By the time Rory Molleda finished university in 2013, he had already completed two internships with two different organisations. But he didn’t just stop there.

After graduating with a degree in sports management, he got an operations internship with his dream company: professional soccer club DC United, in Washington, DC, where he spent three months before taking his first full-time job elsewhere. But half a year later, when the team coordinator position became available with DC United, Molleda was one of the first to get a call to apply. He got the job.

Finding internship opportunities within the company you'd like to work for can… get your foot in the door

According to Accenture Strategy’s 2016 college graduate study, 43% of 2014-15 university graduates who had internships said it led to a job.

 “Finding internship opportunities within the company you'd like to work for can be an effective way to get your foot in the door,” says Southern California-based Matt Stewart, co-founder of College Works Painting, which provides business experience for college students. “Now, more than ever before, employers are looking to hire applicants who have demonstrated real-world experience in their field.”

And the majority of students are interning at some point during their studies. Sixty-one percent of 2016 US college graduates participated in an internship or apprenticeship while in school, according to Accenture Strategy’s 2016 college graduate study.

But in some cases the internships themselves have become quite competitive — whether they are paid or unpaid. Getting one requires a little extra effort and know-how.

More than 'who you know'

While there are a fortunate few who might be able to sail into a sought-after internship through family connections, the rest of us have more legwork to do. It can seem daunting, but the first step is to set a goal and know what experience you hope to gain.

“The secret to landing a great internship is knowing what you want out of your internship and searching for the right opportunity,” says Washington, DC-based Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended, a public relations consultancy for job search and human resources technology companies.

 The more specific you can be, the better

Assess your needs first, advises Huhman. “Think about the type of experience you hope to gain from an internship and what you have to offer…  Think about the types of opportunities that would be a good match for your skills and personality.”

Also, consider how your interests could link to a particular field. Consider your coursework and activities at university and what’s meant the most to you. “Maybe there’s a cause that speaks to you, or something in your background that draws you to a specific field,” says New York-based career advisor Allison Cheston. “The more specific you can be, the better.” If possible, ask family and friends to help you connect with people they know in these fields to learn more about the work.

Next, you’ll want to target employers. “Focus on employers you’d genuinely like to work for and research their company,” says Huhman. “This will help you find great contacts within the company and write an outstanding application.”

Network again and again

You’ve heard it before, but now you’ve got to act. Connect with people you’d like to learn from on professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Xing and participating in Twitter chats, suggests Huhman. But don’t just sign up and then let your profile sit idle. “Join groups and get recommendations from former employers. Connect with everyone you know and everyone your parents know,” says Cheston. Cheston suggests paying for a premium account, if you can afford it, which will allow you to directly contact people you don’t know without a referral.

Attend networking events. “[They] are a great opportunity for you to meet professionals in person and have a chance to talk about your internship search,” Huhman says.

The cover letter

“Most people – of all experience levels – write really bad cover letters,” says Cheston. “Avoid saying things like, ‘I feel confident I can make a valuable contribution to your organisation’—when you don’t actually have any idea whether that’s the case and chances are, since you’re just starting out, you can’t.”

Instead, think about three skills you can offer and use bullet points separated from the main paragraphs for ease of reading. “If you can write one that focuses on what you can do for an organisation, instead of what it can do for you, you will automatically stand out,” she says.

Like no other interview

Just because you land an interview doesn’t mean you have landed the position. Treat the interview like one for a full-time, permanent job. In other words, prepare by researching the employer.

Prepare questions for the interviewer

“Make sure you read the company’s website, check out their blog, and follow the company on social media. It’s also a good idea to read up on their most recent events and accomplishments,” says Huhman.

And prepare questions for the interviewer. “These questions will show the interviewer you dedicated time to preparing for the [internship] interview and that you’re seriously interested in the position,” she says.

Made all the difference

For Molleda, the three internships he completed proved the difference between having the necessary experience and being any other new college graduate.

“I always had the attitude, as an intern and still now as a full time team staff member, that I needed to do everything possible to succeed and do anything necessary for the club/team,” he says. “As an intern, that meant coming in early, staying later to help different departments, and volunteering for as many different opportunities as possible.”

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