Career Advice for Job Seekers

Need a summer internship? Q&A with expert career counselors

Anna Peters AvatarAnna Peters
March 13, 2018


For students and grads who are looking for a summer internship, we pulled together some great advice from our friends Vicky Oliver, Author of “301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions,” and Joanne Meehl, “The Resume Queen”® and “The Job Search Queen”® at  Joanne Meehl Career Services. They answered some questions from internship seekers, including where to start, what to do if you live in a small town, whether to consider unpaid internships, how to handle time off and more.

Where should I start my search for a summer internship?

Vicky Oliver: I would go to your career counselor at college. Give yourself a deadline for drafting your resume. Encourage feedback. Realize it’s a working document. You may have to go through a few drafts of it before it’s perfect. Also, students should make sure to polish up their LinkedIn profiles. Get a nice, professional online profile up that expresses your interests. Start following groups that you feel may include some people who work at the companies where you want to work. If one of them posts an article, comment on it. Be a part of the conversation.

Joanne Meehl: Don’t put it off. First, some self-assessment. Ask yourself: “What do I want, and why? What experience would add to my expertise? What are the 3-5 things I want to get out of an internship, aside from on-the-job experience for a potential future career?

What you find out there in an internship may not be a perfect fit but you will learn from any internship. Even learning “this kind of role and this industry is NOT for me” is a valuable lesson.

Search online. Search for new connections on LinkedIn, and ask your current connections for knowledge about internships or potential internships.

Then, turn to your network: Tap your network for who they know, including your friends, their parents, your parents’ friends, professors, administrators on campus, former summer employers, you name it. The personal appeal — via phone call or email — is powerful. Be specific about what you want, for example: “Ten weeks, 30+ hours a week, would like to offer my technical knowledge while being able to participate in decisions …”  Don’t mistake flexibility for indecision: the answer “anything” when someone asks what you want does not help them help you, makes you sound unfocused and even desperate.

Also read our Guide of Do’s and Don’ts of Seeking an Internship

Should I consider unpaid internships? Or is an unpaid internship a bad sign about an organization?

Whether to consider an unpaid summer internshipVicky Oliver: Yes, you should consider unpaid internships, especially if they have support from someone like parents. At this point in your life, you are going for experience. You want to amass as much expertise as you can in the shortest possible time period. On a resume an unpaid resume shines just as brightly as a paid internship. It’s not a bad sign if the organization doesn’t offer paid internships. It depends on the company, and on the sector. I would not shy away from the unpaid internship because they may offer something more glamorous that may not be money. You want to build your strengths in the field in which you see yourself ultimately working. An internship is a stepping stone to a possible career. Even if they don’t offer you a full-time job, now you have it on your resume. Try to think where you want to be, maybe in two years, and work backwards to see what internships are available in the field you’re interested in.

Joanne Meehl: Yes, consider unpaid internships. If an internship is unpaid, it does not mean it’s a bad internship.  Perhaps they have so many applicants that they don’t need to pay to get good interns. Just be sure the structure and content is good for YOU. Paid or not, you don’t want to be making copies and running company errands when you should be working with the team on ideas and action plans!

College Recruiter adds: The regulations around when for-profit employers must pay their interns recently changed. The new rules are more employer-friendly, making it easier to justify not paying interns. They have to prove that the “primary beneficiary” of the internship is you, the intern, not the employer. So you might find fewer paid opportunities out there than last year’s graduating class.

Also read our Definitive Guide to Resume Writing for Students and Grads

Can I ask for any time off during the summer internship program?

Vicky Oliver: I personally would not, unless there is a hugely compelling reason why you should take the time off. For example, if your sister is getting married and you have to be at the wedding. However, if you can avoid taking time off, it will put you in a better spot. The internship is going to give your career a boost in ways that merely traveling probably won’t. So try to take the long view. Work at your internship as if it’s a full time job, and try not to take time off.

By the way, when you’re there, volunteer for tasks they don’t give you, and be the can-do person because that will help turn it into a real job down the road.

Joanne Meehl: This should be discussed and clarified before Day 1. Assuming you can just take it off when the  time comes — an unplanned absence — can result in termination or in tremendous destruction of trust, poisoning the whole rest of the internship. Especially during the summer, some businesses are shorthanded so if you have an event coming up, review the whole summer’s schedule on your first day and bring it up then. At that time employers are way more flexible. Later on, not so much. And if they won’t let you take off when you would like? Then you have to work. Internships are a window into the grownup, real world, so sometimes it just won’t work out to take time off and you’ll just have to arrive at your personal event later than you’d like.

What if I live in a small town, where there are no internship opportunities?

How to find a summer internship outside your own townJoanne Meehl: If your hometown is small and there’s little opportunity, you could 1) commute to the nearest larger city for an internship (not always easy), or 2) create one where you are IF it can give you solid challenge and experience. An employer may not know that interns are available, or may never have created an internship before. Show the owner/president of the company or organization what the structure would look like, based on internships you’ve done before or on your college’s publications about internships. You will need to work with internship directors on campus to show them why your self-created internship is worthy of credits but do so; they will have ideas for you AND for the employer that can help you make the experience more substantive.

Search for an internship on today! 

I burnt a bridge with a previous employer. How can I present myself positively to get a summer internship?

Vicky Oliver: You need to find someone at the organization who is willing to write a good recommendation for you. It doesn’t need to be the person who was your boss necessarily. Reach out to someone who works there who can speak well about you, and ask them to write a letter of recommendation.

No matter what happened in a previous job, you always want to put your best face on it. Speak about what you what you learned from the place and what you’re taking with you going forward. You always want to speak about the past in glowing terms. So if someone is looking to hire you, they see you as a positive, can-do person. Always say great stuff about your past jobs and internships. Remember you are there to market yourself.

This goes without saying, but when you do land an internship, try hard not to burn bridges. If you maintain good working relationships with your summer bosses, you can add keep those internships on your resume for years to come. You can always learn something from every job, and the fact that an internship is temporary is good news if you find you don’t like it. But internships are building blocks. Keep your relationships solid!

Joanne Meehl: Dealing straight on with the burnt bridge of the past is the way to go. Perhaps you quit the job weeks before you said you would, leaving your employer hanging at a busy time of year. You can to address this head on by saying something like, “I realize I left them hanging, but I have grown up since then and have come to realize this was a bigger deal to the organization than I realize, and it’s not something I am proud of. I can show you not only how good I am at this work, but how responsible I’ve become. Let me have a week to show you  instead of me just telling you, and I think you will be convinced I’m someone you can take on as an intern who will deliver and who is (now) dependable.”

Do you have specific advice for international students?

Vicky Oliver: I would start on the process even earlier as there may be some complexity associated with it. But being an international student sometimes gives you an advantage.

Joanne Meehl: Be sure you’re able to prove that you are eligible to work in your host country. Ask a faculty member or campus internship supervisor or other trusted, seasoned person to be your mentor if you are unsure of the local culture and customs, so they can alert you to typical best practices on the internship. And if you cannot get a paid internship, do an unpaid one.

What other advice do you have for a student or recent grad looking for a summer internship?

Vicky Oliver: Go to your college career counselors and say you need an internship. Look online. Don’t put it off—you need to begin now. Make a plan, for example to spend 4 hours a week looking for an internship. Look into companies to find places that you want to work. Like any job, getting an internship has to do with who you know. Ask your parents who they know, ask friends of yours who their parents are and who they know. The best way to get hired is to know somebody so you can get in there before all the competition. Informational interviews are fantastic too, because you can show them your resume and hear their suggestions. They can tell you if there is an internship in their own company.

Joanne Meehl: Do one every summer! As someone who works with candidates in job search, I’ll tell you it’s very, very hard for a new grad who has no internships to compete against fellow students who DO  have them — employers want to see that you have tried things, even if you decided the role was not a fit for you. It shows maturity and it brings them skills and attitudes they can use to add to the bottom line, making you more valuable. So don’t make your job search at the end of your college years more difficult — make it easier by doing internships and learning the many lessons from them.


Joanne Meehl career consultant

Joanne Meehl, MS, IJCDC, CPPA, Career Strategy Coach and President and primary Job Coach at Joanne Meehl Career Services. Joanne helps leaders market themselves for their next roles. She talks with hiring managers, internal and external recruiters, and HR directors about what they want. She translates this knowledge into guidance for her clients. She positions herself to her clients as a partner who gets her clients to decide and focus, see their own value, and communicate who they are in order to land the job they choose.  

Vicky Oliver career consultant

Vicky Oliver, Author of award-winning career development books. Her career advice has been featured in over 901 media outlets, including the New York Times Job Market section, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and Esquire magazine. She has been interviewed on over 601 radio programs. Her first book, “301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions” (Sourcebooks, 2005), is a national bestseller in its third U.S. printing.

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