I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

A very worried student wrote to me, asking:

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

The first step is: Don’t panic!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do an internship. Internships are very over-rated. Sure, internships may give you work experience but what matters more are your people skills. I’ll take someone without an internship but with better people skills and a good attitude any time over a person with poor people skills but an impressive CV full of internships. Why? Because the one with better people skills will give me far less of a headache as my subordinate compared to the one with poor people skills. Many bosses, supervisors and HR people will tell you they’ll choose the same too.

Now, let me systematically diagnose possible problems as to why you didn’t get an internship. If you have not been called up for an interview, it means there is something wrong with your CV. CV is Latin for Curriculum Vitae, or the course of (your) life. It’s supposed to document all the awesome things you’ve accomplished in your life, as a testament of your development through the years.

I’ve seen many CVs and one typical mistake is that people – including very awesome and capable people – merely list out super short summaries of the things they did. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces your greatness into mediocrity. Imagine if you are the hiring manager and you have to go through 1000 CVs in order to identify 3 people for an interview: who would you pick? The ones whose CVs stand out from the rest, of course.

If you merely list the tasks you did, you’re not going to stand out as impressive. It helps to add a short sentence of the outcome: how your work made an impact on someone or some group. Better if you have solid numbers to include (they must be true: don’t lie in your CV). It also helps to add an adverb to paint a richer image of what you’ve done. Here’s a comparison:

Typical Way of Writing CV (not impressive): Organised an outreach programme

Better Way of Writing CV (based on the advice I gave): Competently organised an outreach programme for the organisation. Under my supervision, the event was a success with logistics and programmes running on time. 90% of attendees gave feedback that they benefitted greatly from the careful planning and execution.

Read the two samples above. Which one inspires greater confidence in you that s/he is a very competent hire? The latter, because of the concrete evidence of the results. So do that and it will increase the appeal of your CV.

Now, if you’ve been going for interviews but haven’t been getting any offers, it means that you lack the people skills to make a strong positive impression. Usually, one of the interviewers is someone whom you’ll work under. The aim is to show that you are someone that they want to work with, and someone they can trust to do the work competently well. Ideally, you should show that you are an independent and fast learner. But if that’s not what you are, at least show that you are someone who’s lovely to work with.

You can also make a strong positive impression in other ways. You should do a lot of homework to find out more about the company and especially your interviewers. It shows in the conversation that you’re hardworking enough to have done background research. The fact that you can find common topics of interest to talk about also shows that you will be a great person to work with.

I’ve heard that some students think the interview question, “Tell me more about yourself,” is an invitation to bitch about life and bitch about one’s past work experiences. Please don’t do that. To the hiring manager, that’s a red flag. The question is an invitation to impress the interviewers, to make a case for why they should hire you.

The best way to get an internship or job is through personal connections. For example, a number of former students have since gotten internships because I put in a good word for them (I only do that for good students when the hiring manager knows me – people know that I teach a compulsory FASS module, SG is small). The testimony of a friend’s recommendation to a hiring manager makes a world of a difference, and it can even convince hiring managers to favour you even before they’ve seen your CV or hear you in an interview. So they’ll be more forgiving to mistakes and all that.

Another student asked a follow-up question:

But what if the student has no work experience and or any achievement to show off from one’s CCA? Does this mean that no one will give the student a chance at an internship at all?

I want to re-emphasise that internships are way too over-rated. You won’t lose out if you don’t do an internship. Not all internships are equal, and not all give a rich work experience. Some internships are saikang (shit job) internships that just waste your time and energy. The experience you gain doesn’t really help you at all in making an impressive case on our CV.

If you realise that as of now, you don’t have an impressive CV, as a student, you still have time to change that. Use your time in University to develop an impressive CV. Perhaps take on leadership roles or projects in your CCAs, or find some way to get involved in something. Even volunteer/charitable projects will be helpful. Anything that involves people: managing people, leading people, teaching people, guiding people, etc., will be useful. At least that will give you experience in one way or another.

If that’s not possible, use the time to upskill yourself with online courses like Coursera or EdX, or learn to develop good people skills. And learn to reach out to people in industries. It doesn’t hurt to say hello to people. Some may turn you down, but so what? They won’t remember you (unless you wrote something really nasty). In most cases, if people remember you, it’s for good things. And it can open doors of opportunities for you, whether in the form of internships or work after graduation. Learn to use this to develop good relations with others. It’s a good investment that will come in very handy for you in the future.

As a real example: Some former students got jobs/internships after staying in touch with me and building good friendships with me. Not only do I know them well, but I trust them not to let me down if I were to recommend them to other people. So I have fought hard to recommend them for positions that internship/job positions that open up.

I was very fortunate, when I was a student/fresh graduate, to have good JC teachers and profs who opened up many opportunities for me by tapping on their own networks. This is just my way of paying it forward to help other students the way my teachers helped me.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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