Career Resources

Monday, February 8, 2016

Which Comes First: The Internship or the Experience?

Most students these days understand the importance of doing internships in order to complement their academic studies, to discover what the real world is like in their given career field and to make themselves more competitive candidates upon graduation. In fact, the title of the career center where I work at UMass Boston includes the word “Internships” (Office of Career Services & Internships) because we want to remind and impress upon students that internships are vital in terms of rounding out their college experience.

Very often when students come in to meet with me to discuss how to get an internship, they express some real concern about their ability to get one due to their lack of experience in their career field. At this point I reassure them that employers aren’t looking for experience when hiring an intern because the nature of an internship is to learn about a career field. In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of an intern is “a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a job in order to get experience.” So you see, experience isn’t a requirement to get an internship.

Well then, what are employers looking for when they hire an intern? As I always point out to my students, employers are looking for a set of transferrable skills that are relevant to the internship. The skills that they are seeking are often posted in the job description under a section entitled “Qualifications” or “Requirements,” and they typically are listed in order of significance. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the top skills sought by employers in 2016 are as follows:

Most students have developed these skills through part-time jobs, volunteer and community service experience, leadership roles and their academic studies. When writing their resume and cover letters, they should make sure to highlight the skills that the employer is seeking, not necessarily the skills they think are best or strongest. For example, a student may speak another language but if it’s not required for the internship, there’s no need to mention it in the cover letter, but it can go on the resume.

Another common question that students often ask me is, “How many internships should I apply to?” I used to give them a ballpark number like 25, but then I realized there is no magic number. So now I say, “Just keep applying to as many as possible until you get one.” Quite often students will apply to a few companies, perhaps their dream companies, and then wait for the calls to come in. With this approach, they’re wasting valuable time that could have been spent searching for and applying to more internships. The saying, “It ain’t over until it’s over,” definitely applies to the internship search. I advise students to set up email alerts on the popular internship sites which will generate daily emails with internship matches so they don’t even have to think about it.

So the answer to the question posed in the title of this blog is “the internship.” By doing one or more internships during the course of your college career, you’ll be gaining valuable experience in your career field to build your resume and become a more marketable candidate when you’re looking for your first entry-level position. That is when employers are looking for experience, which you will have gained through your internships.