When you’re a college student, finding, landing, and succeeding at just one internship sounds like a daunting task. Completing, say, 15 during your college career? That might as well be impossible.
But Lauren Berger did just that. By the time she graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BA in Organizational Business Communications, Berger had completed 15 internships at a variety of companies, including NBC, FOX, and MTV.
Moreover, she did it all on her own. “I went to the Career Center as a freshman and they pretty much told me to come back in a few years,” she says. Berger isn’t good at taking no for an answer, so she took matters into her own hands and never looked back.
Now, she shares her expertise with other students looking to gain real-world experience through her blog, InternQueen.com, and her book, All Work No Pay. Don’t worry, Berger doesn’t suggest that every student does what she did—two or three internships during your college career will suffice, she says. But she does have tons of great advice if you’re looking to score an internship and make the most of it.
Let’s start with the most pressing question: Is it too late to snag a fall internship?
I would say that the absolute latest that you should start a fall internship would be the first week in October. So, it is getting late in the game, but it’s still worth looking for opportunities—especially ones at smaller companies that may have delayed starting their internship programs, companies that have internship programs for the first time, or companies offering virtual internships.
For people who aren’t able to find internships for this semester, what do you recommend they do to make up for that gap?
It’s all about the campus activities! I encourage students to join clubs that make sense for their interests, their hobbies, and their career goals. These campus activities are really impressive—they give you great experience doing a variety of tasks, and are definitely going to be things to put on your resume and talk about in your cover letter and during interviews.
What’s your stance on the paid vs. unpaid internship argument?
I mean, I’m the Intern Queen, my book is called All Work No Pay—I love unpaid internships. As crazy as that might sound, unpaid internships really paved the way for my career. I got so much priceless information out of my unpaid opportunities, and I would do it all again if I could.
OK, but what do you recommend for students who really need to make money to get by?
I would say that I am not Superman by any means, and I always had a full coarse load, but I was still able to have an unpaid internship about 12-15 hours a week and a part-time job waiting tables in the evenings. And I was able to get it done and still have a social life and still make decent grades.
Does this have to happen every semester? Of course not. But it is possible.
What are your biggest tips for fitting everything in and finding some sort of balance?
I think it’s really a matter of just thinking ahead. For example, I always had a bag of back-up items in my car—an internship outfit, an outfit for my job, extra school supplies, and clothes for school—just in case I was running late for something.
I’m also a huge fan of to-do lists. I always write to-do lists at night, detailing what I have to do the next day—hour by hour—to make sure that I can stay on task and stay focused as much as possible. I did this in college and I still do it today. It really helps me to use my time wisely and to think more about how I spend my time. As a college student, you’re not told to think about how you spend your time enough, but time is the most valuable thing we have.
How can someone who isn’t sure of her career goals use internships to her advantage?
I think that you go into an internship to find out more about an industry and a specific company that’s of interest to you. It doesn’t have to be the end-all be-all, or even a place that you know you want to work. But with each internship, you can decide which tasks you like to do and which you don’t.
From there, you sort of refine your career goals. I always suggest setting up informational meetings with internship coordinators and bosses at your company—they’re great people to talk to about what you should be doing and what kind of careers might be right for you.
You started your business after college, but many entrepreneurs start theirs during. What would you say to students thinking of skipping internships to work on their own projects instead?
A lot of people ask me why my internships were so important if I’m an entrepreneur, but I think the two are very connected. As an intern and as someone who potentially wants to be an entrepreneur, you have the privilege of working and learning under some of the most successful executives out there. You can take note of the company’s processes, its systems, the ways the company gets things done—these are all things that are going to come into play for you when you start your own business.
You didn’t use the career center during your college internship hunt, but do you recommend it to students now?
Yes, I suggest that students go to their career center first—I think it can offer a lot of great information. But it’s not a matter of just going to the career center once, it’s a matter of going time and time again to build relationships with the staff and to really focus and come up with a plan for your internship and your future career path.
Then, I think it’s about finding the companies that you want to work for. I used a tool that I call the “Intern Queen Dream List.” Basically, it’s just a document—I think I probably had it on a napkin in college—where I would organize all of my applications. I would write down the company name, the internship coordinator, and all of the important information. And that way I knew exactly what I applied for.
Finally, thinking ahead—when should students start thinking about spring internships?
Around mid-October is when you do a couple things. First, that’s definitely when you look for spring internships.
Then, start to check the deadlines for summer internships. The majority of summer 2013 internships won’t go up until early January, and their deadlines won’t be until March or April, but some summer 2013 deadlines could be as early as November 1 or 15.
The other thing to look into is the “winternship”—or winter break internship—which is becoming more popular than ever before. A lot of companies won’t post these opportunities, but some of them are open to it, so if you have contacts, definitely reach out to ask about winter break opportunities.