It's often not a glamorous job, but being an intern is still one of the best ways to get the experience that might lead to your first job. Securing a good internship, however, can be as hard as finding the golden ticket for a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, says Michaeline Shuman, director of career development at Susquehanna University.
"The competition is fierce; nearly every college student wants at least one internship before they graduate," she says. "Even first-year students apply for internships now to test the waters of a particular field and start gaining marketable skills and experience."
Making it even harder, some companies require students to have a minimum GPA, an employee recommendation, or academic credit. "Students frequently apply for unpaid internships and then have to pay for college credits in order to accept [it]," Shuman adds.
If you didn’t get a spot, don’t worry. Career experts say there are plenty of ways to add experience to your resume and set yourself up for success in the future.
Chris Vozza (my son) just completed his sophomore year of college and changed his major at the end of the semester to human resources. It was too late to find an internship in his new field, so he reached out to HR professionals and asked if he could job shadow them for a day.
Job shadowing is a great way to get a glimpse into "a day in the life" of a job or a company, says Karen Kuczynski, associate director of career and professional development at Lehigh University.
"Typically, you’ll have a chance to shadow one individual, but with the chance to meet others in the organization, possibly attend meetings, or work on a small project," she says. "Shadowing can last for one day or even a few days. The opportunity also provides a foundation for developing and enhancing networking contacts within a student’s field of interest."
The best way to find a job-shadowing opportunity is to write a thoughtful message that conveys genuine interest in a position, company, or industry, says Ashlee Christian, director of employee engagement at the marketing firm Group SJR.
"Do your homework and know the right person to reach out to is key," she says. "Knowing someone who knows someone that may be able to get you an in somewhere is also a great way to go about it."
Create a website where you publish research or opinions on topics relevant to your future career interest, suggests Ray Rogers, director of career and professional development at St. Edward’s University. Or interview people in your field and use the information in a Q&A-style blog post.
Talking to professionals from your field of interest will not only build your knowledge; it will build relationships with valuable contacts, adds Jennifer Allen-Ayres, senior career adviser and academic liaison at the University of Puget Sound.
"I suggest beginning with alumni of your university—a friendly audience that will immediately share a common background," she says. "If you had just one informational interview a month, you would develop three new contacts in the summer months and be better prepared for the next internship opportunity."
Find an organization or cause you identify with and contact them directly, says Rogers. You can often find opportunities that fit your field and give you real-world experience.
"Have an idea of what type of volunteer work you would like to do," he says. "Is it office work, assisting clients, helping market, writing newsletters, representing the organization within the community, or answering calls to a hot line? Remember, just like an internship, what you do on your first day is not likely to be of the same type or caliber after you have been there for a while."
Starting your own business can be a powerful experience and expose you to a new industry and network of people, says Rogers. "Perhaps you are good with common computer applications," he says. "Put that knowledge to use by advertising one-on-one help sessions to those just starting out or looking to improve their computer skills."
Push yourself to grow by creating a summer project where you develop a skill set that is valued in the field you want to go into, says Rebecca Pettitt, career adviser and internship coordinator for the University of Puget Sound.
"For example, if you would like to showcase your programming abilities with Java, try creating an Android app," she says. "Not only will you be practicing your programming skills, you will have something to show potential employers."
Sign up for a course over the summer that will add to your professional skills. If your school doesn’t offer a class in a particular area or you’d like to focus in on a class that may take a little more time and focus, utilize the summer as a chance to hone in on an area that’s of importance to you, says Kuczynski.
While companies only have so many open slots for interns, they might still need help. Mark Phillips, CEO of the recruiting firm HireEducation, suggests identifying the top 10 companies in your preferred industry, and connecting with directors and vice presidents on LinkedIn.
"Send each a connection request, expressing a desire to learn more about the industry, and requesting an informational interview," he says. "Be thoughtful, be prepared, be curious, and then ask them if they have a project that could use your help during the summer."
Reach out to the national organization or a local chapter of an industry association and offer to help them, says David Nour, author of Relationship Economics and Return on Impact.
"From needs-based member segmentation to enhancing their social media presence, or thinking through a mobile app user interface, I can’t think of an industry association that couldn’t benefit from your fresh thinking and naturally inquisitive DNA," he says.
Read trade publications, attend any conferences that may be going on, subscribe to online forums, attend webinars or live Periscopes, and write opinions and op-ed pieces, says Nour.
"Stop leaving your personal and professional development to universities and company HR departments," he says. "Only you can raise the bar on your critical thinking, data-driven decision making, and a passion for lifelong learning."
Don’t underestimate the value of the typical summer job. From scooping ice cream to counseling summer campers, any work experience can be beneficial because it helps develop professional skills, Shuman says. "Recognize that every work experience can be valuable, and note that oftentimes, those jobs provide an opportunity to network, which can lead to other opportunities," she says.
Then ask your summer employer if you can take on additional projects for your role, adds Pettitt. "Let’s say your dream internship was to work for a large corporation in a social media internship," she says. "Why not ask your manager if you can take on a social media project for the frozen yogurt shop you work for? You might help them improve their online image, and you will have a great accomplishment to include in your resume."