[Scripts Included] Is that a dream internship, or just a waste of time?

Do you know what the difference is between an A-level and C-level internship? This in-depth post explains how to identify the cream of the crop job opportunities so you can build a personalized and fulfilling career.

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“BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.” It’s 6AM, your alarm clock abruptly jolts you awake from unconsciousness. Can’t you snooze it for 5 more minutes? Nope. Your manager doesn’t like it when you show up late.

You slowly roll out of bed, enjoying every last moment of warm comfort. Like every other morning, you briefly question why you do this to yourself.

Everyone else is doing it too.

Oh well.

Still half-asleep, you rush into the office only to work on the same tedious, repetitive, and boring tasks that you’ve been doing all summer. You’re not learning anything new and it seems like your manager doesn’t have time for you.

What you once optimistically thought was going to be a summer filled with opportunity is slowly transforming into 3 months of repetitive chores. Is this what the rest of your career will be like?

Sadly, this is an all-too-common reality. It’s the story of taking the first bland internship/job you could get your hands on, and simultaneously ignoring the world of exciting possibilities within your reach.

With a little bit of foresight and planning, you don’t have to fall into this trap. It’s in your control to prevent this from happening.

The whole point of internships is to explore career opportunities (test career hypotheses), learn new ideas and skills, meet inspiring people, and develop as a professional…

…All while having fun!

A-level internships consistently achieve this, while C-level internships do not.

In A-level internships, your work experience is more impactful and meaningful, your relationships and network become stronger, and you come out with a valuable experience to further refine and develop new career hypotheses.

In C-level internships, you are bored with your work, have difficulty building relationships because people don’t care about you, and you come out with little information to reflect on your career hypothesis. The previous story is a common occurrence in C-level internships.

But to maximize your chances of landing an A-level internship, you will need focus. Let’s show you how to get that A-level internship.

  • If you cast a large net, you are diluting the little time you have. It’s spray and pray — which you know doesn’t work if you’ve read my article on “How to stop getting rejected from interviews”. Too many students make this mistake — don’t follow the pack and apply to everything you see.
  • Conversely, if you cast a small net you are putting all your eggs in a few baskets. A-level internships can be competitive (although not always), you don’t want to come out of this process empty-handed.
  • By casting a focused but wide net, you can channel all your energy and resources into a heavy handfull of A-level internships positions in a variety of industries or functions while ignoring the rest of the noise. This is the balanced approach.

All this begs the question: What is an A-level internship and how do you distinguish it from the noise?

While sorting through internship opportunities (both visible and hidden), I use the following criteria to gauge whether the opportunity is A-level or not.

  1. Manager
  2. Skills
  3. Brand
  4. Return Offer
  5. Culture

Criteria 1: Top notch manager

Your manager is the gatekeeper to an amazing internship experience. She will have the power to give you impactful and challenging projects, teach you technical and soft skills on the job, advocate for you with other senior staff, and be a life-long mentor after the internship ends.

Without a fantastic manager, your internship will fall flat at best. At worst, well… refer back to the story.

How to test it: There are 3 tricks I use to learn more about a potential manager. First, you need to know who your manager would be. If you’re still applying/prospecting the job, interviewing for the job, or already have the job offer in hand, you should be able to ask the recruiter or someone at the company for your future manager’s name. Often times one of your interviews will be with your future manager.

  1. LinkedIn stalking to check for background and skills
    • If you’re interested in finance, it can be helpful to have a manager with a background in finance. Someone who has worked at the firms you would like to work at in the future. They are most likely to understand the skills you want to develop and can help you grow accordingly.
  2. Ask mutual connections
    • If you do have mutual connections, friends, or peers who previously worked with the manager, ask for their thoughts! Don’t let any resources go to waste.
  3. Directly ask your future manager targeted questions in an interview or coffee chat. An interview is your chance to interview them as much as they are interviewing you!
    • “What do you look for in a successful intern?”
    • “How do you see me contributing to the team?”
    • “Would I report directly to you and how often would that be?”
    • Explain your long term goals and see whether the manager is excited to help you achieve them

Criteria 2: Skills used and developed on the job

You are wasting a valuable opportunity if you are not building real skills during your internship. By focusing on skill-building internships, you will have more information to update your hypothesis and validate whether you liked working in this industry/function or not. You will also have a much easier time writing high quality bullet points for your resume and re-recruiting for future internships or jobs.  

Along with a great manager, developing relevant skills is one of the most important factors in choosing an internship.

How to test it:

  1. Read the job description and ask yourself: “Do I have to use my head to do this job?
    • Internships generally fall into 2 categories: thinking-oriented and task-oriented. As the name suggests, task-oriented internships often don’t require much critical thinking. Some examples are:
        1. Social media internships — Oftentimes they will ask you to come up with tweets or put together a social media calendar
        2. Data entry — Not to be confused with data analysis, data entry internships require you to manually enter physical paperwork into excel so the company has digital copies
        3. Cold calling sales prospects — this one can be great if you are purposeful about developing sales skills. Unfortunately, many finance internships have interns cold call when they were told they would be learning how to build financial models
    • While there are always useful lessons to learn from these tasks, they won’t help much if your goal is a job that requires deep critical thinking. Always check the job description for clues that the internship is task-oriented or thinking-oriented.
  2. Ask questions that dig into the internship during an informational chat or interview:
    • “What does the day-to-day entail?”
    • “What is the first one or two projects you would have me work on?”
    • “What is the most pressing project on your plate that I would help with?”
    • “It sounds like most of the internship will be focused on [insert skill of interest here], does that sound right?”

Criteria 3: Company brand and reputation

Most people think company brand is the most important criteria in choosing an internship. While it definitely helps your resume, there’s little point in doing a big name internship if you don’t develop any skills or work with a great manager.

For example, there is a common trend at Berkeley (and other large universities) for younger students to work at a brand name bank in the wealth management department.

Now, this would be a reasonable thing to do if you were interested in a career in asset management or finance. Yet many of the students who did these internships had no interest in finance.

The thinking was that you’d be set with a name like Morgan Stanley on your resume. Sadly, that was usually not the case.  

So many students were doing internships at the big banks in wealth management that many future employers stopped caring. In most cases, wealth management interns didn’t actually do much work related to finance and were more task-oriented.

On top of this, students that did task-oriented wealth management internships usually didn’t:

  1. have a manager who was invested in them (I’ve heard numerous horror stories of bad working relationships between managers and interns)
  2. build any skills relevant to their aspirations
  3. prove or disprove a working career hypothesis
  4. enjoy themselves

From my personal experiences and conversations with students/alumni working across a variety of industries, I believe you are better off working at a lesser-known company in a thinking-oriented internship than an execution-oriented internship at a brand name company.

Ideally you would eventually be able to find all of the above at a brand name company  — that’s the best of both worlds.

How to test it: Having a large presence does not require having a large company. For example, there are startups with less than 50 people that have massive brand recognition in the Silicon Valley. Check to see if the company has a large presence in its respective industry.

This is a great way to look for internships online. For example, most students interested in technology immediately think about major technology companies like Google, Facebook, Apple etc.

Yet there are many well-respected and interesting companies that go under the radar because they sell products to other businesses, not consumers. One industry like this is called enterprise software as a service (SaaS), and includes Salesforce, ServiceNow, Mulesoft, Intuit, etc. Again — all are well respected in their industry, yet often students don’t think about them for internship opportunities.

Criteria 4: Path to return offer (if relevant)

If you are a junior, you may want to consider internship opportunities with a potential full time offer.

If you like the internship, it’s a massive relief to come into your senior year with a job offer in-hand.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phrase “return offer,” it refers to when a company extends an offer to return back after the school year in a full time capacity. This can happen when you do well in the internship — for tips on how to get a return offer check out my article “Intelligence is not enough to get a return offer”.

How to test it: This one is easy — ask!

If they are being dodgy about the answer or say something like “it depends on future headcount,” just assume that there likely won’t be a full time opportunity.

These situations are no big deal, you can still have an amazing internship, leave on great terms with your co-workers, and recruit for full time opportunities elsewhere. In fact, sometimes great managers will go out of their way to connect their interns with full time opportunities at other companies if there was no path to a return offer during the internship.

Yet another testament to how important it is to find managers who are looking out for your best interest.

Criteria 5: Company culture

Company culture is one of the most important and underrated factors in choosing a full-time job.

That being said, an internship is only a few months. You can still learn a lot from a thinking-oriented internship despite a lackluster company culture.

Sometimes it’s helpful to embrace an internship at a company with a tough culture. What better way to test different company cultures than through short, low-risk, 2-3 month internships!

At the end of the day, culture is typically only a decision-making factor if you are considering going back full-time upon completion of the internship. 

The Takeaway

  1. There’s a lot more to finding a great internship than the name of the company. Don’t over prioritize finding a big name internship if it means you’re going to spend your summer filing papers or entering data into an excel spreadsheet. The goal of your internship is to learn, challenge yourself, and develop those career hypotheses!
  2. Customize the framework to fit your needs. This particular criteria is based off my experiences and those of my friends — you may find that you value different factors (location, compensation, etc). The purpose of these articles is not to tell you exactly what to do, rather it’s to give you inspiration to think about your career search and professional development in different ways.
  3. Cast a focused but wide net. Most people will apply to every internship they see, regardless of whether the opportunity will actually help build their careers. If you are not focused in your search, you’ll waste a lot of time applying to irrelevant internships when you could double-down on the opportunities you care about. Nobody cares about the number of internships you apply to. It’s about finding one that motivates, excites, and challenges you in all aspects of your development. Everything else is noise.

Next week, I will show you examples of how to apply this framework and sift through internship/job postings.

We will apply this framework to separate A-level internships from the rest.

But I’m going to need your help. Reply back with links or screenshots of internship/job postings that you want me to evaluate. I’ll put together my favorite examples with my commentary and send it out next week.

P.S. If you’re thinking about sending in a job posting but are worried about everyone applying to the job you’re interested in, just let me know and I will hide all details about the company, role, etc.

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