Today I spoke at the University of New Orleans’ Third Wednesday series on how to score internships and turn them into paying gigs. Here’s the gist of what I said.
First, the actual application process. Give your potential supervisor exactly what he or she is asking for. Usually, this will be a resume and clips. Go through your hard drive and find pieces you’ve written that mirror the tone and subject material of the publication you’d like to work for. From potential Gambit interns, I like to see news pieces that include quotes from sources. This tells me you know how to conduct an interview.
Also, it really, REALLY helps if you’re familiar with AP style. Get the handbook and prepare all your correspondence and interview materials accordingly.
Don’t have clips? That’s OK! Everyone has to start somewhere. I really just want to see what your writing ability is like. Polish up some papers or assignments or blog entries and send them to me. Again, these are most helpful if they mirror the type of assignments you would be completing for the paper. Backing up a little bit: MAKE SURE YOU READ THE PAPER REGULARLY!
The cover letter is pretty standard; just about any book on cover letters will give you solid advice. I’m mostly concerned with your clips. If you have any publication history or you’ve done internships before, highlight that. If you have a strong social media presence, include your website/blog/Twitter handle.
At the interview: WEAR A SUIT. You can’t go wrong in a suit. Besides, nobody expects a college student to even own a suit, so your interviewer will automatically be impressed. A suit is an easy way to gain points, plain and simple. Bring your resume. And be prepared to remind your interviewer who you are and why you’re right for the job, because editors exist in an unending crossfire of deadlines and may have forgotten why they wanted you to interview in the first place.
Congrats! You scored the internship. Now BE PROACTIVE. What does that mean? Being proactive means coming up with story ideas. I like getting pitches, but ask your supervisor first if it’s OK to pitch stories. Make sure they fit the magazine’s topics. I like it when interns send me a short write-up of a potential feature along with a photo or link to a website. Being proactive also means staying busy. There may be times when you don’t have much to do. The golden words during those times: “CAN I HELP YOU WITH ANYTHING?” Ask for work if you don’t have it. Ask for features you’d like to do. Pitch compelling ideas your editor can’t say no to. And don’t ever let your supervisor do work in your presence. Like, if she’s making copies, be all, “OH, LET ME DO THAT FOR YOU, PLEASE.”
Make the internship a priority. Treat it as a job. There are rarely consequences to skipping class or turning a paper in a day late, but in newspaper land, if you miss work or blow a deadline, somebody gets fucked. And that somebody is probably your editor, who will hate you because she now has to do your job for you. Do NOT let this happen.
It’s possible you might have to work your way up with a lot of tedious work. If you’re stuck doing something tedious like fact-checking or taping the bottom of shoes at a photo shoot, DO THE BEST DAMN JOB YOU CAN. If you prove yourself with taking care of details in the little assignments, your editor will trust you with bigger ones later down the line.
Your internship is winding down. Congrats! Now you’d like to move on to paid work for the paper. Ask and ye shall receive! When I was nearing the end of my internship, I wanted to throw up when I thought about asking to stay on as a freelance writer. It took two days for me to summon the nerve to approach the managing editor. My line was this: “My internship ends Friday, and I’d like to do some freelance work, if you have any.” She was like, oh sure, fill out these forms. It wasn’t even a big deal.
The best news is, being a good freelancer is the same as being a good intern. Pitch those stories! Meet those deadlines! Polish that AP-style prose! And I promise you, you’ll be ahead of 90 percent of your competition.