Applying for a summer internship or placement year? Then this is your personal handbook to getting started and applying with confidence.
Having completed my year on work placement (2016 – 2017) in London and submitting a number of applications in the process, I appreciate the difficulties faced in the application process you may be facing. This will include my tips and advice to not only submitting strong applications but also being able to manage it with your university commitments.
To contextualise my application advice:
- I’m an Economics with Politics undergraduate
- I submitted seven total applications – mainly for banking and finance placements
- I had little relevant work experience prior to my placement year (just two weeks in a finance department as a data analyst)
- I began applying in October 2015
- I received two offers in January 2016 and February 2017 respectively
Before You Start
- Understand your why
Why are you applying for a particular industry, firm or role? Be honest with yourself. A lot of people are attracted to an industry, company or role because of the prospective salary, lifestyle and/or reputation (to name a few things). All of these are perfectly valid, as long as you’re self-aware of it. My personal opinion is that you should prioritise the opportunity that gives you the most well-rounded, enriching learning experience. You will want to learn as much as possible whilst interning – it’s important to build on your foundation of skills and knowledge.
- Organise your schedule
Your university commitments are hard enough to balance as it is – you already know this. Applying for jobs is a huge time commitment. Schedule time to which you can dedicate uninterrupted effort towards your applications. Some people prefer to allocate one or two days each week where they leave their academic work and focus solely on applications. Others may prefer to allocate an hour or set amount of time on a regular basis throughout the week in order to complete their applications. How you decide to do it will be very much subjective to what works for you – fit it in your schedule to ensure that other areas of your schedule don’t suffer too much.
- Prepare your CV
This is the first thing an employer usually sees.
In case you haven’t already made a CV before, there are plenty of resources online to use templates and get advice on creating a strong CV. There is no such thing as a “perfect” CV – there are far too many differing opinions. The more people you ask, the more your CV will endlessly change. If you have the support at your university, then go to them to modify/create it.
One question I often get is “does my CV need to be one-sided only?” – In my opinion, no. My CV is two-sided and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great employment opportunities thus far. Others have succeeded with a one-sided CV also, so there isn’t a strict answer on this. My advice would be that if you have enough worthy content to fill a two-sided CV, then go ahead. If you’ve only got enough for a side and a half, then it’s best to cut it down so you fill just one side. You don’t want any major gaps in your CV as it affects the appearance of your layout.
Ensure that you include your academic background/qualifications, work experience (paid and/or unpaid) and any other points of interest (such as your positions of responsibility or achievements).
Making the Application
- Do your research
The more you know about the role, company or industry, the more prepared you are for the application process.
Utilise the company’s website for the job description, its background and core values (culture). Use websites like Target Jobs, RateMyPlacement, Glass Door etc. to find out more about what the role and company is really about from current/former employees. Attend on-campus career events and career fairs to find out more about these companies and network with their employees – this is your opportunity to ask questions. If you want to find out even more, you could even utilise LinkedIn by politely messaging someone with the relevant job title to ask them questions.
It’s also useful to research news stories that are relevant to the company and/or industry. Stay up to date with this information as it may be useful for potential interview questions.
- Tailor your application
A mistake that many people have made is to have one generic cover letter – they just change a few details (such as the company name) and send it off. This is a major risk; far too often a candidate will send their cover letter with the wrong company name or address. The employer will notice this immediately – it honestly doesn’t look good.
Use your research to ensure that your application is specific to what the employer is looking for and that it aligns with their values. The information you include in your cover letter or interview response should reflect this.
Don’t fake it, though. If you know that you don’t align with the company’s culture and its values then perhaps it’s not the right fit for you.
- Practice the online tests beforehand
The online testing stage can be difficult and often where people face rejection. There are a variety of online tests and each employer uses a different range of tests to qualify their candidates. There are numerical tests, situational tests, literacy test, verbal reasoning and more.
- Interviews: Face-to-face, video and telephone
Dress smartly for face-to-face and video interviews – they usually advise you on an appropriate dress code. A smart appearance resonates well; please don’t be that person with a creased shirt or dirty shoes.
Prepare for them to test your competencies – have a wide variety of examples ready that you can apply to their questions. You may find it helpful to use the STAR approach; Situation, Task, Action, Result. This structures your examples clearly.
For telephone and video interviews, make sure that you’re uninterrupted and that you’re in a quiet place. Ensure that your network connection is good so that your visual and/or audio communication is clear. For a video interview, consider the background setting of your interview – get rid of any clutter that may be seen in your room for example. Try to also keep eye contact to your webcam and not at the playback of yourself (or down to the table if you’re using notes). Treat this like a real interview.
For a face-to-face interview, this is your opportunity to show engagement and your ability to be personable. When you enter, introduce yourself and smile – shake your interviewer’s hand. Understandably you may be nervous; avoid swinging/spinning in your chair and keep your hands out of your pocket. Your body language is important here – focus on keeping a good posture and strike a balance of eye contact (by this I mean avoid staring out of the window and also avoid staring into their soul). When they ask you if you’d like a glass of water, just say yes. Trust me, you might need it! At the end, thank the interviewer for the opportunity and shake their hand again – smile whilst you say goodbye and leave. I know that all of this seems obvious, but it’s the little things that can really help sometimes.
Prepare for your interview(s) thoroughly. Generic questions you could be asked might be:
“Why do you want to work here?”
“Tell me about yourself”
“What is your greatest weakness?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Tell us about a time that you took a risk?”
“Why should I hire you?”
You should be ready to answer questions that are more specific to your role or industry also. For example if you’re applying for a role in banking, you may be asked technical questions relevant to financial products. If you’re applying for a role in technology, you may be tested on your knowledge of the company’s upcoming product releases.
It goes without saying that you should keep your language professional and eloquent. Avoid slang or too much jargon – use terminology that is understandable for the interviewer. For example if you’re talking about a society that you were part of at university, you want to avoid using the acronyms or abbreviations that are known only by your university’s students.
- Assessment centres
So you’ve made it to the one of the last stages, if not the final stage itself.
Assessment centres vary in their structure depending on how the employer decides to arrange it. Typically, you may expect to go through a group task with the other candidates, a presentation, an interview, a test, a case study etc.
A note on the group task:
Here, you are being tested on your ability to work cohesively in a team. This means that the way you organise yourselves, organise your time and communicate with each other is key. Everyone’s competing against each other so naturally one or more individuals might try to assert themselves as the dominant leader in the group – conversely some people are quiet and timid in the given situation. I’ve always felt that it’s best to actively participate whilst engaging all members of your group. It demonstrates greater leadership, in my opinion, if you can get the best out of every member rather than attempting to be the loudest voice in the room.
You may be asked to present or pitch using a given case study or set of information. They might not expect you to be a subject matter expert given the short time available to prepare, however this is your opportunity to demonstrate your presentation and communication skills whilst also showing that you’ve dissected and prioritised the key information given. There is a tonne of advice out there on delivering a strong presentation but here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful…
Framing – introduce the topic, clearly outline what you will be speaking on, break the presentation’s sections down and deliver the key content relevant to each part, then summarise what you’ve already spoken on and reiterate the main points in your conclusion (for example).
Consider context and audience – they may provide you with a particular scenario/role play e.g. you may have to pitch a product to a prospective client. The way you deliver your presentation will differ significantly here compared to, say, if you were presenting a financial report to senior leaders at the firm. You should consider the audience’s level of knowledge and what they would want to hear from your pitch.
Chances are that you’re likely to face rejection at some point. This is absolutely okay and completely normal – don’t let it discourage you. If and when you receive a rejection, ask the employer for feedback. Learn from your mistakes and carry on moving forward. Ultimately, everything will work out for you in the long term if you approach it with enough persistence and diligence.
If you’re unable to secure an internship or placement, there are plenty of other ways in which you can gain experience. You can continue to apply for internships later, work experience opportunities, temporary work and voluntary roles. Whilst you’re at university, you can participate in extra-curricular activities to continue to build on your skillset and facilitate a well-rounded CV.
Want to know how to prepare for your internship/placement? I’ve written an article on that already, you can use this link to go to it: https://dannynaqvi.com/2017/06/17/the-intern-guide/
I wish you the very best of luck in your applications! If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help you.