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Tips for Finding the Right Internship for Your Career Goals

A young woman sitting at a desk in an office.

​Maintaining a strong GPA is essential for demonstrating that you've learned HR fundamentals in college. However, grades are increasingly unlikely to land you a job by themselves.

Four years ago, almost 75% of employers said they intended to screen candidates by their grades, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE's) Job Outlook 2019 survey.

However, in NACE's Job Outlook 2023 survey, only 37% of employers intended to do so. Instead, employers are prioritizing candidates with skills including problem solving, written communication and technical abilities, as well as a solid work ethic.

Notably, this year's survey respondents indicated that internships—specifically those at the hiring organization or within the same industry— are a deciding factor between equally qualified applicants. Use the following tips to help you find an internship that will advance your HR career.

Know Your End Goal

First, define what you would like to learn at an internship and how you want the experience to contribute to your professional growth.

For example, do you want to work in an HR role in a particular industry? Or are you interested in a specific HR role?

If you're not sure, research different HR positions and roles in various industries to help you decide which internships to apply for. Once you've identified those opportunities, learn as much as possible about the positions, the companies and industry trends.

"Research the organizations, speak with students who interned previously with an organization [and] read Indeed and Glassdoor reviews," says Amy Pietrafesa, senior human resources consultant at Integra HR LLC in Rensselaer,  N.Y.

Ask Questions to Ensure a Relevant Experience

Next, reach out to the individual in charge of hiring for the role. Ask what the position entails and who you will report to so you can make sure that what you're learning relates to your career goals, suggests Suzanne O'Connor, associate director of Siena College's Career and Internship Center, located in Loudonville, N.Y. 

In addition, Pietrafesa recommends that you ask:

  • Do they have experience with interns? 
  • What specific areas of HR will you be exposed to? 
  • Will there be mentoring opportunities?
  • Do these align with your career goals?

"Sometimes [the person in charge of hiring] is an HR manager, and other times it is a person in the department you'll be working for," O'Connor said.

That person can also become a mentor and a valuable network connection, so you want to be sure their role relates to your professional aspirations.

Highly structured internships can often provide a better experience. For example, a company that regularly hires interns has set hours per week and a clear plan for what you'll do during your time there. Often, the experience culminates with you giving a presentation. 

In a structured internship, you can feel confident that you'll gain relevant skills that can go on your resume. O'Connor has seen some students ask to convert a retail position into an internship. However, she cautions, "Unless they increase your responsibilities beyond selling, that is not an internship. That is a retail job."

Leverage LinkedIn

LinkedIn can also help you uncover a desired internship opportunity. O'Connor suggests using the site to find your school's alumni and narrow your search by "intern."

Start by entering "(YOUR COLLEGE) alums" into the search field. This will pull up a list of individuals. Next, narrow that by adding "HR intern" or an internship title you desire.

"Say an alumnus is now an HR manager at an organization but interned at a different company. I advise students to invite that person to connect," O'Connor says. "After that connection is accepted, share that you were interested in their internship and looking for advice. Then ask if you could set up a quick Zoom call."

Know When to Look

Knowing when internships are posted and filled is key to successfully landing one. For summer internships, you can begin looking in early January. However, Pietrafesa warns that the cutoff for some internships could be as early as February.

April through July is the best time to look for fall internships, while late September through November is when you should watch for spring internships.

Sienna's Career and Internship Center "[gets] new positions every week, so you've got to keep looking at the databases your school provides access to because something new will come up since the last time you searched," O'Connor says.

Keep an Open Mind

Building relationships can help you find an internship that meets your needs. Prepare a two- or three-sentence description of the opportunity you're looking for and your goals, and share it often. You never know what a casual conversation at a summer barbecue will lead to.

Of course, just like any college course or full-time position, an internship may not turn out to be what you expected. You should still look for what you gained from the experience and include it on your resume.

"Even if you don't like an internship, it is not a waste of time," O'Connor says. "That experience is positive, even if you don't like it, because it helps verify what you do or do not want to do professionally."


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