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Internship application process demystified, how freshmen can steal internships from graduating seniors

internship application

Sophomores and juniors can easily compete with graduating seniors for internships

Internship application

The internship application process is an unknown for many students and I recently received a great question regarding the process. It is a question I am asked about on a fairly regular basis and on further reflection wanted to add a few more points.

I’d like to thank our reader Aubrey for bringing up the insightful question. After thinking about the question, I wanted to add more detail.  The original question and my reply is listed in it’s original format here and below.

Hi HRNasty,

I realize this is an old post but I’m hitting a wall when it comes to changing my resume for different jobs. I get your point but I’m a junior undergraduate student studying economics with only a few years of work experience and very little mentionable classwork (unfortunately I completed my GEs first so my more complex econ classes will all be in my last year). How can I dramatically change my resume for each job when I have such limited material? The most I could think of is adjusting descriptions to match the job posting, but as you mentioned previously, that isn’t much. Even my career adviser told me to use one resume when I tried to have two different resumes when I was applying to an accounting internship and a consulting internship. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you,


The assumptions

I made a few assumptions based on prior experience when answering similar questions:

  1. The applicant is worried about a lack of experience as it relates to the competition.
  1. The accomplishments listed on the resume are relatively short. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bullets were a single line or less.
  1. This candidate is a sophomore and it is common to list the anticipated graduation date on the resume.

In no particular order, I will answer the questions and provide further thoughts. With so much information and nuance on this topic so I will break this up into two posts.

The playing field is equal

Thing 1. Remember that the folks you are competing with for these internships have the same amount of experience as you do. Whether someone is a sophomore, junior or senior, the hiring manager and the hiring team look at all interns as folks with “no experience”.

I realize this sounds unfair to the folks with a couple of internships on their resume but until an FTE, professional job is listed, it really isn’t experience. Even if a senior with internship experience is applying for the same position you are, the hiring company looks at you and the senior as equal candidates. It doesn’t make sense, but just trust me.

FWIW, when you are looking for a full-time position AFTER graduation, having multiple internships WILL make a big difference. It will give you a leg up on those with only 1 internship or no internships. It isn’t the actual experience as much as the initiative and dedication that these summer positions represent.

Thing 2. Candidates with 1 or 2 years of real-world experience are NOT applying for internships. These candidates have moved on and are looking for paid full-time positions. A candidate who has held a full-time position is not going to be applying for an internship and if they are, the hiring company will be suspicious. Going from an FTE to a summer intern is a pretty big step back unless there is a career change, the hiring company will assume the candidate wants FTE money and not call. Remember, your competition is very similar to you on paper. The playing field is as equal as it ever will be in your career.

All interns are created equal

Because most interns look the same on paper, we want to make sure we do everything we can to distinguish yourself from the rest of the chaff. We do this two ways. We create a resume with a lot of detail and interview with personality. This sounds like common sense, but most interns lack resume detail and do not interview with enthusiasm or show any personality. Examples of this next week.

To land an interview with any company, there are a couple of things we can do. Try to find internships via friends, networks, and family. This makes it easier to show off your personality and easier for the hiring manager to hear about your skills via the grapevine. It is MUCH easier to land a meeting via friends and family vs. a corporate Goliath. Friends and family will make us feel more comfortable when it comes time to interview. This is the same advice I give to ANYONE looking for a job with 2 to 20 years of experience. 

One trick to make it easier for a recruiter or hiring manager to call us is to leave our expected college graduation date off the resume. Instead of stating “expected graduation date 2016”, just say “currently attending”.  In most cases, I recommend we leave high school graduation dates off resume as well. With the college experience listed, the high school tenure is assumed. The exception to this is if you can list highlights from your high school career. Highlights include accomplishments like a high GPA, captain, co-captain or if played varsity sports. Leadership positions held and languages were spoken are also ways to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.

The value of a graduating senior can be overcome

From an HR perspective, I want to hire seniors. As heinous as this may sound, juniors and sophomores do not hold much interest to me. For most HR departments, the end goal of an internship is to convert the intern into a full-time hire. This goal is different from the hiring managers. HR knows that very rarely is a student going to take an internship as a sophomore or junior and apply for a full-time position when they graduate 2 or 3 years later. Most interns apply for a full-time position with the company they held their last internship with.

Hiring managers, on the other hand, don’t care as much because their needs are short-term vs. long-term. They just want help for the summer and whether they get a sophomore or a senior makes no difference to most. Hiring managers just need cheap labor for a few months. This sounds horrible but remember, to work on a substantial project, you will need to be trained up. If the internship is only 3 months and it takes you 30 to 45 days to train an intern up on a meaty project isn’t worth the investment. You can be trained in 1 to 2 days to accomplish the simple stuff. This saves time for $75K or $100K year employees who can tackle the meat. You, my undergraduate friend just found your niche for the summer.  

Expected graduation dates

Graduation dates on a resume tip hiring managers off on your long-term availability. The odds of converting a senior to a full-time employee are much higher vs. converting a sophomore or junior intern a few years later. As an employer, getting the company name out in the community via a hired intern is a good thing. In comparison, nothing establishes a hiring company’s reputation like converting an intern to a FTE.  To overcome this bias as a underclassman, leave the words “expected graduation date” off the resume.

It is easy to take advantage of the conflict between HR’s goals and the hiring managers goals when it comes to hiring interns. HR wants to convert interns to full-time and hiring managers really just want short-term help.

Next week we go into how to list specific accomplishments on your resume to separate you from the competition, whether or not you should listen to university career counselors, and how to interview. 


See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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