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How to Apply for and Secure an Internship – Especially on an International Playing Field

It’s officially internship season and with many internships being offered to students and graduates by international organisations like Microsoft, Barclays, YWCA, Red Cross and co, it is only right to guide our African applicants on what to do to successfully land one of these internships.

An internship can be the springboard to your dreams learning from top professionals, getting to make a difference in your field and maybe even living in a new city or country. Scoring your dream internship  could even morph into a permanent position. Bet you knew that.

Listen to Ade’s story. Ade, 27 had only interned in a local newspaper while still in school. After graduation, Ade started off a clueless young graduate dreaming of a position at a top accounting job after her  4-year degree. With the only experience auditing for a small newspaper organisation earning a minimum wage, Ade eventually lands a breakthrough internship with zero connections in an international organisation. It worked for Ade.

What did Ade probably do right? What should you do?

1. Open up your mind
There is the obvious difficulty in choosing an internship position over a permanent job. In fact, it is not likely that when you were in school, you ever thought you would be faced with such choice. Your mind was probably set on the biggest paying full-time job ever, but alas, you graduate and discover internships are not bad at all.

For one, keeping your options open to internship positions will help you cast a wider net. It is an opportunity to pick up an experience and put it in your bag of “skills and experiences acquired”.

Keeping an open mind can help you figure out what kind of jobs are good fits for you. Internships are great opportunities to experiment, and your dream internship might end up being something you never expected. You don’t know, you may even end up liking the idea of working in an NGO over going after a job in your degree. You may realize that you actually like a small company’s culture, or maybe you’ll realize it’s not for you. You may realise that a country/city and its people aren’t worth the good they’re painted to be or they are much more than. You won’t realise these things if you don’t open up your mind.

2. Decide what type of internship you want, non-paid or paid
The United Nations, is an international body offering various types of aids to countries and their citizens. Many of the internships in Arms of the UN are known to be offered without pay; the justification being that students are working to prove themselves for the future, gaining wide experiences and a very large pool of networks.

Internships, especially in charity organisations like the UN are non-paid but may have some sort of compensation. Meanwhile, internships in the STEM or finance field of some other organisations usually are paid in the form of stipends and the like, so it would be wise to do a bit a research into the details of your desired field.

Whichever internship you choose whether it’s in conventional business related fields such as marketing, retail, finance, research, or sales, or working for NGOs and non-profits in areas like community development, knowledge transfer, or training and development, it’s important to find an environment where you can learn more about an industry or job you’re interested in. An internship at a relatively unknown organisation can be just as worthwhile if you’re given opportunities to learn be directly involved in their business activities.

3. Once you hear, apply 
Internships are offered throughout the year however, most internships are offered from March – July so students can begin the internships from around Summer break. From study on AfterschoolAfrica, these are the peak periods. As soon as you decide on the type of internship, you want to also find out when the deadline to submit an application is and then make sure that you get it in on time. What’s more, you should be meticulous in crafting the application.
Anyway, remember that employers often receive dozens, and in some cases hundreds or even thousands, of applications for their internship positions. The competition is fierce and now is not the time to procrastinate.

4. Prepare to face a panel of interviewers
Remember, the panel will comprise of professionals from different races and educational backgrounds. If it’s going to be an online video/audio interview, then prepare beforehand the right tone of voice and posture. If it’s offline, get settled at the venue early and show premium confidence. Premium. Confidence is a very powerful thing. If you lack enough confidence, practice beforehand or fake it all through. Yes. Avoid being cocky however.
The truth is that most interviewees are going to dress appropriately, and a good number will check out the company website beforehand. If you want to go beyond the shortlist and land the internship, you’ll need to stand out.
  • You need to come across as a person as well as a potential employee. Try to make the interview seem more like a conversation and less like a trial before a judge. Always be positive and friendly. Speak good English.
  • Even though the point of an internship is to get experience that you don’t have, employers still want to know that you can bring something to the table. Speak of your passion and skills you have acquired at past jobs like they are the best thing since slice bread. If you have hard copies of past work, bring them along and be prepared to talk about them.
  •  It’s okay if you haven’t had a job yet. You probably still have experience that you may not be aware of. Ade would have listed her ‘experiences’ as:
    • taken part in a mock investment club,
    • taken special economics classes,
    • scored high marks in finance classes,
    • selected as winner at a Microsoft school contest
If you lack practical experience and participation in clubs or contests is lacking, you might consider talking about your writing ability in which case you probably need to start/volunteer for a blog like TODAY, writing on impactful topics. Writing experience and a proven ability to communicate in an effective manner are both qualities that are desirable where professionals and clients work together every day.
  • Also ask About Full-Time Positions. There is usually no guarantee that an internship will lead to a permanent placement at the company. However, in some cases it may not hurt to ask, either during the interview or once you land the position. In fact, it may be good to ask because it not only conveys your interest in joining the organization on a permanent basis, but it also gives the company some time to consider the possibility of hiring you full-time or creating a new position for you.
  • You are likely going to be asked about how you will be helping your ‘African community’.  If not, still chip that in. Prepare very real, practical answers beforehand. Let your potential employees know this opportunity isn’t for your sake alone but for a whole bunch of people in your community whom you will be helping afterwards. Interviewers from other races like to hear such things.
  • Follow up. It’s always a good idea to send a thank-you email to an interviewer, which means you need to have their email address. Thank them for their time and consideration and carefully reiterate your interest in the position. It won’t make you look desperate; it shows that you care about getting the job.
5. Gather your travel documents
Well, if you know you are on the lookout for internships on the international level, it is important to ensure all travel documents are up to date.  When you eventually get an internship that requires travel, you must possess a valid passport and obtain any necessary visas. Often, the organisation will fund the most economical and direct route airfare from and to your home country, or they may not in whichever case, you may to need have a source of funds for your own welfare. Actually, you must.

Most importantly, keep trying! If you don’t get the internship you want, keep adjusting your approach and applying for other opportunities as they arise. People don’t always get the first internship they apply for; the worst thing you can do to yourself is give up.