How to Land that Summer Design Internship

In a month or so, the annual mad blitz of undergrads clamoring for internships and apprenticeships begins, and for good reason. Companies are much more willing to hire a fresh graduate with even just a summer of actual industry experience under their belt. But of course, knowing this, there are some unscrupulous companies that use students’ eagerness as a way to get free help for a few months.

So, what should you look for? What should you be wary of? How should you prepare? And what can you do to stand out amongst the sea of applicants?

What is an internship?

First, what is an internship supposed to entail anyway? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an internship is supposed to be a “supervised learning experience” with regular check-ins with a point person and sometimes the opportunity to move around in the company, learning a bit about a number of departments. Accordingly, these companies shouldn’t get any actual benefit from the intern’s labor. Ideally, they’re doing it for the “greater good.” Unfortunately, that’s rarely how it works out.

Most of the time, companies see interns as just free labor they can use to crank away on tasks no one else wants to deal with, many of which might not have anything to do with your skills (errands, filing, etc.) Companies that benefit from the labor of an unpaid intern are in violation of the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) which requires anyone in such a position to be paid a minimum wage for their state. While it might not be easy to do, it’s better for you and everyone that comes after you to avoid unpaid internships.

The best experiences will come from paid internships and apprenticeships that value you as a creative professional and not as a warm body to fetch coffee, answer phones, and deal with stuff no one else wants to touch. Be sure to ask what types of tasks or projects you’ll be working on or what other interns have done in the past. While you won’t likely be raking it in, your pay will generally offset basic costs of living especially if you have to temporarily relocate for the summer.

The resume

Before you start the application process, make sure that you have everything in order. First — and most obviously — you’ll need a resume. You’re a designer, so take a little time in InDesign and make it look nice. You don’t need to make an illustrated version of your work history or recreate it in custom pictograms, but a nice typeface on an interesting grid layout says a lot.

  • Note your anticipated dates of graduation as well as majors and minors.
  • Generally, you’ll want to leave off any references to you in high school. This includes your high school GPA, jobs you had and clubs you were the secretary for (though if you did something like hosted a foreign dignitary or were given a particularly prestigious award, that’s okay to mention.)
  • List any companies you’ve done freelance work for. If it was something you did as a long-term engagement (over a few months) put it under work experience. If you’ve done a few small gigs, list them together under freelance work. And in each case, briefly describe what you did.
  • Don’t shy away from listing non-design jobs. We all have to pay the bills in school and showing that you held down a job while in school reflects highly on your work ethic.
  • Ignore any desire to put some kind of “completion chart” to show how good you are at various skills using percentages. It’s completely meaningless. A simple list of skills, software, or web technologies you work with is more than adequate.
  • Include portfolio URL as well as social usernames or URLs (such as Instagram, Twitter, Dribbble, Behance, etc.)
For the love of all that is holy…just don’t.

The portfolio

While resumes are important, I’ll admit the first thing I look at when I get an apprenticeship application is a portfolio. And having spoken to a number of other people hiring for internships and apprenticeships, this feeling is not unique. You’re being hired primarily for your ability to work as a creative professional. A degree doesn’t mean you can do this well, a portfolio does. Before applying anywhere, make sure your portfolio is as great as it can be.

  • A deep dive into a few projects is always better than a shallow look at a ton of work. Pick four to seven projects you’re proud of and detail the process for each. Show early sketches, wireframes, rejected ideas, and variants you presented. Don’t worry about feeling the need to show your range by having a little bit of everything. Your skill will shine through better in a focused portfolio.
  • For each project, say what you did and what tools you used to accomplish it. If you worked on a group project, that’s fine to put on your portfolio, but be certain to mention what you were responsible for. Similarly, if you did a web design but did everything up to development, just mention that.
  • Make sure your portfolio aligns with the types of internships you’re looking for. If you want a gig at an ad agency, make sure there’s some ad design in your portfolio. If you’re applying to a web design firm, you should have at least one solid UI project in there.
  • The type of online portfolio doesn’t matter. It doesn’t if you’re using a Squarespace template, a Behance portfolio, or something you threw together on Wix. I’m looking at your projects and how you describe the work you did. As long as it’s online, I’m a happy camper.

Get your social channels in order

Right after looking through a resume and portfolio, I jump right to a candidate’s social channels. This gives me a glimpse into who the person really is, what they do in their spare time, the things they like, and in the case of a site like Dribbble, the opportunity to see bits of work that didn’t quite make it to the portfolio but might still have merit.

  • Make sure you only list accounts that you’ve been active on in the last few months. I don’t want to see a Behance profile that hasn’t been updated in two years.
  • While there can be some overlap of work on a site like Dribbble or Behance and your portfolio, they should try to show different projects. Social feeds a great for showing stuff that you like but didn’t make the final cut or even explorations you did for work in your main portfolio.
  • Take some time and go through your feeds to make sure there’s nothing in there that you feel might present you in the wrong light. It’s impossible to say how safe you should be, so think about who you’re sending applications to and if they might be shocked to see a photo of you doing a kegstand or lounging with friends in a bikini. Instagram allows you “archive” any photos that might be suspect. This simply takes them out of your feed but they can be returned later if you want.

Think about who you’re sending applications to and if they might be shocked to see a photo of you doing a kegstand.

Don’t forget to follow up

So, you found a place you’re interested in and have applied. Awesome! Now follow-up.

It’s hard to stress how important this step is. Similar to how a cover letter is often used to vet a candidate’s interest in a position, a simple follow-up shows the employer that you’re actually interested in working for them and not just scattershotting applications and resumes all willy-nilly in hopes that someone — ANYONE — will call you back.

And don’t just ask if they got your application. Send a quick email with a mention of a project that you like or a blog post you read, or something they posted on social media. While you’re at it, follow them on social media! In fact, do it now! I regularly look at candidates’ social media profiles and I check to see if they’re following us. Again, most companies get way more applicants than they have room for so they’re going to look for people who are seemingly interested in what they’re doing.

The interview

When it comes to the interview, you’ll likely be asked to talk about some of the work in your portfolio. If they don’t ask about any particular projects, talk about the few you’re most proud of. Be sure to dig even deeper than what you have on the site. Bring in other tidbits about the process, troubles you encountered and how you got over them, and other assorted insights that didn’t make the site. Don’t describe anything they can see and don’t go through every project. If you’re in the interview, they’ve looked at your work already.

Stay positive when presenting your work. Sure, you might not have been responsible for that logo, but this isn’t the time to throw the person that designed it under the bus. If you do want to mention a part of a project that you didn’t work on because you feel isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be simply say something like “My role in this was research, wireframing, and UI design. The illustrations and brand was done by other group members.”

Before the interview, you should put together a list of three or four questions for your potential employer.

There’s also a good chance that you’ll be interviewing for the internship via Google Hangouts or Skype. We’ll be able to see whatever room you’re in, so tidy up a bit and make sure you’ve got good lighting. Also, when talking, look at the camera instead of the screen. It will make you seem much more engaged.

Before the interview, you should put together a list of three or four questions for your potential employer. These can be about the job, their process, past projects or even some logistical things like the exact start date or if they offer a stipend for commuting. Even though you might feel like the interview went amazing, don’t be presumptuous about the position. Never begin a question with “When I start…” Rather use something like “If I were you get the position…”

Again, don’t forget the follow-up. Thank them for taking the time to meet with you and offer to answer any other questions they might have.

In closing

There are likely dozens of applications submitted for every available position, so you’re likely to get a lot of rejection. That’s okay. Use the interviews as practice; an opportunity to just get better at interviewing. Have better answers to questions you’ve heard before, or use past questions as a way of rethinking how you present. Remember to stay positive and be yourself.

Learn more about becoming an apprentice at ICS.