Internships: How to kick-start your career

Wondering if doing an internship is all it’s cracked up to be? Or how to get an internship, and then make a good impression?

Whether you get an internship won’t necessarily make or break your future career path. But when you’re starting out in your career or you’re doing a degree, the experience you gain through an internship can be incredibly valuable. The new contacts you make can open up your career to new opportunities, too.

Research for SEEK shows that 52% of Kiwi candidates got a paid job offer after doing an internship – either at the same company or a different one.

And not doing an internship can come with regret. Among young candidates aged 18-24, around 2 in 5 regretted not having done an internship.

There are plenty of established internship programs out there with large and medium organisations that are paid and offer training and on-the-job experience.

What does an internship give you?

Let’s take a quick look at why internships are so valuable.

“For aspiring graduates, internships are a fantastic way of dipping your toe into a career or company, to see whether it’s the right career path or fit for you,” says Siobhan Warren, Global Graduate Experience Manager at global small business platform Xero, which has a formal internship program.

“The chance to put your knowledge to the test is invaluable. Being able to give it a go, in a safe environment where it’s expected that you’ll make mistakes – and learn from them – is something that’s pretty hard to find anywhere else.”

An internship can give you:

  1. Insight into your ideal job
    You might have been set on going after a certain career for a while, or had a dream job in mind since school. Internships are a great way of investigating whether you want to make that dream a reality.

    Leah Lambart, a Career Coach at Relaunch Me, says doing an internship in your ideal industry or role lets you try it out to see whether it’s just as you imagined.

    “It allows you to gain practical experience and to really get a feel for what a typical day or week might look like,” Lambart says.

    If that’s a positive experience – great! It will reinforce that you’re on the right track.

    If it’s not what you thought it would be, that’s okay too, Warren adds. “Even if the internship is a lesson on what you don’t want, that’s a valuable thing to know.”
  2. Contacts and networks
    So often, it’s who you know that makes the difference to your career or to finding the ideal role.

    Having contacts and building up a network is useful in any industry. And avoiding cringeworthy networking moves can ensure you grow a solid group of contacts that can help you throughout your career.

    “Internships are often the first opportunity you have to start developing your own professional network,” Warren says. “They give you a chance to learn from colleagues and mentors, who are often incredibly experienced people.”

    Keep in touch with them after you finish your internship, too, and keep their details in case you’d like to ask for a reference or referral in the future.

    You don’t need an outrageously outgoing personality type to build contacts. But try to be proactive, talk to staff and ask questions, Lambart says.

    “Try and build some relationships with key decision-makers who will have the authority to decide whether you might be right for a long-term role with them.”
  3. Practical experience
    Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows that having practical experience on your resume can boost your chances of getting a role.

    If you’re still studying, practical experience is a game changer when it comes to gaining employment at the end of your course, Lambart says. “Relevant experience will show future employers that you’re serious about working in this area and have been proactive in order to obtain relevant experience early on.”

    What kind of work you do during the internship will vary from one company or workplace to another, Warren says.

    “At Xero, for example, we place interns into existing teams, so they do the same work as the team and get real-life experience in that role.”

How to find an internship

First, start researching which companies offer internships and when applications open, Warren says. Many internship programs run over summer, but others may be held in winter during the mid-year break.

“Start thinking about which companies you may want to approach while you’re studying. Do some research on the company and the roles they offer – their website, social media and careers section is a great place to start.”

Plenty of internships are advertised on job boards and company websites and have formal application processes. Take some time to look online for different opportunities, what they offer and what you’ll need to apply.

Internships can also be arranged informally, Lambart says, so contact organisations directly. “Be proactive. Don’t be afraid to go direct and request an internship opportunity with a particular company or team that really inspires you. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Check with your personal network of family friends, relatives and lecturers, too, and ask whether you can complete an internship in their organisation.

How to maximise your chances of getting an internship

  1. Prepare before you apply. Employers may look at your academic performance, as well as what you do outside of study, such as volunteer work, personal projects and involvement in clubs, Warren says.

    “This is particularly true in the tech sector, for example, where employers will want to see your Github or other open-source projects built over time, not just in the week prior to applying.”

    Your goal is to put your best foot forward for each opportunity, so taking the time to prepare and think through what you could bring to an internship is an important step.

    Some larger companies might have events that can help you prepare. “You may also like to attend any events they have, to get a bit of insight into the company and the culture,” Warren says. “Try to ask questions and chat with staff to gain an understanding of the roles available and make a good impression on the team.”
  2. Tailor your resume and cover letter for the internship. Make sure they’re well-structured, easy to read and relate to the industry or field

    If you’re applying to an advertised internship, address each point in the ad or application instructions. Showing you can understand the requirements and how to respond to them effectively is in itself a demonstration of your skills.

    If you’re asked to do an assessment, give yourself the time and space to do it in a quiet, uninterrupted environment.
  3. Be professional but also be yourself. Communicate professionally and make each interaction a positive one, Warren says. Employers will be looking at your personality, goals and whether their program is a good fit for you – not just who you are on paper. 

    Being true to yourself improves the chances of a good internship fit. Remember, it’s not just about simply getting an internship, but also finding one that you’ll enjoy that adds value to your life and career.

How to make the most of an internship

If you’ve scored an internship – congratulations! Now’s your chance to make the most of your time there. Lambart has these suggestions:

  1. Be enthusiastic. If you are genuinely interested in the company and role, staff will be more likely to give you more opportunities.
  2. Listen. Use your listening skills and participate in meetings or client visits. Take notes, too. While it’s good to share your own ideas and be proactive, the value of listening should never be underestimated.
  3. Be curious. Where possible, ask lots of questions to gather information about the work, the organisation and the industry. “Internships are an opportunity to be a sponge and absorb as much as you can,” Lambart says.
  4. Work hard. Formal internship programs are designed to help the organisation test out students for future graduate positions. If you do well throughout your internship, you’ll have a higher chance of being offered a graduate role.

    Even if it’s not a formal program, hard work will help you to make a lasting impression and perhaps get a good reference afterwards. Everyone is busy, so this might mean being proactive and asking for additional work or learning opportunities if they aren’t handed to you.
  5. Be appreciative. When your internship finishes, let the company or business know how much you enjoyed the opportunity, what you learned, and whether you’re keen to work for them on a permanent basis – they won’t necessarily assume that.

If you don’t score an internship this time

If you’re not successful in getting the internship you’d hoped for, don’t be hard on yourself. “That can be really hard, and emotional,” Warren acknowledges. “Leaning on friends and family, or mentors, can help you deal with the disappointment.

“Ask the company for feedback, maintain the relationship you have with them, and take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned. Focus on your wellbeing, and don’t give up trying.”

If you don’t get an internship, it doesn’t mean you won’t get a graduate role, Warren says.

“In fact, your experience applying for internships may help you when applying for grad roles after you graduate. Right now, you’re at the start of your journey, and it’s exciting to think where your study may take you in the future.”

Whether you’re still studying or just setting out in your career, an internship can give you fantastic insights into a role or industry. Even if it’s just a short internship, make the most of your time there.

Be curious, listen and take notes. The experience and contacts you gain could open new doors to your future career.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published August 2021.