An IT internship can be your strong first step toward a rewarding professional career
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Whether looking for a first job while attending school as a student, or beginning a new career, finding an internship can be a good first step into the information technology (IT) field. It can be a daunting task even knowing where to begin, of course, and you should know that finding the right internship can be nerve-wracking for almost anyone — but it is well worth the effort.
One great thing about IT is that it is something every business, charity, and government agency needs. Not only do major corporations have IT departments, but so, too, does your local museum (with a database that surely needs to be updated) or state park (which likely needs someone to update software on some older machines).
While not every internship may be what you want, each one, whether in the public or private sector, presents unique opportunities that are worth considering. The tips that follow will help you navigate the internship hunting process and increase your odds of finding a place that’s a good fit for you.
Starting to look
As mentioned, looking for an internship can feel overwhelming at times, particularly if it is your first step into a new career. Just remember that you’ve already worked hard to get to where you are now — and expect to work harder to show others your work ethic, tenacity, and skill.
You have to accept that finding an internship is a process: a job in and of itself. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes luck and a great deal of patience. Repetition is something you will likely tire of quickly, as so many applications are similar and ask the same tiring questions: “What is a past situation in which you faced an obstacle?” “Name one time in which you had to solve a conflict.”
Completing forms, even with the aid of autocorrect and cut-and-paste, takes time and gets old quickly. It’s best to find a strategy that helps keep you going. Some like to set a goal of a certain number of applications completed and sent within a day or a week. For others, it is easier to do as much as you can and keep detailed lists or spreadsheets.
Whichever approach works for you, the chances are good it will be similar to the study or work model that has served you well in the past. However you approach it, keep track of where you’ve applied, when, and responses that you get — this can help you identify patterns that you may want to change if your current approach does not work as well as you hope.
Finally, professionalism can be a dealmaker or breaker. HR departments and volunteer coordinators expect you to put your best foot forward when applying, so any mistake stands out. For example, spelling errors on a résumé are one of the fastest ways to have it red flagged, so spellcheck it first, and then have a friend look it over for good measure.
Where to look
It may seem simple, but the best place to start is with whatever place (or places) you want to work at when you’re ready to work full time. One outcome of many internships is that they will lead to job offers — so it makes sense to have a great internship and impress a company enough to give you an offer that you can then accept.
If you have no idea where you’d like to work, then turn to you network. Talk to friends, acquaintances, family members, and so on who are in the IT field. Find out what they like about where they work, as well as what they don’t like. Ask them, if they were starting out anew, would the organization they work for be their first choice — or is there somewhere else they would rather go?
As you talk to those in your network, don’t be afraid to ask them for more than just advice. Ask them whether they know of any internship openings, whether they know of anyone you should talk to, and whether they would be willing to provide a reference for you (something you can never have too many of).
If you don’t have an ideal company in mind, and your professional network is not strong (yet), then turn to Google. Simply searching “IT internships” will generate thousands of results. From there, you can narrow your search by simply adding “security,” “data management,” or whatever your desired field is into the search query.
Many of the top results you’ll find will be listings on job sites, such as Indeed, Monster, Google’s Job Search, or many more. These websites let you filter for just internships, salary (which we’ll get to in a moment), and any other qualifications you may be looking for, making them valuable resources. There are even sites just for internships, like Internjobs.com and Internships.com.
It is also worth noting that internet searches can be useful even when you know of the ideal company you want to work for. If you already know that your dream is to work at Amazon, for example, then a simple Google search of “Amazon IT internship” will lead you to their summer programs — and save a lot of time might otherwise have been spent fruitlessly surfing.
How to narrow the field
One of the easiest ways to narrow your search is to think again about what you want your full-time job to be. If you view the internship as a stepping-stone toward that, then you want it to have opportunities that prepare you for it as much as possible.
For example, if your goal is to be a security administrator, then an internship offering lots of hands-on security experience should be weighted much higher than one that focuses on something different. One of the biggest benefits of any internship is to gain professional experience, so it might as well be directly relevant professional experience.
Thinking geographically can be a practical way to help narrow your search and decide what your personal limits are — particularly if you are considering an unpaid internship. If salary and location are not complicating factors, though, always look for the opportunity that most closely mirrors what you actually want to do.
Approaching employers that do not offer internships
Sometimes the organization you want to work with does not have an internship program, but this doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to ask. It’s a cliché that the worst they can do is say “No” … but that’s because it’s true. You have nothing to lose by asking and displaying your interest in the organization. Do, however, keep in mind that there are some common courtesies:
Ask the right people. The best person to ask is someone whose job is recruitment, such as a hiring manager or volunteer coordinator for nonprofits. The manager of a specific department overseeing the area of IT you want to work in would also be good.
Jumping right to the CEO, on the other hand, just might come off as a little obnoxious. Charting a course through the proper channels shows that you’re a professional who knows the right way to get things done.
Whoever the right person is, try to find a way to get an introduction. Use LinkedIn to find people in your network who may be able to put you closer to that person. The initial contact is important and will always be better received if it comes through an acquaintance, as opposed to coming out of the blue.
If you can’t come up with a mutual connection, then plan how to reach the person. Phone calls get an immediate connection, but it also puts the person on the other end on the spot — if they’re not ready (and empowered) to make a decision on the spot, then it will be safer for them to just say no.
E-mail lets you choose your words more carefully, and doesn’t put anyone on the spot, but also makes it easier for the recipient to ignore you. Walking in off the street and making inquiries in person is generally a bad idea, as the person at the front desk likely may not be able to give a good answer, and it can come off as unprofessional to barge in without a meeting.
In the end, the decision to call or e-mail is a personal one, and you should do whichever you’re more comfortable with. To use another cliché, you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. Pursuing an internship with an organization not used to offering one may lead nowhere, but it does offer better odds than not asking at all.
How to present yourself
Interviews, résumés, and presenting yourself to potential employers are some of the most stressful parts of the internship hunting process. In all cases, the best thing to do is be honest and be yourself.
Résumés, beneath all the rigmarole, are just a list of your skills and experiences. While the wording and styling is important, the content is key. A safe rule of thumb is to include a small paragraph (three or four lines) about yourself and your professional goals.
Then list your work and volunteer experience with a short description of what you did at each position, either chronologically, or in order of relevance. Finally, include your education, certifications, or any other relevant training. All told, your résumé should be no longer than one page, especially for an internship — you’re not being considered for a CEO role so no one wants to read seven pages about you.
If you are transitioning to a new career or have prior experience, then keeping it short will be a struggle, so focus on what’s relevant. If you’re just starting out, reaching that length may seem daunting; just remember that all experience can be relevant. Playing sports was learning to work with others to achieve a complex goal, cashiering made you the face of a company and instilled customer service skills, and so on. Your résumé is your chance to show all the things you know and have done, so don’t sell yourself short.
If the résumé shows what you’ve done, then the interview shows who you are. Once you’ve reached this point, the real question is whether you’re a good fit for the team. The best thing you can do is be yourself. Think of an interview as the first step in a relationship among people you’ll be working with for months, and that’s an awful long time to pretend to be someone you’re not.
A practical tip is to dress one step up from what you expect to wear on the job. If its jeans and a T-shirt on a normal day, wear khakis and a blouse, or a shirt with buttons; if that’s the norm, then bring a tie or sports jacket.
Also, while every interview is unique, there are a lot of questions that come up often, and it helps to practice (or at least know) your answer to a few of them. Finally, have a question or two that you can ask at the end of the interview — and the more relevant that question is to the organization where you’re interviewing, the better.
What experience (if any) is required?
While the verbiage accompanying a given listing may make it seem like you need to know everything about IT before you apply, most only require the basics. According to Zippia.com, the three most common skills interns are expected to have are computer hardware, desk support, and data entry.
Many also require students to have a 3.0 GPA or higher. Any IT class can count toward these requirements. No one expects you to be a master of anything at the intern level, and the skills you are required to get one are more attainable then you think.
The truth is that you don’t need a lot of hard skills because, as an intern, you’re going to do a lot of grunt work. Any small, tedious, or repetitive tasks are most likely going to fall on your plate. If you get a few weeks into your internship and feel like you’re being underutilized, that’s normal.
The real point of an internship is to show future employers that you’re a good worker; they want to know that you can put up with the small stuff so they can trust you with the big. While earning your stripes is not glamourous, it’s an important step to your career.
Are IT internships paid?
By now, you’ve heard plenty of times how IT is a fast-growing and in-demand industry. While it sounds like hype, it is good news for you, because it means there are more paid internships in this field than you’re likely to find in many others.
Of course, there are still plenty of unpaid opportunities out there — especially for smaller organizations and in smaller markets — and there is nothing wrong with that if a given position offers at least some of the experience you’re looking for. Both paid and unpaid internships look good on a résumé and that is the ultimate goal.
Finding an internship can be overwhelming, but only if you let it be. Just remember to always be professional — but still be yourself — and focus on internships as a stepping-stone. With that in mind, you’ll be well on your way to finding the right internship for you.