October 2, 2008

Spotlight on College Internships

During my sophomore of college, everyone I knew was looking for a summer internship. The thinking was that an internship would make them more marketable come graduation.

Now, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I "grew up," but since I was majoring in political science, I figured an internship on Capitol Hill would be a good place to start.

I looked up the Representative from my district, and those from the surrounding districts, too. I identified a half-dozen offices that I would like to intern at, and started pulling together all the necessary material.

First, I worked up a cover letter and resume, spotlighting any and all relevant experience. Then, I asked two professors to write letters of reference.  I asked them to write about my academic knowledge of the field, as well as my ability to grasp the practical applications of these concepts

I was delighted to be offered a spot in Representative Tim Penny’s internship program. (Rep. Penny was my local Congressman.) I was even more excited to learn that Rep. Penny was offering a paid stipend to one of his eight college interns — and I was being invited to compete for the spot. Now all I needed to do was land the gig. Another round of cover letters, writing samples and letters of recommendation were sent off to Washington. In May, I heard the good news: I was the winner of the paid internship.

My stipend was far from flush, but it was enough to cover my housing, food and transportation. I made the most of my monthly "pay check" by living in the dorms at one of Washington’s local universities (a great way to save money, wherever your internship is), cooking at least a few dinners a week in my dorm room microwave, and leaving my car at home in favor of D.C.’s extensive metro and bus system.

That internship with Congressman Penny was a fabulous experience. I learned a ton working for Rep. Penny’s amazing staff of Washington professionals. I also availed myself of all kinds of free lecture series for interns, where I got to hear from some of my political icons.

Since Washington is also home to the extensive and free Smithsonian museum system, I spent many of my weekends learning more about natural history, Renaissance period art and aeronautical engineering. By living in the dorms, I got to meet fascinating people from all over the world — my roommate was Jordanian royalty and my friend from across the hall hailed from Somalia. What we lacked in a common language we made up in a common goal: To learn more about the workings of America’s federal government…while having the time of our lives.

The fun didn’t end that summer. Being able to put Paid Congressional Intern on my resume was a huge boost when I graduated from college two years later. I had so enjoyed the D.C. experience that I decided to go back for more. I arrived in Washington on a Monday. By the following Friday I had landed a full-time job as a legislative assistance at a foreign policy advocacy group. I have no doubt that my internship was instrumental in that first job offer; in fact, during my interview, my soon-to-be boss let on that he, too, had once worked for Congressman Penny!

Whether you are a political junkie, a budding musician, an environmentalist, a journalist, a born salesman (or woman), or anything else, a college internship is an outstanding way to advance your career before you ever graduate from college.

Here are some tips to finding the right internship for you:

* Set up a meeting with your academic advisor and the counselors at your college career services office (some Career Planning Centers even have an internship coordinator). Ask them to help you narrow your search to a specific field or industry. They might also know about relevant internships and be able to help you write a stellar internship resume.

* Reflect on your strengths, skills and interest. While past work experience isn’t necessarily a requirement to land an internship, it can’t hurt. Consider your academic knowledge of a subject. Also think about any transferable skills you may have gleaned from work-study jobs, part-time work or summer employment.

* Assess your financial situation. If you can’t afford to work for free, then you’ll need to focus your search on paid internships.  Or consider a part-time internship, coupled with a part-time job. While going to Washington, Hollywood or Wall Street can be a fun adventure, it’s not necessary to travel far from home to have a great internship experience.

* Another option is to look for a for-credit internship. By interning during the school year, and earning college credit, you might be able to "afford" to work for free. Definitely be wary of an internship experience that offers you neither a stipend nor credit. And whatever you do, run the opposite direction from an internship that asks you to pay them.

* Plan to attend an internship fair. Here you can learn more about various internship (and summer job) opportunities — and maybe even interview for a few!

* Like with finding a full-time job, networking may be one of your best resources for landing an internship. Don’t worry if your parents aren’t rubbing elbows with your town’s elite; simply tell everyone you know that you’re looking for an internship opportunity in X field. Someone is bound to know someone else, and before you know it, you’ll be talking to the right people. Also contact your school’s alumni office. They should be able to put you in touch with alumni who work in the field you’re interested in pursuing.

Have you had a great internship experience? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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