It's no secret that internships are often the gateway to entry-level jobs, but they aren't always easy to get when you're new to college.
Eric Flockhart took an unconventional approach to land an internship during his freshman year at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland.
During winter break he walked into the office for SCOREGolf, a Canadian sports magazine, and asked to see the editor.
He brought his resume and writing samples. The editor wasn't available, but a staff member agreed to pass on his paperwork. The editor called him within days to set up a formal phone interview. He was offered an internship after their second conversation.
Writing for the magazine reaffirmed his interest in being a journalist. "It kind of showed me what I really wanted to do," says the sophomore communications major and Canada native.
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Not every freshman will be as fortunate as Flockhart when searching for summer work experience.
"It's hard for a freshman to get an internship," says Diana Seder, associate dean and director of career services at Claremont McKenna College. "They are the young ones, the low men on the totem pole."
Even if students don't have as much classroom or work experience as older students, some experts say it's still important for them to think about interning.
"It's an ever increasingly competitive market when they graduate from college," says Seder. "That little higher level knowledge about the workplace or research or something really makes them a more attractive candidate."
Career experts suggest students do volunteer work to beef up their resumes and network through family, friends and peers to find job opportunities. They also recommend freshmen try four other tactics to land an internship.
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1. Contact the career services department: Almost every college's career center has a database for entry-level jobs and internships, says Jesse Wingate, assistant director for the Office of Alumni and Career Services at the University of Richmond.
"First and foremost students should access that," he says. "Visit early and often."
These departments also help students prepare their resumes, advise them on how to search for an internship and put students in touch with alumni in their field.
2. Conduct informational interviews: Some freshmen may be interested in an industry but know few details about it. Wingate encourages students to use winter break to set up informational interviews to become better informed. If they lead to an internship, that's icing on the cake.
"Enter these conversations without the expectation that you'll walk away with a job or an internship," he says. "These are solely for the purpose for you to develop, one, an understating of the organization, the organizational structure, the industry and the person's role. And, two, for you to develop an understanding of perhaps how you might be able to benefit or fit into that organization."
Sue Hinkin, executive director of career services at University of Denver suggests students ask: "How do most people get into this field?" "What part of the job is most challenging?" "What kind of experiences do you think I should try to have to learn more about this field?"
"You're there to find out from an industry professional what the opportunities are," she says.
Students should follow up with a thank-you card or email. By February or March, they should start asking if there are summer opportunities, Wingate says.
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3. Be creative online: Social media can help students stand out and sell themselves, says Hinkin. She urges students to consider blogging about their interests to catch the eye of future employers.
"I think it identifies you as somebody that is proactive," she says. "That helps the employers and the followers see what your thinking is, what you're interested in, how you express yourself."
When using social media in this way, students should also be cautious and strategic, she says.
"They need to begin to think of themselves in a professional way," she says. "They need to see it kind of as a self-marketing type of endeavor."
Part of being professional is making sure the blog's content is organized. If it has no focus or is used for stream-of-consciousness writing, Hinkin says, "that can do more harm than good."
4. Consider unpaid opportunities: Often students find a place they want to work, but the employer may not have resources to pay for an intern. A number of schools have programs that will sponsor students during their summer employment.
University of Richmond started the UR Summer Fellowship program last summer. Students can receive funding while they work at an internship or do research. Thirteen percent of students who received an award were first-year students, Wingate said.
At Claremont McKenna College, about 130 students each year receive funding through sponsored internship programs. About a quarter of the recipients are freshmen, Seder says.
"It's an opportunity for a student basically to design his or her internship," she says. "We ask them to focus on organizations that wouldn't otherwise be able to pay. Most of them are in the nonprofit sector."
Students have used the program to work at places such as Habitat for Humanity and Human Rights Watch.
McKenna believes freshmen can intern at a variety of places. She encourages them to think wisely about their future before starting a summer job search.
"I want them to pursue their dream and most kids can't identify exactly what that is," she says. "Seems to me you'd possibly avoid some wrong turns if you really thought things through."
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