Posted on September 30, 2015, at 2 p.m.
by Luke Thomas.
For public relations students, internships aren’t just another way to pass the summer break. Adding that line to your résumé can mean the difference between landing a job after college and asking Mom and Dad to convert their new home office back into your bedroom. Once you get accepted into a big-name firm’s internship program, you’re set, right? As it turns out, the answer might not be that clear-cut.
What the numbers say
At one Virginia university, students are required to complete an internship before graduating. As a result, 74 percent of its 2008 graduating class was able to get a job within six months of graduation. In a similar statistic, Internships.com found that interns have a 7 out of 10 chance of being hired by the company where they interned.
Big name or big responsibility?
So, it’s been established that internships in themselves are extremely helpful. But what is it about these internships that makes students more attractive to the employers reviewing their résumés – the name of the company in bold or the bulleted description underneath?
According to Mary Lowrey, the director of career education and development for The University of Alabama’s Career Center, the experience gained during an internship is the most important part.
“If a student interns at a large company but sacrifices something like the writing experience that they could have gotten at a smaller firm, they’re not getting the most out of their experience,” Lowrey said. “If nothing is personally gained from the internship, then it diminishes the name.”
She added that if students go to a large firm looking to gain mostly networking opportunities, they must really focus on that while they’re there.
Gary McCormick, director of public relations for Scripps Networks, explained that it’s not only the experience gained at an internship that is important, but also how it’s quantified on a résumé and in an interview.
“You can say that you were part of a team, but what did you do?” McCormick said. “If you can explain that, it means you know how to do it again. When an employer is looking to hire, they’re looking to reduce their risk. Anything that a candidate can demonstrate they have knowledge on or exposure to means I don’t have to train them as much – it’s less risk.”
Internships are meant as ways to both gain real-world experience and to test-drive your career. Public relations can be an extremely diverse profession, so getting to see firsthand what jobs in different sectors are like can really help narrow down careers and give students more of a goal to work toward. Interning at nonprofits and smaller firms is a way for students to gain more exposure to different sides of business than your regular cookie-cutter internship.
“Nonprofits are a lot of time forgotten by students,” McCormick said. “But most nonprofits have executives from companies in the community on their boards. So, with an internship at the nonprofit, you get exposure to those boards, and doors begin to open for other internships.”
How you can stand out
The best way for students to get those crème de la crème internships is by starting early and setting clear goals. It is important to ask yourself what you want to gain at the end of the summer internship season and then find internships that align with that purpose. But another trick can help set interns apart from their peers when it comes to hiring time.
“Brush up on office and dining etiquette before starting your internship,” Lowrey said. “Then you won’t get distracted by being unsure of those things, and when it comes time for hiring, having that polish will help you stand out.”
Lowrey added that one thing employers have said impresses them in interns comes at the end of the shift. Before you clock out, ask your boss if there’s anything else they need your help with before you leave. That goes a long way for making you memorable and upping your credibility.
There are a lot of good things you can do while at an internship, but McCormick said that the number one mistake people make is coming out of the internship without an elevator pitch of what they learned. In the world of PR, you have to know how to pitch everything – yourself included. If you can both quantify and qualify the responsibilities and exposures you had during an internship, you increase the likelihood of an employer wanting you to work with their clients.
“Something that I’ve asked every boss I’ve had right when I started is, ‘If I do my job well, what does that look like?’” McCormick said. “Every intern should ask what the intended outcomes for them are. There is a difference between a job description and the outcomes that employers expect.”
There’s more than one path to success
If you can’t devote your summer to an internship, there are still ways to gain business experience. Some students take advantage of school breaks to work and catch up on expenses. These experiences are valuable, too. Look at it from a business standpoint and determine how the work you’ve done has given you skills that an employer might look for.
Maybe you won’t be able to bask in the summer sun until you have secured “Ketchum Intern” as your LinkedIn headline, or maybe you’re passionate about working unpaid at a small, local nonprofit. However you spend your intern days, they’ll be put to good use so long as gaining experience and connections are what you’re after, not just a name.
Gary McCormick — Director of public relations, Scripps Networks
Mary Lowrey — Director of career education and development, The University of Alabama Career Center