personal finance

The Pandemic Made Internships Hypercompetitive

Source: Derek Yeo

Landing a college internship has always been competitive for students but when the pandemic hit and employers canceled their internship programs or made them virtual, that made it even harder.

Internships are crucial for students – it's one of the primary ways for us to make connections that will help land our first job out of college. So, the pandemic left students scrambling – trying to salvage an internship opportunity or find another route to their first job.

"I never heard back, or I heard back months later saying they weren't offering the program anymore due to the pandemic," said Amanda Yeo, who graduated from The College of William and Mary in the Class of 2021.

Internships were canceled

At the height of the pandemic last year, half of all internship opportunities had been canceled, according to job site Glassdoor. The ones that weren't canceled were mostly virtual and some were unpaid. By spring 2021, just 22% of students said they'd had an internship during the school year and only half of those said they were in-person, according to research from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The competition for internships was intensified by the fact that you had all of the students who didn't get an internship last year applying at the same time as students who would normally be looking for internships this year – and there were fewer of them to go around.

Yeo did land an internship but then it was shortened, moved online and unpaid.

"I was offered an NSF [National Science Foundation]-funded REU [research experience for undergraduates] for the summer of 2020, working at University of Florida's Whitney Laboratory. However, due to the fact that [they] couldn't safely be in laboratories or in person, my 8-week internship was canceled and modified to an optional unpaid 2-week online-coding certification. The lab said that they were unable to offer me the same experience virtually, so that is the reason the internship was canceled." 

More than one-third of internships are unpaid and online positions are actually more likely to be unpaid – 42% vs 35% for in-person positions, according to that University of Wisconsin-Madison study.

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Yeo decided to use the extra time wisely: She took a coding class and became proficient in the computer language Perl. She was also able to do some research and finish her honors thesis. She updated her resume with these new skills and accomplishments, which she believes helped her land a competitive position.

The NSF created a new program to give advisors the ability to hire recent graduates to do research for up to a year cost-free to them.

"Through this new program, I was offered an opportunity to work at the lab in Florida," said Yeo.

It was hard to stay motivated

Firaol Ensermu, a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University majoring in computer science, said he applied for 10 internships and had some back-and-forth with recruiters but ultimately wasn't offered an internship. He admits that made it hard to stay motivated and keep at it.

"I was starting to lack perseverance and ended up halting the application processes," Ensermu said. "I gave up due to the difficulty and lack of response from some companies." But, he promised himself that he would start applying once he was more confident in his experience.

Firaol Ensermu is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, who is studying computer science.
Source: Firaol Ensermu
Firaol Ensermu is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, who is studying computer science.

So, his strategy was "to gain more experience and then start applying." He took a professional development course for internship and job preparation.  The course allowed him to better understand the work environment and hear experiences from employees at various companies.  Additionally, he was able to formalize a cover letter, build his resume, and gained hands-on experience with Handshake and LinkedIn.

Now, he's back at it. Ensermu said he knows the type of company he'd like to work for but he's casting a wide net to try to make sure he lands an internship. He thinks the fact that a lot companies are offering remote internships will help him find a position.

Hard to network virtually

For those students who were lucky enough to get virtual internships, there was a new challenge: Trying to connect with colleagues and network while you're stuck at home.

"Whenever I have an internship experience, the thing I look forward to the most is being in the office or field," said Kate Preston, who recently graduated from the University of Missouri, with a master's degree in agricultural education, communications and leadership. "You really get a feeling of the office culture by being in-person with colleagues."

Kate Preston graduated from the University of Missouri in 2021 with a master's degree in agricultural education, communications and leadership.
Source: Kate Preston
Kate Preston graduated from the University of Missouri in 2021 with a master's degree in agricultural education, communications and leadership.

With the pandemic, suddenly that wasn't possible.

Preston found it difficult to "read the room" while doing job interviews via Zoom.  Many required presentations that contributed to her performance anxiety. She said she couldn't tell if they were understanding what she was presenting, liking or disliking what she was saying or actively listening and receiving her presentation.

Experts say that is totally normal with online interviews.

 "Online interviewing tends to make people more nervous because they don't get the same level of in-the-moment feedback, which is why mock interviews and practice can make a tremendous difference," said Carolyn Chitwood, director of career education at the University of Arkansas Career Development Center. 

Preston said she's learned to take deep breaths, look directly into the camera, and relax as much as possible. That's helped smooth the awkwardness of online interviews and makes it feel a little more personable.

Some people actually prefer online interviews.

Nearly half (49%) of students said they preferred to do interviews virtually, according to research by job search platform Handshake. And 87% of students said once pandemic restrictions are over, they would still like to have some virtual recruiting.

Women, students of color, and neurodivergent students in particular favored virtual career events and interviews as they are "less anxiety-inducing, easier to balance, and more accessible when compared to meeting with prospective employers in person," said Christine Cruzvergara, vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake.

Despite all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, for some students, it also brought new opportunities.

"Ironically, the fact that my internship got canceled last summer wound up helping me find a job for the upcoming year," Yeo said.

And other students said it helped them adapt to change and disruption better.

"If anything, the pandemic and working virtually has helped me become more adaptable to sticky situations," Preston said. "I think this helped mainly when looking for a job.  Everything was so uncertain, and while initially it was rough, I just got into the mindset of 'This is how the world is right now and all I can do is my best.'"

Tips from the experts

Experts say there are some things you can do to increase your chances of landing an internship in this competitive environment:

1. Network. Invest more time in networking and finding a mentor.

"Making connections with working adults who can offer career advice or introduce students to others in their company can play a major role in discovering professional opportunities," Cruzvergara said.

And, it's also a great idea to stay in touch with classmates and fellow interns – they may be students now but many of them will get jobs and be professional contacts at companies very soon – perhaps companies that you'd like to work for.

2. Use social media. "Never underestimate the power of social media to build relationships online," Cruzvergara said, noting that you can use Handshake's messaging feature to connect with alumni from your university or professionals along the same career path. "They may be able to show you 'what works' in the field — they'll often be the ones reading your resume! Additionally, these connections may lead you to other opportunities not yet listed or areas that you didn't even consider," she added.

3. Learn new skills. This is something you can easily be doing while you're looking for your next internship.

"Depending on your professional goals, you might want to polish up your marketing skills, learn to code, or gain knowledge about financial markets," Cruzvergara said. "Online learning platforms like Coursera, General Assembly, and Udemy offer free online courses for whichever skills you're motivated to learn."

Chitwood also suggested learning new languages or skills through sites like DuoLingo or GitHub, participating in competitions, reaching out to local nonprofits and businesses that you might be able to help or look to do something entrepreneurial.

4. Do your homework before an interview. "Research the company and job," Chitwood advised. "Use the job description like a blueprint; be ready to talk (with examples and specifics!) about how you fit the requirements and necessary skills for the position. Have questions for the interviewer written out ahead of time so you show you're prepared. Follow up with a thank you." 

And, dress professionally from head to toe for the interview, Chitwood said — even if you're on a Zoom call. First, it shows you have respect for the company. And second, you'll feel more prepared and confident.

CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Allison Martin is a summer 2021 intern with CNBC's product and technology team. She is a rising senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing a dual degree program in computer science with a concentration in data science, and psychology with a double minor in actuarial science and mathematics. Her mentor is Jenna Goudreau. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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