Feb 15

How not to get an internship

I routinely receive resumes and cover notes from college students seeking internships.  As a former professor, I recognize the value that practical, on-the-job experience provides graduating seniors with the proverbial “leg up” when they get ready for the job market.

As a business owner, though, I now realize how much planning and effort go into creating a worthwhile internship.  As a small business owner, I need to be particularly choosy when evaluating prospective interns to make sure they have the basics nailed so we don’t have to spend time on AP Style or the inverted pyramid.

Last week, I received a cover note that was stunning in the depth, breadth and sheer number of mistakes.  I sent a note back, gently suggesting that the student would benefit from proofreading his introduction before sending it to anyone else.  He did – and resent his cover note, which had a spate of new and improved errors.

I responded that my firm wasn’t going to be a good fit for him.  The exchange got me to thinking a bit more deeply about how not to get an internship, though.  In the spirit of the season we are entering, where earnest college students deluge firms like ours, I thought I would share the following tips for ensuring someone won’t double click on your resume.

  1. Write a generic cover letter. I know that it’s difficult and time-consuming to tailor a cover note for each internship you’re applying for.  But you would do well to spend a few extra minutes on the ones you really, really want to have to create something unique.  At the very least, skip the “To whom it may concern” and other generics.
  2. Sprinkle your introduction with typos and grammar mistakes. The introductory sentence to this recent cover note had a comma splice, misplaced and missing punctuation and a head-turning phrase that defied parallel structure. It went on to violate many basic tenets of grammar.  If you’re trying to get a job in a communications firm, even one mistake is too many.  More than a dozen in three paragraphs?  Not a chance.
  3. Fail to look at our website. This internship-seeker assured me that he had “thoroughly researched” our company and that his skills align closely with our focus on “creative, results driven marketing campaigns, advertising campaigns, branding.”  We don’t really do any of those things.  Did he even look at our site?  Does he even know what we do?
  4. Add a healthy dose of jargon. The cover note assured me he could “effectively use the Nielsen Prizm segmenting.”  What?  Have I been missing something all these years?  A quick Google search tells me it is market segmentation tool – but we don’t really do marketing.
  5. Ask to do work for which you are not qualified. The student thought he would be well suited for project or account management jobs with us.  But we don’t have positions that focus solely on account management – over the years, I have found that clients don’t like being “managed.”  They do like when we write attention-getting media pitches, solid press releases or compelling social media posts.  That’s where an intern would want to start with us: writing well.
  6. Request an immediate interview. The cover note closed by saying that he looked “forward to being interviewed at your earliest convenience.”  That seemed a bit rushed to me, and more than a little presumptuous.  I’d recommend offering a portfolio of some type first, then following up to see if there’s interest.
  7. Send your resume as a Word doc. Too many viruses out there. PDFs are always preferable.

4 thoughts on “How not to get an internship”

  1. Lyndsie Post says:

    I would add
    8. Don’t send a thank you note. In my experience, the quickest way to get your resume into the recycle bin is to neglect sending a thank you note either by email or snail mail. If someone takes time out of his or her day to talk with you, learn about you and perhaps help guide you toward your future, a thank you note is not only a professional courtesy, it is kind.

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      Lyndsie, a great addition. If there are two more suggestions, we can make this into a Top 10 list.

  2. Ben Frey says:

    9. Be sloppy with your cover letter template. It seems obvious, but I’ve gotten cover letters that reference the wrong company, location, or position. And if you’re sending out loads of cover letters with multiple individualized references, it can be easy to miss one, but it also makes it obvious you’re casting a wide net (and have low attention to detail).

    1. Erin Nemastil says:

      We agree entirely that it’s critical to pay attention to detail, particularly when working with a templated letter.

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