“I’m not sure this internship will be a good fit. Should I apply?”

Jason Bauer-Clapp Jason Bauer-Clapp, associate director of Internships & Programs, Smith College, Lazarus Center for Career Development
Twitter: @jason_bc
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jbauerclapp

Have you met with students reluctant to apply to promising internships because they are unsure that the internship will “look good” or that they’ll be the best candidate? Students who apply only to what they perceive as sure-thing experiences can miss out on a broader set of great opportunities, while those who accept an internship by default (with few or no other opportunities for comparison) may find themselves in unsatisfying roles that turn out to have limited educational value.

It is useful to remind students that while applying for any position requires time and energy, it isn’t a commitment. Rather, it’s an indication of interest, a snapshot of the applicant’s knowledge and skills, and a request for an interview. While I wouldn’t encourage haphazardly applying to any opportunity that comes along, students who set overly stringent standards on what they will consider applying for are essentially ending conversations before they’ve begun.

To help students manage those uncertainties and feel comfortable applying to a broader range of opportunities, I regularly share the following:

Read between (and above and outside) the lines. Organizations that offer internships are increasingly skilled at crafting messages that resonate with potential applicants, and some organizations have the benefit of a long-established brand cachet among students. However, there are still times when a great internship opportunity doesn’t “read” as such in a job posting or in recruiting messages. Look beyond the few paragraphs (if that) in your school’s internship database. Review the organization’s website and consider how it presents itself to clients/constituents/users. Reflect on its mission and how it aligns with your values and interests. Speak with people familiar with the organization’s work.

The best applicant may not be the most qualified. Internships are learning and development experiences, so having little direct experience in a field isn’t necessarily a limiting factor. Show familiarity with and genuine interest in the field and the organization, share ways you’ve already engaged in related topics, use the experiences you’ve had (work, academic, internships, volunteer, extracurricular) to demonstrate your strengths and knowledge, and communicate your excitement to learn.

Make interviews mutual learning opportunities. To prepare for interviews, candidates tend to focus on developing their stories and rehearsing good answers. Preparing thoughtful questions for the interviewer may be a halfhearted afterthought, done only because the candidate “is supposed to ask questions.” Students who report having had truly great internship experiences often mention the high quality relationships they had with supervisors and staff. A person-to-person interview can give internship candidates rich insight on the people and the environment: who the student would be working with, opportunities to interact with organizational staff, and the structure of training, supervision, and evaluation.

I love it when students follow their curiosity and step outside of their comfort zones when seeking experiential education opportunities such as internships. This means moving forward when the end result is uncertain. It is wise to have questions about an internship’s potential, but when there’s a spark of genuine interest and curiosity, it’s often worth applying. Ask for that conversation: you may be surprised to find a great opportunity hidden in plain sight.