So you want an internship? Crack the online application form
If you want an internship with a large organisation you are likely to have to apply online. Sometimes this involves providing basic details and uploading a CV and covering letter but in many cases there are in-depth questions about your motivation, skills and past experience. These may even be the same as for applicants to graduate schemes as, after all, employers often use internships as a pipeline to their graduate scheme.
Classic questions on internship application forms
Many online applications ask a number of ‘competency’ questions, in which you need to give a real-life example of a time when you have demonstrated a particular skill or accomplished a particular achievement. Simple examples include:
- Give an example of a time when you worked as part of a team.
- Give an example of a time when you overcame a challenge.
- Give an example of a time when you brought about an improvement.
More complex questions on internship application forms include:
- Give an example of a time when you increased profits.
- Give an example of a time when you delivered outstanding customer service.
- How does your passion and motivation set you apart from your peers?
- Describe a personal achievement, not from your academic work, outlining what it involved and how you benefited from it.
- Give an example of a time when you brought someone round to your way of thinking.
Easy ways to give yourself an edge in your internship application answers
The questions may look tricky, but knowing what employers are looking for will help you to compose the best possible answers. Keep the following in mind:
- Recruiters understand that applicants for internships are typically younger and have less experience to draw upon than applicants for graduate jobs. They are looking for evidence that you can make good use of the experience you have got in your answers, rather than expecting you to have achieved the impossible.
- Some applicants shoot themselves in the foot by not bothering to answer these questions – yes, really – so you’re one step ahead just by giving them a go.
- Likewise, some applicants let themselves down by not reading the question properly (for example, not answering both parts of a two-part question). Again, you can score an easy win over the competition by making sure you understand what is being asked and doing it.
- For most questions you can draw on any aspect of your life (see below) – you don’t need an example from the industry you’re applying to.
Some applicants let themselves down by not reading the question properly. You can score an easy win over the competition by making sure you do what's being asked.
Examples to use in your internship application
Good areas of your life that you should draw upon for examples include:
- Part-time or summer jobs (eg working in a shop or or as a campus tour guide)
- Extracurricular activities (eg sport, music or drama)
- Previous work experience in any field
- Academic projects or group work
- Independent travel or gap year projects
- Positions of responsibility (eg being a course representative or a society treasurer)
- Personal projects (eg repairing an old car, designing a website or writing a blog)
- Family responsibilities (eg caring for children or elderly relatives).
Consider jotting down your responsibilities, experiences and achievements before applying. It’s easy to think ‘I can’t answer this question’ but a handy list can prevent you overlooking good examples. It’s ideal if the examples you use are recent (from the last couple of years) but go back further if you need to or have a particularly good example.
Most online application systems allow you to view all the questions before you start answering. Take advantage of this to decide which example to use for which question – if you are able, try to use a different one for each.
Struggling to answer? Think laterally
If necessary, think laterally around definitions of words. For example, when faced with the word ‘customer’, you might feel stuck if you haven’t worked in a customer service job in, say, a pub or a shop. However, a customer could be anyone who has relied upon you to provide a particular service. Have you volunteered as an usher for an arts performance or a marshal for a race? Helped keep college IT facilities running smoothly for fellow students as a member of the IT committee? Compiled sound effects for the director of a university show?
When faced with the word ‘customer’, you might feel stuck if you haven’t worked in a customer service job... However, a customer could be anyone who has relied upon you to provide a particular service.
Likewise, a concept such as ‘increasing profits’ might make you feel you have nothing to write. But have you been involved with any sort of organisation that makes money? This could include commercial businesses but also charities, fundraising organisations, Young Enterprise groups, committees organising university events, student-run enterprises, performing arts groups… Profits can be increased by either increasing revenues or decreasing costs and it’s likely that many different members or employees will play a part in this. You might, for example, have helped increase ticket sales by promoting an event well, choosing a popular theme or raising standards. Or perhaps you have helped to reduce costs by sourcing products more cheaply, reducing waste or negotiating discounts.
Tailor your online internship application
Show employers that you genuinely want to work for them by tailoring your application to the organisation in question. Track down its core competencies for interns and graduates (typically located on its graduate recruitment website) and/or its corporate values (often found on its main website under ‘about us’). This will help you to understand what qualities the organisation would like in its interns. For example, if you are trying to answer a question that asks how you have shown passion, it’s a big help if you are able to find out what the organisation means by ‘passion’ and why it feels it is important. A good starting point for employer research is the TARGETjobs employer hubs.
Dos and don’ts for internship application forms
- Use the ‘STAR’ approach to structure your answers – briefly outline the situation and task, then focus on stating the action you took and the results.
- Write about what you personally did, not what a team did as a whole. Think ‘I’, not ‘we’.
- Use numbers wherever possible to add detail (for example, the number of customers or team members, your budget and your revenue).
- Read the question carefully. If it asks about more than one skill or has several parts, answer everything.
- Write about self-made problems.
- Sound as if you are having a rant or had a low opinion of fellow team members or customers.
- Imply that you personally led a whole project – unless you actually did.
- Fib – if you get to interview, you may be questioned about your answers in more depth.
Model answer for an online internship application form question
An online application form might include a question along the following lines:
- What do you consider to be your most significant achievement other than your academic results? This should be something you personally decided to do and worked hard to achieve. Please describe why you see the achievement as significant and any obstacles you had to overcome.
- Let’s say that your most significant achievement was successfully standing for the position of charity ball chairperson and, once in the role, doubling ticket sales and making the ball’s biggest ever profit for your chosen charity.
When writing the part about overcoming obstacles and how you increased ticket sales, you might choose to say the following:
‘… Some of the ball committee were initially unsure about my idea to hire a well known singer rather than using a local tribute band as had happened the previous year, as it would be more expensive. I therefore contacted and surveyed 60 students who had attended the previous ball: 80% of them said that the entertainment had been substandard, with 76% indicating that they would be willing to pay more for better quality. I used this data to successfully make the case for hiring the singer and increasing the ticket price by £5 on the previous year to cover the extra cost…’
Here you have identified fellow committee members’ views as an obstacle but have focused on concrete action you took to help you argue your case – including some helpful figures – rather than dwelling on any undignified squabbles that may have taken place.