How I Applied to 200 Internships and Came Out with 3 Fortune 500 Offers
You might either be reading this because you’re desperate for an internship next summer, or maybe even a recruiter looking to hire some ambitious kids (please hire me). If you’re the first, then I hope this semi-short guide can help provide some comfort and direction. If you’re the latter, then please do continue to read to get a better sense of the struggle students go through just to work 40 hours a week in the summer- because internships are life or death. Just kidding of course! There’s more to life than that (but not really).
I wrote a similar “Survival Guide” inspired by my favorite Nickelodeon show, when all I was concerned about was Coconut Head’s hair. If you know any high school students, specifically rising seniors, share this guide with them! It gives an accurate timeline of the college application process and some stories that make the all too familiar experience a little more bearable. I wanted to write these because it was a way to share what I wish I had known during the process. The table of contents is at the bottom of this document.
For starters: I am not a 4.0 student. I don’t attend an Ivy League. I haven’t invented a social enterprise that makes toilet water drinkable or created the next big coding camp. I’m honestly pretty average (college really showed me that). What differentiates me is my passion and diverse experience.
I’m a student in the World Bachelor in Business Program where I will graduate with three business administration degrees from the University of Southern California, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Bocconi University in Milan. I’m extremely grateful to be a part of my number one choice program (for more on that you can read my first guide). Since I’m a business student, a lot of this essay will pertain to mostly other business students, but there are many aspects such as interview tips and cover letter guidelines that can be applied to all majors! So keep reading on.
What are you good at?
Since the day I traded penny stocks in 5th grade for “money” that I could use to buy old bags of crayons, I knew that sales and trading was for me. Actually, I remember at nine years old I made my own personalized bookmark business with some classmates where we even sold to the middle schoolers (you’re supposed to gasp, it was a big deal at the time). That was definitely when I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. During my yearbook class in eighth grade, the graphic design bug bit me when I first used Adobe Illustrator in and I found my passion. Additionally, my last two years in high school I was president of multiple clubs and learned that I was great at managing projects, which is when I thought working in operations would be the perfect career.
The point of highlighting these events is to show you how you can have multiple talents or hobbies and create so many different opportunities with your skills. It’s extremely hard to narrow your talents down to one internship and potentially post-graduation career. That’s why taking classes, joining clubs, attending workshops, and any other unpaid internship or summer job you can get is extremely valuable. It’s all about finding what you don’t like, getting to know people in the profession, and finding out what you really excel at. It’s also key to note that your career path will always be changing. You never know what position or city you might end up in.
I’ve had a total of 12 jobs and internships all before my 3rd year of university. I worked at the typical tutoring center Kumon in high school and then as a social media director at a local boutique. These two jobs in high school came from showing a persistent interest in working for that employer. I mentioned to my old teacher at Kumon that I was looking for a job and loved tutoring. I didn’t absolutely love kids, but the job made me realize how important patience and staying positive was, especially when teaching kids how to add single digits.For the social media job, I had a friend who interned there the summer before and asked if she needed a replacement. I proved myself to the owner by showing some simple business projects from high school and my desire to work in the fashion industry, specifically marketing, and she was impressed.
My first year at USC, my goal was to get an internship in fashion. I ended up working two unpaid internships in the fall (I was paying for my rush hour Ubers to my unpaid job). It was such a great experience to know what it was like to really intern in the fashion industry (tough, lonely, and competitive). I found my internships at Paige Denim and Rachel Zoe Media through USC alum. Talking to your alum, even though it’s daunting, it’s extremely beneficial. The majority of people get their jobs or internships through purely connections. Your alum are there to help you so make sure to always check out any on campus events where you can meet them and try to squeeze in some one on one time to tell them more about yourself and what you’re looking for. I couldn’t be happier to have achieved my goal. I was determined the semester after to continue working and was able to work as the graphic design assistant at USC’s Journalism School for study abroad programs. I picked up another design internship at a Los Angeles based fashion magazine that semester too. For three consecutive years I worked in logistics and sales at Nordstrom where I get most of my interview answers. I fulfilled online orders by running around the store grabbing clothes and was a sales person working on commission. My summers were filled with a lot of “Hi! How’s your day going!” and grinning so much my face was sore. Since then I’ve had a variety of graphic design and marketing internships to keep myself busy in the summers and make some money to pay for school.
Despite all that, I still love so many different industries and positions, so I applied to everything I would be happy to do in my summer before senior year. The title of this essay is not an exaggeration. I really did apply to more than 200 positions between September and November. I wish there were multiples of me so that I could do it all. My dream role would be to blend technology, fashion, marketing, finance, digital design, and sales all in one position (and then later becoming CEO of my own company, of course).
Since I applied to so many different industries without much direction or experience of the recruitment process at all, I missed some important deadlines and I hope by reading this, you won’t make the same mistake I did. Banking recruitment for the US starts in March of your sophomore year for the penultimate year internships which is crazy early. Most people will have an internship secured for next summer before they’ve even started their junior year (damn lucky). European banking recruitment starts in September so if you miss the US ones like I did, you can still apply to London offices. Software engineer applications open from summer until November. Consulting applications come out in January.
All my friends were applying to investment banking and to be honest I didn’t know much about it. I just knew that my stepmom worked at a famous bank (also known as a Bulge Bracket similar to the Big Four nickname) in something called derivatives and my dad worked in media and finance. I got wrapped up in all the banking applications, but I applied to a different division which was Sales & Trading. There are so many divisions that they all sound the same, but I can definitely tell you they are very different. It’s also important to apply to the same type of role at one company, otherwise HR will think you’re just applying for the sake of applying and will not move forward with your app. For example you can apply to Investment banking at JP at the SF, LA, and NY offices but not a different position for every city. You can also apply to all at one bank and then wealth management at a different bank. The advantages to applying to smaller divisions is that less people apply and you might have a better chance at getting an interview. Many people will start in smaller divisions or not in the exact field they wanted to initially be in, but eventually will find their way to the position they want. Right after you apply to any bank, they will ask you to complete multiple online tests: numerical, behavioral, situational and it can range from 20 minutes to 2 hours. You can usually look up practice versions of the test if they don’t attach it to the email. Make sure to get them done ASAP because like applications, you might not explicitly be told when the completion deadline is. I was being careless and let my Morgan Stanley tests just sit there and I ended up missing the window to take them. Thankfully, the HR department was nice enough to reset the tests for me, but don’t bet on that!
As for everything else not in finance, you have to check between fall and February. Some companies like LinkedIn or Facebook won’t release their internships until departments have been given their budgets. Many internships won’t have application deadlines so it’s important to not just think “Oh it’ll be open for awhile” because you’ll 100% forget (even if you have it bookmarked). Do the application when you see it, especially if it’s a rolling basis like banking, Google, or Bloomberg. Rolling apps are first come first serve and you don’t want to cut yourself short. Prioritize applying if getting an internship is important to you.
LinkedIn is a great place to look for internships, along with Indeed, WayUp, Stella, Glassdoor (also a good place to find company specific interview questions), and your own university career portal. Let your friends know what you’re interested in and they can send you any positions that would fit you. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, take advantage of company specific programs for your grade level. For example banks have a variety of conferences or internships only for underclassmen. It’s a really good head start and I’ll tell you now that it’s difficult to impossible for underclassmen to get internships meant for penultimate students (I’ve tried).
Resumes and Cover Letters
There are two different resume formats: professional and creative. Professional resumes should follow the template your university provided you or the basic Word document ones. These can be used for finance, corporate positions, most business development internships, large media companies, and PR firms. Creative resumes resemble the “unique” ones you see on Pinterest or Linkedin where people are trying to sell their templates and they often have color or a picture, basically the more aesthetic looking resumes. These should only be used for design internships or anything on the creative side. If you’re applying to a newer company you can also use the creative resume. You can find my resumes on my website or LinkedIn for examples.
Regardless if it’s a professional or creative resume there are basic rules you should follow. If you’re a third year or older, take off all your highschool information or experience (unless you went to a famous private or public school). All bullet points should be no more than one line and must have numerical values or quantifiable results. These bullet points say “I did A by doing B and the result was C”. Each role should have 2–3 bullet points. You are not required to put your GPA on your resume. If you have a 3.6 or above then go ahead (and congrats for going to class). Definitely include your college extracurriculars if you have any, even if you’re just a member. Employers want to see that you’re more than just a student and will ask how you’re involved on campus. Always write in the past tense.
I have one cover letter. The thing about cover letters is that you have to tailor it to every single company. You need to make sure you always have the right company name and role. I change one paragraph on every cover letter by talking about the company’s mission, values, and why I want to work there. The format of my cover letter: 1. Introduces who I am and what the role is 2. Why I want to work at the company and how it relates to my goals 3. My past experience and how it will help me at this internship 4. How my skills or school activities will benefit me at this internship. You can see that the format is specific to the internship and you always want to make sure you bring it back to the company and illustrate what you can do for them. Some companies don’t even read cover letters but you should always make sure it’s perfect. The trick to this is having a solid foundational cover letter or creating a separate page where you have different paragraphs saved and you can “build your own cover letter” basically. I have a few friends who did the latter and found it very efficient and useful. The application process is so tedious that any bit where you can “work smarter” (sorry, bringing that line back from all our AP Calc days) will really help you.
Make sure to take advantage of all the career services your school provides you from arranging coffee chats, to resume workshops, and most importantly career fairs and networking events. Many companies will mainly hire from on-campus recruitment like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing. Talking to these recruiters in person and getting your face and name out there really does make a difference.
Keep track of the positions you’re applying to on a spreadsheet so you can remember where you’re at in the process or in case you forget to apply to something. I organized mine by company, city, position, rejection (so many), date applied, and then added the link if it was something to check in on later.
Network for the Networth
These networking events can feel so awkward and forced. I know exactly how weird and uncomfortable it can be. The employees know you want a job and you know that every other student there will talk themselves up to get one. It’s important to be yourself and ask thoughtful, insightful questions. These questions can also be personable like “How did you end up at Company X?”, “What is your favorite thing about Company Y?”, “How would you describe the company culture and how did you know you fit in?”. If you want to take it to the next level, mention a recent deal or announcement the company made and ask them what they think about it. Once you get warmed up your nerves will settle down and it feels a lot more casual and natural. It’s completely okay to talk about extremely day to day things like the most recent football game or recommended places to ski.
Always be polite if you’re huddled in a group of people and let others ask their questions. It’s also important to bounce around the room and try to meet as many people as you can. Talking to the HR staff is also beneficial with specific questions regarding the recruitment process or the internship timeline since they can answer it directly.
These people want to meet their next group of new hires and want to like them. They want people they wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator with or working on a time consuming project. Be interesting, polite, and friendly.
Research and Become the Best Damn Storyteller
Before any Hirevue (pre-recorded video interviews), phone call, or in-person interview, the number one thing to do is to prep. Spend at least an hour or more researching the company’s history, products, careers, special diversity programs, and recent news. Also, many pre-recorded video interviews are not watched by real people. AI scans them and they look for inflections in your voice, eye contact, buzzwords, and the tone of your voice so keep that in account. Work on the most common behavioral and motivational interview questions and take the time to write or type your answers with specific stories from your experiences. I have a notebook filled with company research and answered interview questions (the other half is just pages filled with my signature). You’ll find that many company values tend to be the same. They put customers first, support innovation, give back to their communities, and look up to efficiency and transparency. For me, writing the answer down really lets you tell the story in your voice and you want to try to answer it in a STAR format: situation, task, action, result. The most common questions you will always be asked no matter the industry or position are:
- Walk me through your resume
- Tell me about yourself
- Why do you want to work for us?
- Tell me about a time you had to lead
- Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult problem or co-worker
- Strengths and Weaknesses (never say you work too hard or you’re a perfectionist)
- Tell me about a time you worked on a team
- Tell me about a time you went above and beyond
- Tell me about a time you managed difficult deadlines or projects
You can find more by just searching online to practice, but all questions will be derivations of these. It’s important to nail your answers to these repetitive questions and really bring it back to the company values and how it’s related to the position you’re applying for. You can go on Glassdoor or reach out to people who have interviewed for the company before and prepare yourself for those company specific questions. Looking up questions distinct to the position, like Program Manager, really helped me. There are so many free resources online that are easy to read, make sure to take advantage of them because there’s a 90% chance that the exact questions you looked up with the answers written out for you will be asked. It’s also important to give everything your own personal twist and make it show your personality and why you should be hired. Interview as if there are 100 other applicants just as qualified as you (in reality, there are thousands).
I can only speak personally for business technical questions, but I know for engineering internships a lot of the prep you need to do is self-taught. Be sure to go beyond what you learn in class and prepare to complete many tough coding challenges as the first phase.
Now for banking technical questions, it’s an entirely different world especially if you haven’t taken a finance or accounting course before. Interviews will start by asking you about yourself, but then dive right into a speed round of technical questions one after the other. If you take too long to answer, the interviewer will most likely cut you off and ask the next question. You want to be concise and specific in your answers which requires research and learning. Investment banking questions will ask you all about DCFs (what’s a DCF? Don’t know? Wall Street Oasis will be your best friend for studying specific terms), how to value a company, financial models, and M&As. For sales and trading it’s very market focused. You need to be on top of your news, all the latest political and business meltdowns and announcements and find out how it relates to the stock market and the company you’re interviewing for. Some quality finance movies to get you in the mood are The Big Short and Too Big to Fail. A lot of companies, specifically consulting, will ask you brain teasers like “How many balloons can you fit into an airplane?”. The interviewer wants to see how you think and attack convoluted questions. Make sure to take your time and ask questions (if you’re allowed to) so you can get a bigger picture in a reasonable manner.
I attended three different assessment centers (I had to miss my finance final for one) and it was super nerve wracking. I went for Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, and American Express (all London). Assessment centers (super days) are where the company will invite you to their office (they’ll fly and house you if you’re not local) with a handful of other candidates for a speed round of interviews. ACs last 5–8 hour where you run through motivational, behavioral, and technical interviews, and a group or case presentation. It’s extremely intimidating and feels like you’re in a big of a social experiment, but I found myself relaxing after talking to the other students. In group situations, there will be interviewers watching you at the end of the table to see how you work with others, how much you speak, how organized you are, and how much you’re contributing. You never want to be the bossy leader and telling everyone what to do (but tell a few people what to do). You want to show that you’re collaborative and encourage other people to share their ideas. Try to be the second loudest person in the room. Be confident, energetic, and flexible!
After every interview, no matter the round, always send a thank you email (a card if it’s a final round and you don’t think it will get lost). It’s a great way for the interviewer or HR representative to remember your name and to show you really care about this position. Try to mention something specific from your interview in the message so it doesn’t feel like a mass copy and paste.
A classmate of mine hadn’t heard back from his J.P.Morgan assessment center in a week and already knew someone who had an offer. He sent an email and they told him that they were a bit on the fence about him and gave him a supplemental interview on the spot. He was offered the internship right after.
For one of my internships I hadn’t heard back from American Express since my assessment center in London, but I knew someone who had an offer. I was extremely sad because that most likely meant that I didn’t get the internship, given there were only four open spots. I sent an email to the HR team since it had been awhile and I hadn’t heard any good or bad news. I received an email the next day saying they had been trying to call me for a few days but were unable to connect to my US phone number but wanted to offer me the position. Best Christmas gift I could ever ask for.
The point of these two stories is to show you the importance of following up, especially after final round interviews. I can’t guarantee that every time you follow-up you’ll get an offer (I wish it were that easy) but it will make you feel a little bit better about the job knowing you did everything you possibly could for it. If you can, try to write down the names of your interviewers so you can address them in your memo.
Fast forward a few months and congratulations! After countless “Thank you for your application” and “We regret to inform you” emails, you have an offer. Here’s some advice on how to get that return offer if you feel like this company fits you!
Network for the Networth Part 2
This internship opportunity is for you to get a feel for the company culture, your team, and the work environment. Start introducing yourself to more than just the people on your team and reach out to different departments, especially if you’re interested in eventually changing departments. The employer wants to see that you’re invested in this company and the people. Ask if you could grab coffee with someone even if it’s just for 20 minutes and learn a bit more about their career path and their current projects. The more relationships you build, the better your experience will be and hopefully these individuals will remember you when it comes time to hand out full time offers. You always want to be genuine and respectful of everyone’s time and professions.
Your internship will probably set you up with a mentor so use them to your full advantage! Ask questions and really get to know them on a personal level along with your fellow interns. You’re going to be spending most of your summer here so you might as well get comfortable.
Don’t Screw Up
As with any job or internship, you want to make sure you know what is expected of you in terms of deadlines, milestones, check-ins, and presentation. The root of most issues is miscommunication. It doesn’t hurt to double check what your manager wants or when it’s due, but it will hurt when you’re late or submit an entirely wrong project. You’re at work, so be professional even if it’s a casual space. People are taking notes on how you work so make sure they’re good ones. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, it will save you a lot of stress in the long run.
If you ever finish your work early, ask your manager or desk mates if they need help with anything else. Be proactive and excited to do your job. However, you don’t want to just rush through your projects and submit average work. You want to make sure your work is of highest quality. Look at quantity and quality! To show you’re a team player and someone who’s on top of the ball, support the rest of your coworkers with their workload and be ahead of the game.
My Rollercoaster of an Experience
People will tell you to not stress out and calm down during this whole process and I would say the same, but I know you probably can’t because I couldn’t either. I’ll never forget that after one of my phone interviews with Morgan Stanley, I forgot to ask for the guy’s email and therefore couldn’t send a follow-up. I was so upset and sure that I wasn’t going to make it to the next round that I started crying (a mix of stress and not sleeping the night before because I was preparing for the interview). In the end, I went through to AC for that position and not getting his email didn’t affect the process at all.
I would get so agitated when people told me “it’s not a big deal” because it is. It’s important to know though that there’s a certain point where you can’t do anything else. You’ve applied to everything possible, you put you’re all into the interviews, and now you just have to wait. The success will come eventually as you continue to work hard and stay focused on your goals. It gets really tough when your friends and peers start getting their dream internships or people who are unqualified get offers because of their connections and you don’t have anything. I swear, looking at LinkedIn made me more self conscious and depressed than Instagram. I remember getting into such horrible moods because I was being constantly reminded that I didn’t have an internship and would graduate college without a job (me being over dramatic as usual). If I could, I would’ve told myself to “Keep your head up and stay focused on your path. Everything will be alright”. But I probably wouldn’t have listened.
I guess it’s time to share what I’m doing next summer! I’ll start from the beginning. I applied to over 200 internships. I know, I’m crazy. My Google Sheet is filled with mostly “X”s for rejections, but there are three positions highlighted in green: American Express London Marketing, Estee Lauder Companies New York Digital Design, and Adobe Systems San Jose Program Management. They’re all super different and in cities I would love to live in. I could not be happier. I went to an AC for Morgan Stanley in London but didn’t get the offer. Even though I didn’t get the MS offer, it was one of the best learning experiences I could ever ask for. I was challenged with questions I had never been asked and saw my true reaction to an unknown and stressful situation. I also met so many interesting and just as motivated students who I still keep in touch with now! I was also invited to an AC for J.P. Morgan but it was after my deadline to accept my current offers so I didn’t attend. Do not sign a contract and then drop it for a “better” offer. It ruins your reputation before you’ve even started to make one. Anyways, I honest to god thought I was going to be jobless this summer, but now I get to start 2019 with not one, but three offers. My friends and family can tell you that I was legitimately losing my mind the entire fall (which is not how you should be).
Estee Lauder Companies is constantly awarded one of the best places for women to work every year. This parent company owns almost everything that any woman has in their bathroom and more. I have been obsessed with working in fashion and beauty since middle school when I wanted to work at Vogue Magazine under Conde Nast as a magazine editor. I would buy all the magazines from my grocery store and attempt to email the editors in horrible and grammatically wrong english begging them to hire a 13 year old. I had two phone interviews with Estee Lauder and really connected with them. The company culture feels like a family and all the departments are integrated with each other. My phone interviews went well and I made sure to send thank you emails. They gave out four digital design offers.
American Express has been a family favorite of mine since I was a baby since my Grandma used her Costco card to buy cases of Kraft mac n cheese. I loved the AMEX ads and their customer service. Nordstrom has forever instilled the value of always putting the customer first no matter what in me and AMEX does just that. I completed a math and logic test (that seemed never ending honestly), Hirevue interview, and then an AC with 2 behavioral and motivational interviews, a group case, and an individual case presentation. They gave out four marketing offers and told us, a group of 11, that they had hundreds and hundreds of applications before the AC. We also had a chance to network with previous interns who were now working full time at AMEX which was really cool. They were extremely candid about their experience at the company which I appreciated. I missed my finance final for this super day but it was worth it.
Technology has been the industry I’ve always wanted to work in but I wanted to get some finance experience which is why I applied to banks at first. My interview with Adobe actually started off with me receiving a phone call from some random number +352. I didn’t answer because I thought it was a scam, but then I listened to the voicemail and it was from a recruiter at Adobe asking if I wanted an interview within the next five days. She didn’t leave a phone number to call back but said she’d send me an email later that night with more info. Two days passed by and I got pretty anxious since I hadn’t heard anything. There was no way for me to contact Adobe and I couldn’t find a general HR email online. She left her name so I Googled it and found a bunch of different profiles. Eventually I found one that seemed like the right person and added her on LinkedIn with a message mentioning the phone call I had received. For good measure (and my OCD), I reached out to my friend who interned at Adobe last summer and asked if he could find the HR rep’s email. I sent her an email and got one back right away but it said I had emailed the wrong contact. At this point I sort of gave up because I already exhausted all my resources to find this one person who called me and just had to wait and see if they might email me later.
The next day I got an email from the HR rep saying she had heard I was trying to reach her from a colleague and set me up for an interview! I couldn’t be more relieved. I had a phone interview and then I made it to the final round which was a video panel interview. The interviewers were so nice and honest about their life at Adobe. They mentioned that this certain type of job found the person, not the other way around and I felt exactly that. The position sounded like it was made for me and let alone at an amazing company that I’ve admired since I was in middle school. They mentioned that they’d only be taking one intern so I immediately got worried because one intern out of hundreds of candidates? It seemed impossible. I hadn’t heard back from the interview in a week or two and was getting anxious as the new year approached. I emailed the HR contact I was speaking with but got a bounce back saying the whole company was on break for the holidays. I needed to let my other offers know by a certain date and got extremely nervous. I emailed a few other HR individuals just in case they check their email over break and luckily one of them did. I got a call on a Sunday, right before New Years Eve, and she told me that I would be receiving an offer call very soon. A big takeaway from this story is to again, always follow up. I never would have gotten that initial phone interview had I not scoured the internet for that one lady who left me a voicemail from what I thought to be a scam phone call.
I’ll be with Adobe this summer and couldn’t be more excited. This whole internship process is just like college applications again. To quote my first guide, it’s a crapshoot. Your resume will go into the black hole of discarded resumes 80% of the time and you’ll never hear back from most of the places you apply to (c’mon at least send me a rejection email!). It’s important to stay organized, focused, and have faith in yourself! I’m extremely lucky to have supportive friends who were always there to hype me up when I was at my worst. I hope that this guide helps you and is the comfort and encouragement you need. If there’s one cliche thing you take away from this, it’s to never stop believing in yourself and also work hard, play hard. We are college students after all ;)