Playing to Win: How to Succeed in the Competitive World of Internships

Updated: April 30, 2020

In 2017, over 22,000 eager students applied for accounting powerhouse PwC’s 960 open internship opportunities. For every student who sat down and completed the extensive application process, just one in 20 ended up interning at the professional services firm. And this wasn’t an atypical case—year after year, these prestigious employers receive thousands upon thousands of applications from aspiring interns, keen to get a jump start on their careers and network with the best of ‘em.

That same year, Blizzard, a video game developer and publisher, received over 12,000 applications for 64 open internship positions. For General Motors, the multinational vehicle manufacturer and distributer, it was 11,000 applications for 620 internships. In 2014, bank and finance giant Morgan Stanley received 90,000 applications for 1,000 spots. All told, getting an internship can be harder than getting into an Ivy League college—Harvard has a 4.5% acceptance rate, while Blizzard’s is just 0.5%.

Okay, deep breaths—this isn’t just a litany of discouraging numbers! There’s a simple way to ensure you’re among the gainfully internship-employed—and it’s totally free (though it will cost you some hours). Internships are a numbers game, so if you want an internship, you need to up your applications.

  1. Start by applying to around 20 internships—and apply early. It’s fine to pull an all-nighter to get that essay out the door moments before the deadline, but internships don’t work that way. For many of the most competitive opportunities, employers look at applications in the order they were received. You want to be among their first applicants.
  2. Give yourself about two weeks to hear back from your potential employers, and then recalibrate based on how many responses you’ve received. Feel free to follow up with the hiring manager if there’s a role you’re extra excited about.
  3. Apply to another five jobs. 75% of applicants never hear back from the employer after applying for a role, so don’t wait up. By steadily applying to a few every week, you’ll have a consistent stream of possibilities and avoid being devastated when one doesn’t work out. Along the way, keep this in mind: don’t just go for that summer internship. The intimidating stats above come from summer placements, the most competitive internship category. Apply to internships across companies and across seasons for more options and a greater likelihood of success.
  4. Continue applying until you receive and sign that offer letter! Things can, and do, fall through, so it’s vital to keep your options open.

And one more thing: don’t limit yourself to just those companies with name recognition and shiny perks. It’s easy to become fixated on getting an internship at a Big Four accounting firm or a trendy tech company, but those legendary orgs are also the places receiving the most applications. Don’t get us wrong: it’s always a good idea to apply! But according to NACE’s Recruiting Trends report for 2017–2018, a full 60 percent of those employers offering internships are seeking 10 or fewer interns. So in addition to those most highly coveted companies, think small, think local, and think outside the Fortune 500 box.

TL;DR: The trick to guaranteeing that you get an internship is simple—cast a wide net early on; don’t limit yourself; and apply, apply, apply. And when you’re done? Apply to one more, just to be safe.