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"Don’t Stop Working After Lunch" (and Other Internship Advice)

If you do a quick internet search for “internship tips,” you’ll get no less than 7,810,000 results harping on the importance of looking professional and having a killer handshake. But as a student who was once sifting through these articles looking for practical, relevant, and real advice, I felt completely lost. How do you ensure that you even get to that handshake phase? And what happens afterwards, when you’re offered the coveted position as a company’s intern?

Though my own internship with Walker Sands is coming to a close, students across the country will soon be diving into a summer intern position or seeking interviews for the fall. With that in mind, I took some of my own questions (that I wish I had been able to ask three years ago) to two Walker Sands executives who have had their fair share of interviewing, selecting, and managing interns. Below, account executive Jackie Lampugnano and senior account executive Kari Brownsberger share their thoughts on all things internship-related, including how to make a stellar first impression, social media screening, and what they’re looking for in the much-dreaded "what's your biggest weakness?" interview question.

When screening applicants for interviews, what do you look for? What makes someone stand out, either in a good way or a bad way?

Both Kari and Jackie agree that having a solid resume, cover letter, and writing test make for the most attractive applicant. Kari noted that she looks for the application trifecta: “A good writing test, a resume that demonstrates some relevant experience, and a cover letter that demonstrates some personality.” Here’s what they had to say about each of these specific application elements.

  • Resume: Be as relevant as possible. Show that you have some sort of background in the field, whether it’s classwork, a volunteer position, or a previous internship. Jackie pointed out that a resume without any indicators that you actually want to work in the industry can make you seem like you’re just applying for any internship that you can find, regardless of your personal experiences or interests.
  • Cover letter: Jackie mentioned that this is the first thing that she reads when scanning through applications, so it really is your greatest opportunity to make an impact on your prospective employer. Don’t just paste the name of the company into the body of a cover letter filled with generic statements that could apply to any organization – do your homework and customize your letter accordingly, making sure to explain why you want to work there. “If I can tell that a cover letter wasn’t customized for Walker Sands, it will probably leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Jackie said.
  • Writing Test: Kari and Jackie both agreed that the writing test is probably the most important element of an intern’s application at Walker Sands. Kari explained, “If someone has a good resume and cover letter but bad writing test, I get a little worried because good writing skills are really difficult to teach.” And keep your AP Stylebook close – Jackie says that if you’re making simple style mistakes, it’s likely a sign that you’re not going to be diligent on the writing tasks you’re given in your internship.

Do you look at an applicant’s social media activity? If so, what do you look for on these channels?

Jackie and Kari often look to see if an applicant has some sort of social media presence, especially if it’s highlighted somewhere on their application. They note that it’s important to see consistent activity, representing themselves in a way that would be in line with a workplace culture, and having some professional content included in the mix (though Jackie said she’d rather see an applicant use social media for personal use with friends than for them to not have a presence at all).

What’s the most important thing that an applicant can convey in an interview? What’s the best way that they can convey that?

Kari explained that excitement for the position is the most valuable thing that an applicant can express in an interview. Even if you aren’t a perfect fit in terms of past experience and expertise, you can increase your likability factor just by conveying a passion for the possibilities that the internship might hold.

Meanwhile, Jackie contended that the most important thing for an interviewee to convey is a solid understanding of what public relations is. “Since you’re coming in for an internship, I don’t expect you to know everything yet,” she said. “But the most important thing is that I can tell you at least understand what the industry is—the best way to convey that is probably to tell me why you want to work in PR. Another good way is to talk about what you’d like to learn in your internship—that will tell me if you have an understanding of what types of things PR pros actually do in their job.”

What’s the worst thing that an applicant can do in an interview?

Jackie and Kari agreed that acting wishy-washy or having a lack of excitement can be an interview downer. “Have an idea of what you want to do in your career,” Jackie said. “Saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’ is going to immediately turn off the people interviewing you.”

Other deal breakers? Talking poorly about past employers, asking what your chances are of getting the position (“Awkward!”), pretending to have an expertise in an area that you don’t know much about, and not maintaining a level of professionalism throughout the interview.

Every student inevitably dreads the “what is your greatest weakness?” question in interviews. What’s the employer really looking for here?

Contrary to popular belief, your interviewer doesn’t actually want to know what you don’t do well. Instead, they’re looking to see how you handle yourself in tough situations and gauge how prepared you are for the interview. Jackie explained, “We know how hard it is to talk about weaknesses, but that’s why we want to see how you answer that type of question more than what you actually say.”

As a general rule, talk about your weaknesses in terms of personal attributes rather than skills. Instead of saying something like “I’m a bad writer,” tell your interviewer about an area that you lack expertise in. (Kari also noted that saying something like “I don’t like to do any work after lunch” would be considered a red flag. Just FYI.)

Once hired, what’s the best way for interns to make a good impression on the team?

Kari and Jackie both cited going above and beyond your given position (by doing things like asking relevant questions about the company, volunteering for other tasks, and being proactive) as one of the best ways to impress your co-workers and create a lasting impression. “Try anything and everything,” Kari said. “Don’t be afraid to take on new tasks and always want to do more. If you’re afraid to go outside of your comfort zone, you’ll never really learn. I’d rather have someone try and fail than not try at all.”

Jackie added to this sentiment, noting that the best interns work at the level of an entry-level employee instead of thinking of themselves as “just an intern.”

Any parting advice? What do you know now that you wish you had known as an intern?

Everything that you do as an intern, whether it seems like a trivial task or a big project, is eventually going to help you in the workforce. “There’s a reason why your supervisors ask you to do pretty much everything,” Kari noted. “Even if you don’t always know what it is.”

Jackie, on the other hand, wishes that she’d realized that receiving tons of edits on her writing wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I used to take writing critiques so personally and think ‘I’m a bad writer!’,  but really that’s just part of the process,” she said. “Even the best writers get their work thoroughly edited before it gets to its ideal stage. That’s how finished products are made, especially because you need to send the best quality of work to your client.”