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How to land the internship you want in college

Christina Couch

Solid grades and strong academic work may help you land a job after college, but having a few internships on your resume can probably get your foot in the door faster. A survey by Internships.com of more than 300 recruiters and human resource professionals showed that employers value relevant work experience over academic performance.

For graduates facing the current job market, where roughly 44 percent of college-educated 22- to 27-year-olds are underemployed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, having industry experience, measurable skills and former employers who can vouch for your performance is vital. These tips will get you started on your path to nabbing an internship.

Do men or women get more internships? | Man and woman seated in desk chair copyright Valeriy Lebedev/Shutterstock.com

Start early

One internship is great, but multiple work experiences can take your resume to a whole new echelon, says Rachel Bachman, internship coordinator and career adviser for Towson University in Maryland.

"By sophomore year, you should at least be researching internship opportunities that you think you might want to apply for (and) narrowing down your focus of exactly what it is you're interested in," she says. "The summer after your sophomore year is certainly a great time to start (an internship)."

Starting early not only helps students squeeze several internships into their college tenure, it also allows time for students to get a taste of several careers for which they may, or may not, be a good match and to tailor their remaining school years to what employers in that field want, Bachman adds.

"Once a student maybe has an internship and really confirms that, 'Oh, this is the right career path for me' ... it really increases motivation in the classroom," says Bachman. "Students will do better in their courses, they want to learn the material, and they also have the opportunity to then select specific classes or design their course of study around their professional goals."

Do your research

With full-time, part-time and online options, internships are available domestically and internationally year-round, but summer is prime time for many programs. Most applications for summer internships are due before spring break -- some as early as fall of the year before the program starts, reports Internships.com -- but some employers accept applicants later in the year.

When researching internships, students should first examine their career goals, if there are any specific skills they want to develop through the internship and what types of organizations can provide that training, says Nichole Lefelhoc, director of the Career Center at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.

Average hourly rate | Man and woman seated in desk chair copyright Valeriy Lebedev/Shutterstock.com; Clock with green arrows copyright graphixmania | /Shutterstock.com

"You can get an equally amazing opportunity with a really small mom and pop shop as you can with a large organization," she says. In "a small organization, maybe you're going to have to dabble in a variety of different departments; maybe with a larger company, you would have the opportunity to be more specialized in one particular area."

If you have your eye on interning for a specific organization, you'll also need to research what skills and experience that company is looking for in an intern, says Marcia Debnam, career services director at Indiana University's School of Journalism.

"I think (that's) the one thing that a lot of people miss," Debnam says. "Find out what those companies look for and expect, so if it's one internship with them or if it's related internships with other sorts of companies that are similar. The student should just not assume anything."

Target your application materials

Once you've found several internships you're interested in, you'll need a killer resume, an equally killer cover letter and possibly a portfolio of your work to apply. The problem is that many students don't have much, if any, relevant industry experience to include on a resume. In that case, highlight skills you've gained through other jobs or in other arenas that could be useful in the internship, says Matt Wells, assistant director of the Career Center at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

"There are some very, very important skills that students learn from working a few hours a week in a retail or food service job," Wells says. "That's a very high-pressure, fast-paced environment. It requires learning how to communicate with people. There are a lot of transferable skills that students have probably picked up on that they may not give themselves enough credit for."

Also, focus on creating a targeted cover letter that does more than restate your resume. Wells suggests a three-paragraph format that showcases why the student wants the position and how they heard about it in the first paragraph, two to three specific examples of how their current skills relate to the internship requirements in the second paragraph, and a final paragraph that restates interest in the position, provides contact information and lets the employer know that you appreciate their consideration.

Average intern worked 25.5 hours | Starry sky copyright Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock.com; Red arrows copyright graphixmania/Shutterstock.com; Office chair copyright Valeriy Lebedev/Shutterstock.com

"I always encourage students to proactively state a follow-up timeline, so something to the effect of, 'Thank you for your time and consideration. I'll follow up with you in one week to ensure the receipt of my materials,'" he says, the exception being if the job posting directly says no follow-ups or phone calls. "It's the polite, squeaky wheel that sometimes gets the grease, so it's important that, whenever appropriate, to be the one to follow up with the employer."

You can also use your cover letter as an opportunity to express your knowledge of the company.

"Really know what that company is all about," says Lefelhoc. Make sure to do research on new products or programs they have, she suggests. And make sure to understand what the company is known for and what their mission statement is, Lefelhoc says. "Just doing that background research on the company, that's kind of fodder that you can use in both your cover letter and then also in the interview as well."

To land an enviable internship, your application materials and your interview should reflect all the research and legwork you've done to gain knowledge of that field and the skills it requires.

"Ultimately, what any given employer is looking for is investment in that industry ... having done your research, having collected the skill set that at your age or your level makes the most sense," says Debnam. "What they don't want to see is someone who shows up at the door with sort of a half-hearted approach and not really any demonstrative skills."

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