Steps to get any internship you want.

Zac Grace
11 min readJan 7, 2021

For first time (but not faint-hearted) applicants.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Disclaimer: This is not a cheat sheet. This is not a guide to getting a position without qualification. This article will not help you if the application deadline is tomorrow.

This is a roadmap to getting a position that seems out of your league, provided you are willing to work for it (and given you have time to do said work before the deadline). The internet is full of motivational videos. Plenty are the podcasts and blogs that tell you mantras about the glory of the grind. I have nothing against those. I even find them useful. But this is not one of them. This is a step by step guide on how to get an internship at a top institution. [While this is also applicable to job search, I do not attest to it as I cannot speak from personal experience.]

For the most part, these steps will be most useful to first time applicants.

Step 1: Identify your dream internship

Be smart on this one. Look at things beyond the salary and company prestige. Read employee reviews online (Glassdoor, etc). Read up on the company culture. Look up on Linkedin to see what past interns are doing now. Does the company have a practice of offering permanent positions to highly performing interns? Or are they just looking for cheap labor?

Now, if what you want to do is work at a place for free, for the experience or the value addition to your resume or for any other reason, go for it. It may be very well worth it too (a United Nations internship, for example).

But the point is, think of whether the position and the details of the position (including the job location) matches what you really want.

Another key point to look at is how long you have before application deadline. This is important when the position/company is rather out of your league ( the focus of this article). You need to have time to prepare to close that gap. If you found a dream position, but don’t have enough time to do the work described below, it is better not to apply to that. I will tell you why below. Keep searching. There are a lot of offers out there.

The ideal choice internship (that is out of easy reach) will satisfy the following criteria:

  • Is mostly related to your field of skills and experience.
  • You have at least three weeks before the deadline.
  • You have at least 40% of the required skills.
  • 30%–40% of the skills you don’t have are attainable in a short time.
  • There is at least one required skill that you are very good at.
  • There is something not mentioned in the job description that resonates with you (company vision, past projects of the team, etc).

Step 2: Prepare for hell

Just kidding (well, mostly).

Step 2 is to identify similar job postings in smaller level institutions. And then apply to them.

Let me explain. First, what are ‘smaller level institutions?’. These are companies or organizations that are easier to get into than your target. For example: Your goal is to get a data science internship at Google. Apply to data science intern positions in the startups near you. Apply in small/middle scale companies.

But I don’t want to work at those places…

No, maybe you don’t. But you are going to get valuable experience with the application process. As much as possible, try to avoid situations where you have to apply through a public portal. Even when you have to do that, try to find other ways to stand out. Here are some tips:

  • Find the contact of the hiring manager and send him a mail asking clarification on a point on the job description. (Attach your CV to the mail)
  • Find online the people who are members of the team (use LinkedIn, or company website, etc) you will be working in. Send them a mail expressing interest and applause for their work.
  • Find past/current interns in the company and ask them about their experience (both application and work experience).

The goal is to get a reply.

The goal of applying to all these numerous positions is not to get all these positions. It is not even to get an interview. You aren’t there yet (unless you are an application veteran). The goal is to get a reply.

A reply is a connection. Even a reply (not from an automatized reply system) which tells you you haven’t been accepted is a foot in the door. You respond to the mail saying thank you for their time, and ask for a few more minutes of their time where they can tell you how your could improve your profile or what you could have done better.

This is the age of online meetings. Dare to ask for a fifteen minute online meeting. Failing that, at least ask for a few pointers via mail.

Now, replies to these may be even harder to get. But when you try ten companies, there may be one or two that give you a little snippet of insider info. And that golden nugget will boost your application ability.

(Remember I said above that you will need time? This is why.)

Step 3: Gaining new skills

The step numbers get a but muddled from here on. This is to be done in parallel to step two. You have waiting time in between getting replies for all those applications above. What are you going to use it for? To wait?

So, there will be skills listed on the job description of your target internship that you don’t have (yet).

Identify a few of them that you can learn entirely online, or with an easily accessible workshop near you. Online is preferred because that is often on your own timeline as well.

For example: Python programming.

  • First, look for a YouTube short video that gives you a comprehensive summary of the skill. (One hour introduction videos by Derek Banas comes to mind). Watch it twice and take notes. You are going to use these notes for revision right before the interview. Let’s say it takes you half an hour to identify a good source for this comprehensive summary. And two hours to get through it, with notes. Take another half hour to consolidate what you learned, map which portions are relevant to your job description, and decide which parts you want to expand on.
  • Find more resources (preferably tutorials that you can follow along) on specific sub-domains of the field. Example:- Field — web design. Subdomain — responsive webpages. Spend a few hours on these and get a good idea on how these works.
  • Look up on beginner mistakes in this field. (Google search: Top beginner mistakes in web design)
  • Look up on pro tips. (Top tips for amazing web design).
  • Take notes. Take notes. Take notes.
  • I’d say you have spent about 9 hours on this. Take the next hour to find a project you can do in a day. There are plenty of these on the web, with detailed guides. Even on topics like data science.
  • Get two hours of sleep.
  • Spend the next twelve hours doing a project. (Yes, caffeinate!)
  • And in 24 hours, you have a new skill and a project to show for it.

Yes, this works. I have used this to successful effect. And yes, I recommend adding 4 or 5 skills in the (over-caffeinated, sleepless, hellish) week before you apply.

Step 4: Perfecting your resume

Depending on the size and style of your target company, they may or may not use a computer program to sort out incoming resumes. You need to learn to tailor your resume using keywords from the job description. There is plenty of information online on this.

Long story short, it has to be in a format friendly to a word processor. (Don’t bother styling. A bot is the one looking at it.) And you have to use the same words as in the job description.

If the job posting says ‘experience with deep learning frameworks’, you have to have some/most of those exact words in your CV. Having ‘Tensorflow and Torch’ on there is no substitute.

Also, it does help if your resume has a level of professionalism and flair when it finally gets to the human beings. My advice: get second opinions, from guys who actually have good jobs. Better, people who have jobs in the same field. Even better, people who got hired in the field recently.

And remember to make edit your resume to match the job description of your application.

Step 5: That dreaded cover letter

Is a cover letter important?

I say it is. It is an opportunity to show the employers a side of your personality before meeting them. The resume tells them what you can do. The cover letter tells them how and why you do things.

Take every single opportunity to impress, and give it your best shot.

It may seem not important, but the fact remains that your competitors will likely have catchy cover letters. And you should treat every required document as an opportunity to communicate more, rather than as a checklist to tick. Take every single opportunity to impress, and give it your best shot.

So, what to do if you are not a good writer?

Not a problem, use Google. I mean, use Google to learn how to write an effective cover letter. And use other tools to aid your writing (Grammarly, for example).

What you did in step 2 is to prepare you for this. If you write a couple dozen cover letters to (more or less) the same job description in a few weeks, you are bound to get better. Especially if you compare the ones that received a positive response to the ones that didn’t. Especially if you actively seek constructive feedback. Use free resources and examples to build up on, but ultimately produce something original and honest.

Intelligent effort + hard work = better results

Also, one other tip is to write the cover letter for your dream job a couple of weeks in advance, and look at it a few days before application. Fresh eyes, new perspective.

  • The cover letter should complement the CV, not repeat it.
  • Mention the hiring manager’s work if possible.
  • Be honest. They can sense it.

Step 5: Make the application

By now, you have hopefully done all the steps to get through that first gate.

Ideally, your CV, cover letter, and other documents should all together tell a story that matches precisely (as close as possible) the job description and the company/team culture.

A point to note is that it is best not to apply to several positions in the same company before getting to your actually desired position. This is subject to debate and may not always apply, but the idea is that usually, it is the same HR that does the preliminary review of the resumes. And you do not want them to peg you as a loser. The other side is that there is a small possibility they will appreciate your relentlessness, but it is rarer and not worth it.

So, prepare all the documents, try to start a dialogue with the hiring manager, team leader/team members in advance, do all the steps you can to make your profile as tailored to the job description as possible. And apply!

Step 6: HR Interview

Now, I am going to assume that you are selected for the interview.

Even if you’re not, its not going to hurt much. You know why? Because you’ve got a thick skin now after seeing all those rejections (which you didn’t care about) from step 2. And during this whole process, you’re bound to have come across other potentially interesting positions too. But if you have an invitation to an HR interview, read on.

Note: Once you have an interview at your dream company, cease all other applications and give your full focus on this one.

Disclaimer: No offense intended to any HR professionals.

The key to passing HR interviews is to treat it as the technical interview. The short story is that HR often has little idea on what those technical terms in the job description mean. So flood them with technical terms in all your answers. Example:-

HR : How will you approach a conflict with a colleague?

You: Oh, let me answer with a scenario. Suppose a colleague suggests a generative adversarial model for an image generation model development project. And I want to go with an auto-encoder. Obviously, either of them may work. Perhaps I could suggest finding middle ground by designing an architecture that keeps the fundamental learning properties of both the adversarial training and also the decoder-encoder path. Agreeing on a suitable loss function is important too, clearly .

The HR has no idea what is going on, and HR staff cannot afford to fail a candidate with excellent technical skills.

Also, dress well and smile.

Step 7: The technical interview

Depending on the company, this may be the final interview.

This is the one. The last test. And you want to prepare. You want to prepare the hell out of this one. Go all in. Look up the top 100 interview questions for your job. Make your own answers and stories for all of them. Practice them in the mirror. Record videos of you giving these answers and play it back. Repeat.

Find commonly asked questions by the company from current/previous employees. Find currently ongoing projects of the company/team. Read up on the work of the team and the hiring manager. Find as much information as you can, think about those from different angles.

Breathe and live the job description, your CV and your cover letter. You should have a story to tell for each keyword in your CV and cover letter. You should have a story to connect each keyword in the job description to your experience/interests.

Go to the interview, and give it your best.

It may also be useful to look into tips for online interviews, if relevant.

It is also useful to have one or two questions to ask the interviewer at the end of the interview. Here’s a tip:

  • Ask them what an ideal employee’s performance would be like in the first half year.
  • Ask them to point you to some resources where you can pick up certain skills so you can hit the ground running when you start the job.

The above two questions have multiple advantages. The employer will visualize you when he is answering the first question, and he will have your face in mind when he thinks of the ideal candidate for the position. The second question will persuade them that you are proactive and would take steps to improve performance. All employers like an employee who improves performance on his own volition.

Step 8: After the interview

It is absolutely mandatory to send a ‘thank you’ mail within a few hours of the the interview. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. It can make or break your success.

Sure, if the interview was a fiasco, a mail won’t get you the job. But if the employer is divided between you and another candidate, this mail could make all the difference. It is also a chance for you to address anything that you feel incomplete from the interview.

Also mention you remain available to answer any further questions.

That is it. You’re done.

Footnote:

Obviously, this article is not a shortcut to getting an internship or job. Rather, it is a compilation of everything you can do to improve your chances.

If there is one key takeaway, it should be that you should actively seek out endeavors where you are likely to fail.

Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.

— John C Maxwell

I’m sure there are many other tips and steps to further optimize your job application process, and I’d love to see them in the comments. Please don’t hesitate to write. We could all benefit if you’re willing to share your knowledge.

Finally, I’d like to end by saying that this approach, especially the philosophy of applying to positions below your target and within your limits “just for practice” can be applied to most other goals in life.

  • Start a few easy to do, no-cost startups so you can familiarize yourself with the process before launching your dream startup.
  • Want to write a book? Write a couple of small, quick books and publish them before writing your magnum opus (see Brandon Sanderson’s career, and Patrick Rothfuss’s).

However, I should say that it may not be a great idea to apply it to relationships, but hey, to each his own!

Thank you for reading this far (I know it’s been a long one). I hope you got something useful out of this post and wish you all the best success in your projects.

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Zac Grace

I write and I code. In love with our beautiful world.