have the physique for it, you should avoid anything very fitted – it’s your brains rather than your pecs that you want to draw attention to. Make sure there’s enough fabric so you can pinch an inch or two all round. The shoulder seam should sit on the point of your shoulder and there should be no bunching under the armpit. When you raise your arms, if your belly looks like it’s going to burst your buttons, you need a bigger size.

Wear a tie that complements your suit – a block colour or simple stripe – nothing silly. Shoes – clean and polished black Oxfords please.

How to turn your internship into a job offer

Conduct yourself like a professional at your internship to get a graduate job offer

Conduct yourself like a professional
Image source: ASDF_MEDIA

Stand out for the right reasons and you’ve got a decent chance of turning your work placement into a job offer. The key is to make yourself useful without getting in the way – easier said than done when you’re just starting out. If you’re entering an established placement scheme, pay attention during your induction – take notes, ask questions.

When you’re assigned a task, make sure you understand what is being asked of you before you begin. You should be able to manage most of the job without getting stuck. You’ll win brownie points by proving yourself capable of implementing instructions without having to interrupt to ask questions every five minutes.

If you’ve listened to your line manager, but you’ve gone as far as you can without help, first ask yourself whether by using your initiative, you can solve the problem yourself. If not, come up with an idea of might be the appropriate way forward, then ask your supervisor if you’re on the right tack. When people say, “ask if you have questions”, that’s the best kind of question to ask.

Be on time every day of your placement, dress appropriately, be well groomed, and join in the social life of the office without overdoing it. That’s how a professional behaves – do that, and you’ll stand out as a diamond in the rough.

Here are 15 student internship programmes that might be of interest:


Further reading…

Need a little more help and advice? Check out our 10 Clever exam tips for students delivered by successful student vloggers. Looking for some style tips? Read How to dress for undergrad success or How to dress for employment success. And if you’re about to graduate – congratulations! Take a look at our Father and son guide to graduation.

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