Getting Started: 9 Tactics to Secure Your Dream Internship

“Intern” may not be the most glamorous title, but it’s also one of the best ways for recent graduates to break into the marketing and advertising field. Unfortunately, this summer isn’t shaping up to be the best time to pursue one: According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies across the country and in various business sectors are cutting internship slots by almost 21 percent over last year.

So, why bother competing for one? A summer internship can help you network, build your resume and get a feel for the industry. And many hiring managers look to interns to fill entry-level roles. “If you’re doing a good job, when we need another person, you’re the person,” says Karen Zuckerman, president and executive creative director of HZDG, an integrated marketing communications and design agency headquartered in Rockville, MD.

Internships also provide a range of less tangible rewards. Advertising and marketing executives recently polled by The Creative Group said the top three benefits of internships, aside from pay, are experiencing different work environments, improving soft skills, and acquiring skills or knowledge.

With fewer slots available this year, it’s crucial to stand out in order to land an internship. And to do so, you have to offer up exactly what hiring managers want, and often, it’s less about skill than approach. Try these tips for winning out against the competition:

1. Treat it Like a Real Job Search

Don’t use the fact that you’re looking to land an internship as an excuse not to give your best effort. Jean Mitsunaga, director of career development at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., says the internship search process should be the same as for a full-time job. Take the time to polish your resume, improve your interview skills and research prospective employers.

2. Don’t Sell Too Hard

Employers want interns who fit in with the company culture, so it pays to be honest about your skills, your personality and what you’re looking for in an internship. “It’s not a matter of a good fit or a bad fit,” says Eric Helser, studio director at Ziba Design in Portland, Ore. “It’s a matter of the right fit or the wrong fit.”

3. Beat the Odds With a Good Attitude
“First and foremost, even before talent, we look for interns who are enthusiastic and have a lot of passion,” says Joe Violante, creative director at the New York-based strategic branding firm CBX. “If students have a great attitude, it’s going to work in their favor.” Think of it this way: You’re making it that much easier for employers to picture you as a vital part of the team.

4. Show Process and Product
If you’re applying for a design job, the creative director wants to see how you arrived at that logo as much as the final product. So fill out your portfolio with research, process drawings and even alternate designs. “We really want to see how someone’s mind works,” Helser says. “It helps us figure out how they fit in the organization.”

5. Be the (Slightly) Squeaky Wheel
Sending in your resume and portfolio is just the first step. “Persistence is huge,” Zuckerman says. “A lot of students are afraid of bugging you, but if you don’t follow up, we’ll forget about you, and [think] you must not want the internship that bad.” Zuckerman says she prefers a “Did you get my resume?” e-mail over a phone call, and doesn’t want to hear from you until after you send application materials.

6. Call if You’re in Town
Applying for an internship across the country? The company might not fly you in for an in-person interview, but try to set one up if you’re traveling. “I’ve had designers call and say, ‘I’ll be in New York visiting my aunt. Can I swing by?’” Violante says. “I think it might give students a competitive edge to pitch themselves in person rather than on the phone.” And at Ziba, they’re big on granting informational interviews.

7. Consider the Whole Package
With the economy down, more companies may be looking for unpaid interns, but you should carefully consider everything a program offers before turning one down. Is the program dedicated to creating a valuable experience? Will you have the chance for hands-on learning? In some cases, an unpaid or lower-paying internship may offer more value than a higher-paying position in the long run.

8. Apply Even if You Have a Diploma
Especially in a tough job market, internships aren’t restricted to students and recent grads. They can help young professionals get a foot in the door at companies where they aspire to work when the economy picks up. Zuckerman says she started as an intern when she graduated from school and the company offered her a paid position within months.

While they might not be the most glamorous, internships may be the best path for young professionals starting their careers in this economy. While a certain amount of grunt work can be expected, these programs are a valuable way to learn about yourself and the type of work environment you prefer, as well as serve as a crash course in getting along with various personality types – an ability that can benefit people throughout their careers.

Megan Slabinski is executive director of The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals with a variety of firms on a project and full-time basis. For more information, please visit