How to get your first internship in tech

Alex Allain
Oct 13, 2019 · 4 min read

Having interned at a well known tech company is a major plus that will help you stand out and get the next internship. But what if you don’t have that first internship? How do you get it?

Well, how does tech company campus recruiting work?

Tech companies go to college campuses with the goal of interviewing as many qualified people as possible, but they can only interview a limited number of people. So the name of the game here (assuming you can hack through the interviews) is to get your foot in the interview door. This means you need to stand out in a sea of resumes.

How do you do that?

  • Resume builders
  • Networking

Resume builders

Resume builders are things that few people have on their resume — impressive awards, a portfolio of sophisticated personal projects, teaching appointments/being part of a course staff, significant open source contributions, etc. They generally should be either directly related to, or adjacent to, your field.

If you can get a personal project off the ground and get some real traction — e.g. app store downloads, meaningful web traffic, etc — that will get noticed because delivering customer value is the ultimate challenge for most tech companies and this shows you can do it all.

Networking

The other avenue is networking. To understand how this works, it helps to know a few things about how tech company campus recruiting generally works.

Tech companies send delegations to campuses to:

  • Give tech talks
  • Host booths at career fairs
  • Find the best students recommended by professors and previous interns

To win at this game, leverage all three of these avenues to stand out.

Attend tech talks and talk to the speaker afterward

You go to the tech talk not (just) to listen to the content of the talk but to meet the engineers at the company. Go early and talk to the speaker; stay after and ask questions about the talk. More importantly, ask questions about the speaker — their experience, what they like about the company, and what tips they have for succeeding in the interview process. Remember: they want to hire people, so they are very happy to tell you everything they can that will help you (short of giving away questions and answers).

Have your resume with you so they put a face to the name. While this won’t guarantee you an interview, in a sea of resumes, it will help you stand out. It’s surprising how relatively few people stick around after talks.

Use career fairs to practice (but don’t expect much)

Career fairs can be exhausting and overwhelming for both students and companies. This means that they are not likely to be your primary source of interviews. Companies meet hundreds of students, and it’s rare that you get a lot of time with an employee of a company. They often need to get through a long line of students and will have stock answers.

However, the career fair is a chance to practice the kinds of interactions you want to have at tech talks or during other parts of the interview process — at best, you might get lucky and stand out; at worst, you’ve gotten in some reps to practice what you’ll need to do when you attend tech talks and when you land the interview.

Be someone others want to recommend

This is the turbo-charged way to stand out to recruiters. You want them to come to you, rather than you going to them. The way to do this is to stand out to your peers, particularly your peers who have previous internships (i.e. upperclassmen a few years ahead of you) or professors connected to tech companies. (This, in fact, was how I ended up in my first job out of college.)

There are all sorts of ways to do this, but most of them amount to getting involved in campus activities that expose you to these groups — clubs, particularly those that do real project work together, taking classes with group assignments where you can stand out as a great partner, helping a professor with their research, or joining the course staff for an introductory class are all ways you can meet the people who will be able to help you.

Again, it helps to remember the incentives here — companies value references from people they trust; the students (or professors) referring you want to help both you and the company. If they can share a great candidate with the company, that’s a great reputation builder for them too. So it’s a win for everyone.

None of these approaches are guarantees — you should still do all the typical things people suggest like pounding the pavement to apply to multiple jobs, being persistent, etc — but knowing how the campus recruiting game is played can help you maximize your opportunities.

Bonus: what about the second internship?

Once you’ve gotten that first internship, you’re in a much better position to get the next one. Ideally, to keep on schedule you’d land your first internship sophomore year and parlay that into a second internship (ideally at another company) that results in an offer to return for a full time position. Now, you’re in great shape going into senior year — you can interview and build your options without the stress, and you have a great baseline for comparison.

If you fall off this track, double down on the above techniques and be ready to explain how your sophomore summer experiences translate into the skills you’ll need on the job.

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