Internship or Bust is the journey of every student preparing to leave the cocoon of student security to navigate the bustling world of resumes, cover letters, and coveted internships with the most promising companies. Originally published on April 14, 2004 [v12 i15], this article is, like many of Sara’s contributions, one that takes the reader along for the ride. Anecdotes and details abound, injecting the article with a reality and sincerity that brings leaves the reader wanting more…
Several months ago, after years of toiling away at my Bachelor’s Degree with a major in English, and waitressing to pay for it all, I realised that I was finally in the home stretch of my post-secondary education. I had just five classes to go before I was to be unleashed upon the world, yet, truth be told, I wasn’t ready. All I had to get by on was my imagination, creativity, youthful enthusiasm, and way with words. The articles I’d written for The Voice were an asset, but I needed more.
I knew I had all the raw materials, many of which were desirable to prospective employers, but I lacked the one thing that would bring them all together into a marketable package: work experience. It became clear that I was suffering from SS (student stigma). SS is a rarely acknowledged condition that runs rampant among post-secondary students. Its symptoms include being educated, but inexperienced. One direct contributor to SS is the vicious cycle known as the need-experience-to-get-experience paradox. Many a graduate has felt helpless at the hands of this infuriating conundrum. Although I had been in denial about my condition for many years, I knew that with a little persistence I could beat it. All I needed was a heavy dose of work experience. But where could I find such a thing?
The search for the elusive experience became my own private El Dorado. As I searched, it became apparent rather quickly that work experience often camouflages itself in the form of an internship. An internship is an aberrant work situation in which a student works for no pay. The company gets free labour while the student gains valuable experience; sort of a win-win situation, except for that no-pay part.
To ease my search, I made a list of places where I thought I might enjoy interning. It was a short list. In the end, I simply emailed my favourite magazine, Jane, asking if they offered summer internships. I suppose it may seem impractical or imprudent to put all of one’s eggs in one basket, perhaps it even seems like a recipe for failure, but at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable.
Luckily, it turns out that I had, unknowingly, unearthed the motherload of internship opportunities. Jane magazine’s publisher, Fairchild Publishing, not only offers internships all year round, all of which count as credit for school, but they offer internships at all 14, soon to be 15, of their magazines. Now that I had found this bounty, I had to figure out how to make a piece of it mine. Most importantly, I needed Fairchild to realize that they wanted me as much as I wanted them. No small task, indeed. The only thing I could do was to rely on my arsenal of imagination, creativity, youthful enthusiasm, and way with words. I used this fierce quartet of skills to write, quite possibly, the least conventional cover letter in existence. Risky yes, but how else can you get anyone to take notice of you in a page or less?
Meanwhile, that pesky voice of reason in my head kept taunting me. Are you crazy? Do you know how many people apply for those things? And if you do get it, how are you going to be able to afford to live in New York? It doesn’t matter. You probably won’t even get a response.
It’s a good thing I tuned that voice out. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. So what if hundreds of people apply, how long does it take to whip up a cool cover letter and email it off with a resume? I had nothing to lose except maybe the few hours it would take me to write the letter, and even then it would be good practice.
Despite all my optimism, I was admittedly astounded when I got an email telling me that upon reviewing my resume that I had been selected to interview for an internship opportunity. To many, it might seem crazy to fly from Vancouver to New York at my own expense, to interview for an unpaid internship that I may or may not get, but for me it would have been crazy not to. Sure, it was possible I’d fly all that way and not even be chosen, but the alternative would be that I’d never know what could have been. If I didn’t go, I would likely always wonder.
Once my plane ticket was bought, my hotel room was booked, and my best friend was recruited to support me on my journey, I threw myself into preparing for my interview. I put together a portfolio of all my published writing, and updated my resume. And, for the first time, I had a legitimate excuse to indulge my chronic magazine-buying impulse. I spent hours reading and researching Fairchild magazines, two of which, luckily, happen to be my favourites: Jane and Details. I took notes on my favourite columns, articles, contributors, and, basically, on anything that I thought might be relevant to the interview process.
Again, I think ignorance is bliss. Because I truly hadn’t expected a positive response, I was rather nonchalant about the whole thing, which didn’t mean I was unprepared, it just meant I didn’t fully realise what a big deal it was. I had no idea what to expect. It felt great simply to have been chosen for an interview, but I kept in mind the fact that it was a distinct possibility that I might show up to find hundreds of other people who also felt great about having been chosen. My only recourse was to make sure I was prepared, so that I would stand out from my competition.
I spent the entire flight from Vancouver to New York going through the notes I’d taken on the various Fairchild magazines. My carry-on bag was full of issues of Jane, Details, and W. I had no choice but to focus my research on those three for the rest of Fairchild’s magazines are trade publications that aren’t available on news stands, with the exception of Elegant Bride, which, in truth, I contemplated buying if only to give my boyfriend a heart attack.
Apart from my marathon magazine reading, I tried to prepare myself for what I thought would be potential interview questions. While it seems the majority of twenty-somethings are somewhat self-absorbed, myself included, I realised I was wholly unprepared to answer questions about myself. It seems simple and straightforward, in theory anyway. How hard can it be to answer questions about yourself? No one knows you any better than you know yourself, but it’s not that easy. It’s like trying to describe the sound of your own voice. Of course, you know everything about it, but just try and describe it to someone else; chances are even if you could, their perception of it is likely to be drastically different than yours.
In an effort to appear at least somewhat articulate when it came time to talk about myself, I embraced self-absorption at a whole new level. I took notes on my strengths, my weaknesses, my writing goals, my writing influences, my favourite authors, my favourite books and movies, the accomplishment I’m most proud of, my role models, and, of course, why they should choose me as their intern. As I got off the plane at JFK, I felt confident that I would be able to answer almost anything they threw my way.
The morning of the interview, my friend and I went to the famed Hudson Hotel for a leisurely brunch. I tried to relax and enjoy my french toast instead of dwelling on what was in store for me later that day. Afterwards, seeing as it was a beautiful day, we decided to walk the twenty-five blocks to the interview. We walked from West 59th down to 34th, right across from the Empire State Building. While she went in search of Macy’s, I walked into the building that I hoped housed the antidote to my stigma.
I signed in with the security guard in the lobby and took the elevator up to the 5th floor conference rooms. Once on the 5th floor, I signed in again, but this time with the head of human resources. With my nametag on and my information packet in hand, I headed into the conference room to join my fellow SS sufferers. The room was set up in such a way that there were tables along three of the walls, each with pictures of the magazines looking for interns lined up on them. In between the tables were three rows of twelve chairs. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realised that I hadn’t entered a room equipped to seat hundreds, simply a couple dozen. Despite my being over twenty minutes early, the whole first row and half of the second were already full. I sat down and started going through my packet. The atmosphere was one of masked nervousness. Clearly, the majority of us were nervous, but we all valiantly attempted to hide it. I was a lot calmer than I had anticipated, but I won’t lie I was definitely a little on edge as I sat and waited for things to begin.
The room was full of women with the exception of about four guys. Some sat quietly reading and filling out their information packets. Others sized up the competition. A few chatted with their neighbours. As I’m a die-hard people-watcher, I sat and observed the goings-on around me. There was a girl in the back row who kept trying to sneak looks at what the girl next to her was writing on her forms. Another girl in the front row was wearing a petal pink satin suit that was either recycled from a bridesmaid stint at a relative’s wedding or a remnant costume from the movie Steel Magnolias.
I also took time to scan the three tables looking at the magazines that would have internships available. Women’s Wear Daily, W Accessories, Elegant Bride, Vitals, Details, Home Furnishings News, DNR, W, and Supermarket News all had openings for the summer term. As I looked between the heads of the people in the front row, I tried to see where the Jane representative would be sitting. I wasn’t the only one who realised there was absolutely no sign of anyone from Jane being present for the meeting. There were murmurs all around the room. “Where’s Jane?” “Why isn’t Jane here?” Clearly, I hadn’t been the only one with my sights set on interning at the magazine.
I had no time to dwell on the fact that the magazine I had my heart set on wasn’t even an option. The head of human resources came in and got the proceedings under way. She gave us a run down on what to expect over the course of the hour and a half we’d be there, and gave us a brief overview of Fairchild itself. Once she was done, the representatives from the magazines each stood up and told us what type of internships they were offering, whether editorial or fashion based. Each one described the duties that would be expected of us, as well as the availability needed. Some were looking for as many as five interns, others only one or two. All of the reps were very candid in stating that the positions were in no way glamorous. I believe comfortable shoes were stressed many times, especially for the fashion positions. The girl sitting next to me was going to have to think twice about the towering stilettos she was wearing if she was given a position, and maybe even the lacy g-string that was a good three inches above the waistband of her jeans, just for good measure.
I appreciated the honesty about the types of tasks that would be required of us: researching, fact checking, transcribing, gathering daily media clips, and various administrative duties. The blunt reality of it, I’m sure, dissolved the misguided notion that many of us had of the magazine business being a glamorous one. My only disappointment, besides the whole Jane not being there thing, was that only one of the nine magazines mentioned anything about the possibility of actually getting to do some writing. Most of then flat out stated that there was no chance of doing any writing. While their honesty was commendable, it was still a letdown. Supermarket News was the only one that mentioned writing as a required duty. In fact, the rep said that in all likelihood that we could have up to twelve or thirteen by-lines by the end of the summer, if we were motivated. Despite the fact that Supermarket News would have been my very last choice when I initially walked in the room, I now knew who I had to interview with right off the bat. My ego, of course, balked, wanting me to interview with the better-known magazines, but my practical realistic I-want-to-be-a-writer side told me to get real.
After all the presentations, the chairs were cleared away and we had the chance to interview with the reps of the magazines that interested us. Despite my ego telling me to head straight to Details, I went for Supermarket News, which, for the record, is not a tabloid although I know it sounds like one. It’s a trade magazine, for people like managers of Safeway or Walmart, that reports on the latest in food trends and developments in that industry. Later on, I did interview with Details and Vitals.
Since all the reps had stressed the need for their interns to be motivated, responsible, and organised, my background in distance education was invaluable. As we all know, we would likely never get a single assignment done if we didn’t possess those qualities. In each of the interviews, it was the skills and qualities that relate directly to my time as an Athabasca student that were my greatest asset, while all the self-absorbed soul searching I had done on the plane ended up being a moot point.
Overall, I know the interviews went well. I left with no regrets. Whether or not I stood out among the other candidates, remains to be seen. For now, I’m simply playing the waiting game. If anything comes from my time in New York, work experience or not, it is that I have added another skill to my arsenal in the fight against SS: interview skills. Now, I am that much closer to being ready to be unleashed upon the world, and embracing life after school, a life that doesn’t include the words “you have a choice of fries or salad with that.”