Erik Hansen is a graduate student pursuing a master of public policy and Mustang Daily graduate columnist.

The Cal Poly Fall Career Fair came and went a couple of weeks ago. Did you attend and (more importantly) were you able to find an exciting internship opportunity?

Possessing work experience will be important when the time comes to secure your first job out of college. Some would even argue that having a proven skillset and a list of professional references who can attest to your capabilities carries more weight than your GPA. In addition, many internships lead to full-time employment right out of college.

In January, the UK publication’The Guardian’ polled 100 corporate recruiters. This poll found that roughly one-third of the job vacancies for recent college graduates would be filled by applicants who had already worked for the employer as an undergraduate. This same poll also found that a majority of these employers said it was unlikely that an undergraduate without any work experience would get a job.

So cast aside those depressing statistics about the unemployment rate for recent college graduates everyone keeps talking about, and get proactive. Start thinking about, researching and pursuing your summer internship now.

Begin planning and researching

Start making time: Some federal agencies are already accepting applications for their summer internship programs. If you are interested in spending your summer interning with an agency such as the U.S Department of State or U.S. Department of the Interior, you should probably already have your ducks in a row.

Even if you are not interested in a summer internship with the federal government, planning for your summer internship now can help save you from the stress and worry involved with waiting until March or April, as the process can take some time. In addition, if you wait until spring break to start planning for your summer internship, your options will be much more limited.

Research and create a list using a program such as Microsoft Word or Excel, create a list of agencies, firms and/or companies that you would like to intern with, and rank them by order of preference. List as many institutions you feel comfortable contacting, but make sure that they are all located within a geographical region that you can live in during your internship.

Using the Internet, research the contact information, contact persons and description of a project and/or program you are interested in, as well as what each of the institutions are currently working on and add all of this information to your list. Researching a project and/or program that each of the institutions are currently working on will also give you something to talk about when you contact them.

Update and customize your résumé. Of course, having a current résumé is important. Also, consider creating different versions of your résumé for each of the different places that you would like to intern. Try customizing your résumé to the work and needs of each of the institutions.

Get your foot in the door

Make contact. It is never too early to start planting the seeds for your summer internship. Once you have a list of all of the institutions where you would like to intern, start contacting them in order of preference.

When making contact, be direct and try doing so by phone. Bypass the “gatekeepers.” Secretaries and administrative staff are not the ones making any final hiring decisions. Try to reach the director, project manager or head of the department you would like to spend your time interning in. If this fails, email that person directly.

While it may eventually be necessary, just submitting your résumé and cover letter to a human resources department is for chumps.

Networking. Now is the time to also start working any connections your family, friends and/or professors may have. If any of them have a tie to one of the institutions you would like to intern with, have them initiate contact and introduce you.

Hit the pavement. During your initial contact, whether it is by phone, networking or email, try to set up a face-to-face meeting to learn more about the institution. This will also give you an opportunity to more fully express your desire to intern with them and personally hand over your résumé.

Being able to communicate face-to-face is a fading art form, and doing so in a stress-free environment — outside of an interview — gives you an excellent opportunity to create a great impression, and hopefully, win an interview.

Get the internship

Practice interviewing. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Tell us why you want to work for us.” “What do you think is your greatest fault?” These are all questions that you could face during your interviews. By Googling “job/internship interview questions,” you can retrieve an extensive list of interview questions.

Practice your responses to the 10 or 20 most common interview questions, as you will probably face some variations of these questions during your interviews. By practicing your answers now, you can save yourself from drawing a blank during your interviews, or regretting the way in which you answered a certain question.

Your interview — you probably already know the basics when it comes to interviewing: dress up, arrive early, speak clearly, make eye contact and so on. Also consider bringing something extra to leave behind once the interview is over. This “leave behind” could be an extended résumé, letter(s) of reference or a list of references (such as professors); something that says a little more about how great you are.

The follow-up. Much like being able to communicate face-to-face, writing a thank you card is also a fading art form, and should not be reserved just for grandmas.

Write a card — in cursive if you possess that skill — to thank the people who interviewed you for their time and interest. Even if you do not get the internship, it will leave a lasting impression. It is a small world, and you never know when you might cross paths with them again.

Paid versus unpaid internships

The issue of paid versus unpaid internships deserves a column of its own, and both sides of the debate have valid points. For instance, some feel that obtaining work experience while in college is worth it, regardless of whether it is paid or not. Others feel that it is never fair to provide free labor, and an unpaid internship could potentially take work away from a paid employee. Today’s economy and unemployment rates only make things more complex.

There might not be a blanket answer as to whether or not you should consider taking an unpaid internship, as the answer might depend on your circumstances. Because most majors here at Cal Poly require you to complete a certain number of internship credits, it might be reasonable to consider an unpaid internship if the work is exciting and you have yet to complete your required internship credits.

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