As any college grad will tell you, the job market is tough. Plunging headfirst into the market with little to no experience when people are getting laid off in record numbers is not exactly an easy thing to do.
Internships often equal stuffing envelopes, filing, and other mind-numbing tasks. I’ve had plenty of internships and have fortunately been quite lucky in escaping that fate. A lot of this probably has to do with where I worked—I never applied for an internship at a big company. Looking back, I don’t think this was as much intentional as it was closely reading the descriptions and wanting to work in an environment where I got do cool stuff and had a chance to showcase my skills.
I’ve had a number of people ask me how I got an internship at Wesabe and how I turned that into a full-time job . Here are my top twelve tips for doing just that:
Consider Applying at a Start-up
While working at a new company may not have the same name-brand appeal as working for an established company, start-ups are a lot leaner and chances are you’ll get to do much more “real” work. Also, because the company is trying to get its feet off the ground, the work you do makes an impact and the “big bosses” can see it. During my Wesabe internship, I interacted with the CEO (and most everyone else in the company) nearly every day, and attended company-wide meetings.
Be Crazy Anal About the Details
After I was hired for the internship, Debbie (our head of communications) told me that one of the reasons my résumé made it to the top of the initial pile was because I followed directions. When she filled out the intern request form at UC Berkeley (where I went to school), she could ask for just a résumé or a résumé and a cover letter, and asked for both. Believe it or not, she said that out of twenty-five candidates, I was the only one that sent both. Everyone else just sent a résumé. She also told me that she didn’t really care about the content of the cover letter—she just did this to see who was paying attention to her request.
Do Your Homework
Prior to your interview, research the company you want to work for (spend time on their website or see where their product is at in a store, read up on competitors, etc.). Take notes and keep all this information in one notebook. During your interview, give some thoughts or feedback that shows you know how to do research and have analytical skills. Ask your interviewer thoughtful questions and try to transform the interview into dialogue. This can be really, really hard, often because you’re so nervous.
To ease those nerves and help with prep, I would suggest brainstorming and then making a list of questions you have about your prospective position and the company. Keep these questions in the same notebook you’ve compiled your research notes in. Bring that in during your interview and ask those questions! You can also reference your research notes in your chat about the company and its competitors.
Go Beyond the Facts
So you’ve researched how many people work at the company and their main products and services. Now, get curious about this company. What makes them special? Why are people passionate about working there? What problems do they solve and where do they want to go? Pretend you’re the CEO or the founder of that company; why do they want it to succeed, why are they so passionate about it? Tap into to this vision and speak from it at your interview.
Be the Go-to Person at All Times
Once you’ve landed your internship, aim to be that responsible, go-to person who can efficiently and quickly accomplish any task.
On my first day as an intern at Wesabe, the CEO left me at my new desk and said he’d email me my first assignment. I sat nervously anticipating the email and then one new message popped up. The subject line read, “Competitive Matrix.” I opened the email. The contents: “Please use this list as the basis for your model.” Attached was a list of the competition.
That was it. I friggin’ freaked out. What the $%#* was a competitive matrix? There was nothing else, no direction, no how-to, no example. What did I do? I got resourceful, I started googling, I called everybody I knew about that might have the slightest tidbit of information about a competitive matrix. I checked out the competition. I tried to piece things together. When I had a grasp of what this competitive beast thing was and what our competition looked like, I headed back to the CEO’s office and asked if I was headed in the right direction. Turns out I had some things right and some things wrong. But my research made me look capable, responsible and like a self-starter.
Be Innovative: Think Before You Ask
I cannot stress how important this is. Before you say, “I don’t know” or “I need help,” really ask yourself, “Where could I find this answer? What else could I do to find resources?” Every single time that I stop and think before asking a question, I almost always find it’s something I could answer myself.
Additionally, instead of saying “I don’t know,” your answer is always better when you pose it as, “In response to X task, I checked A, B, and C resources and found D. Is this the direction you’d like me to follow?”
Think Like the CEO
I know I mentioned this before but I think this is the best piece of advice I’d ever gotten. When in doubt, think about what action you could do that would help the company succeed and how your work on your current project matches with the greater company vision. Go above and beyond without direction. Really think, brainstorm, about how you can expand your duties in the best direction for the company, and then do it without being asked.
Take Notes and Always Have Your To-do List
Whenever you meet with your boss, bring a pen and notebook and take COPIOUS notes. After your meeting has finished, recap the major points, tasks, and deliverables to your boss to make sure you both are on the same page.
Often after a meeting, I will brainstorm or summarize the contents of my notes and then try to think creatively. What other tasks are here that I am not thinking of? Given these priorities, what else can I do to help the company succeed? Again, critically think about this. If it’s a big meeting, I might even email my list and subsequent brainstorm over to my boss afterward, titling the email “Recap of ______ Discussion.”
Do More than You Are Asked
Showcase your skills. For example, Wesabe has an amazing community of users that share advice and tips in our Groups forum. Even though no one specifically asked me to, I knew the community aspect of Wesabe was key, so I jumped in and started asking questions in the Groups section and sharing my experiences. I think this level of participation really helped me get my job and my responsibilities as community manager (and it also gave me some great advice!). Along these lines, volunteer for extra assignments. Lunch with a member? Count me in! We need new copy for a web page? I’ll do it!
Constantly Ask for Feedback
When you finish a project, ask if you met the requirements of the assignment and what you could have done better. When you get feedback, such as “there was a typo in your email,” be sure to listen carefully and be certain not to make the same mistake again. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss how you are doing. During a quiet, nonstressful time, ask if he/she has a moment; if they say yes, then respond, “I just wanted to check in about how I am doing.” List off the major things you are working on, then ask if there’s more you could be doing. I try to do this about once every month.
Think About the Future
Be preventive, proactive, and maintenance-level driven rather than crisis-level, reactive, response driven. This means you look to and work not just in the present but the future as well. Think about how your work can benefit the company in the coming months, anticipate and prepare for future challenges, and keep in mind the company’s priorities.
Be Interested! Be Curious! Be Grateful!
The last and most important advice I have is: Be interested! Be curious! Be grateful!
Maybe you end up with grunt work. The way out? Thinking creatively. Doing more than you are asked. Look around you, listen, and really think about what you could do to benefit the company and to expand your job. If you don’t want to do grunt work, then you can choose to complain and ask for more interesting work (which will make you look ungrateful and entitled) or do some critical thinking and have a heavy brainstorm. What else could you do? Make a list, then start checking it off while still completing the grunt work. Show your boss you can do more interesting work without asking for more interesting work. Chances are, your responsibilities will increase!
(Note: A version of this post first appeared on Wisebread , which featured me on their site in the “Women of Personal Finance” forum. Thanks to Wisebread for including me in this series and for getting me thinking about this topic.)