The art of the internship application

The Careers Centre offers advice on how to make your application stand out

The process of finding and applying for internships is an arcane one, with many students at their wit’s end trying to figure out how to secure a placement. Shona Mach, deputy director and adviser at the Careers Centre, was kind enough to spare her time in an attempt to shed some light on what recruiters are looking for in an internship application.

At the onset of the conversation, Ms Mach was asked to imagine herself reviewing internship applications for a prospective employer.

According to her, there are three primary questions that an employer wants answered by an applicant in his or her application: “what do you know about us?; what do you know about the role you are applying for?; and can you do it?”

The first question, simple though it may sound, is often difficult for students to answer convincingly. In the view of Ms Mach, students are generally “not so good” at “giving information that shows their research and their interest in the organisation” to which they are applying. Websites detailing ways to express interest in an organisation abound, but be careful to avoid clichés.

Conversely, many applicants fail to address the second question. Referring to an applicant she recently aided in compiling an application, Ms Mach explained that “she said why she was interested in working in the University library, but not enough about the actual role.” Thus, it seems important that candidates make the effort to explain their interest in both the organisation and the specific role to which they are applying if they want to adequately express their motivation in applying to an internship.

When trying to answer the third question, a student should first explore what, exactly, the role requires. Pointing to examples on the Careers Centre website, Ms Mach explained that “the requirements of the internship are publicised in advance.” Students ought to consult these carefully, as “it’s important that students show that they’re aware of the requirements” when filling out their applications.

Recognition of and demonstration of adherence to requirements should be primarily done in the cover letter, though some smaller details may be merely recognised in an applicant’s CV. Crucially, your cover letter should focus on demonstrating your use of these skills; those who resort to listing requirements met are less likely to be shortlisted. As in creative writing, “showing,” not “telling,” seems to be key. “In an application,” Ms Mach said, “I’d be looking for a nice example of each of [the listed requirements].”

Asked about some of the most common mistakes that applicants make, Ms Mach explained that errors in spelling and grammar, while “really, really common,” can serve as red flags to employers, calling into question an applicant’s attention to detail. Noting that “if you’ve read your application several times, you stop seeing” your mistakes, she insisted on the importance of having a third party proofread your cover letter and CV before they are sent out.

Expanding on that, she also explained the significance of paying attention to the spelling system used. Using American or British spellings in the wrong context may be overlooked by some employers, but it will send a negative signal to others. Especially “if you’re going to be writing reports [for one region]… they want to see that you know the difference” between the two orthographical modes, as any inconsistency may reflect poorly on them.

Ms Mach was then asked about a common complaint of many student applicants to internships: namely, that you seemingly need an internship to get experience, but that you equally need experience to get an internship. Is this much-bemoaned conundrum true?

According to the response given by Ms Mach, the answer seems to be “no.” She contested the notion that the experience requested by those offering internships is all that difficult to obtain, claiming that “there are lots of ways of getting experience.” She noted that, as internship opportunities are tailored to students, they are recognisant of a student’s limited potential work experience. “If the internship you’re applying for requires experience,” she summarised, “it’s trying to find it in other ways.”

And what are these “other ways?” They are, in fact, largely accessible to those starting from scratch in the job market, and many may have already, unwittingly or not, completed activities that constitute marketable “experience” outside the classroom. One area that she particularly highlighted was volunteering, which may be done through a university society or at any of the various charities operating in town.

Others may need to get “a bit creative” in meeting the criteria for an internship. Ms Mach described a student who, in need of office experience for a graduate position, volunteered to work at the head office of the company in question.

From there, the conversation turned to the services offered by the Careers Centre for internship applicants. Ms Mach emphasised that the Centre’s website has an entire section devoted to interning.

Many of the services outlined by Ms Mach were geared towards helping students find internships. The university offers a wide range of tools designed to match applicants with suitable placements.

Perhaps because I am American, Ms Mach spent a great deal of time exploring the range of options open for US placements. She mentioned two North America-centric tools offered by the Centre, Vault and Internships USA, each of which offer a plethora of opportunities stateside and a range of informative resources.

A cursory glance at the website indicates that, beyond the UK and USA, the Careers Centre offers resources for placements in China and Europe. Ms Mach additionally noted that she has two colleagues working to expand the Centre’s offerings in the US, East Asia, and the Middle East.

Another area where the Careers Centre can offer assistance to students is in making “speculative applications,” taking advantage of the “hidden jobs market” to secure internship placements with companies that may not be advertising openings. Speculative applications could be an article on their own (and may well be: stay tuned), so it is best to speak with a careers adviser before reaching out to your dream employer unsolicited.

These speculative applications are all about networking and who you know, areas where Saint Connect might come in handy. Describing itself as a “career alumni network for the University of St Andrews,” Saint Connect brings together students looking for placements or seeking mentorship and graduates who are established in their respective industries.

Finally, Ms Mach indicated that those who have set their sights on a particular internship and are in the process of filling out an application are welcome to come in to review their CVs and cover letters with an adviser. The adviser will be able to identify problems and suggest amendments, as well as point students in the direction of relevant resources.

Free appointments at the Careers Centre, which last 20 minutes, are available every weekday afternoon, and are allocated from 1:30 pm on the day-of at reception. For penultimate year, final year, and postgraduate students, 30 minute appointments may be booked in advance by telephone or in person.

There is nothing simple about securing most internships. However, by using the resources the university has put at your disposal and by benefiting from the wisdom of the staff at the Careers Centre, there is at least no need for guesswork.

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