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Lauren Berger, 27, has become an authority on landing internships. She runs a website,Internqueen.com, and just published a book on the subject: All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building a Resume, Making Connections and Gaining Job Experience. But she started out as a clueless college freshman at Florida State in Tallahassee, whose only work experience was waitressing at the Red Lobster, and a minimum wage job at The Limited II. Berger’s own tale of landing her first internships with zero connections, offers excellent pointers for students who want to get started on the internship track. It worked for Berger. She did 15 internships while in college.
1. Cold calling can work. Berger’s saga started in 2002 when her pushy mother, who had just seen a “Today” show segment about the importance of internships for college students, called and said she had to get one. It was the spring of Berger’s freshman year. Berger headed to Florida State’s career office, but was told that she needed to be a junior or senior if she wanted help. “They said, ‘come back and see us in three years,’” she recalls.
2. Take immediate action when you get a lead. Thinking it was a long shot, Berger did some more Googling, for help putting together her materials. She sent them in that evening. The next morning, her phone rang at 8am. “I thought I did something wrong,” she recalls. The coordinator was so impressed by Berger’s promptness, she offered her an interview. “She said, ‘you don’t know how long students take to send in their materials,’” recalls Berger.
3. Prepare for the interview. Before her meeting, Berger poured over the company’s website, including the firm’s mission statement and executive biographies. “Look for things you have in common with the people who run the company,” she advises. “If you run into the head of the company on the elevator the first day, greet him.” Berger recommends incorporating buzzwords from the mission statement into your interview.
4. Ask what the internship would entail.Don’t use the interview as an information-gathering session about the interviewer. Instead, Berger suggests applicants ask, “can you describe a day as an intern at your company.”
5. Say you’re ready to start immediately. Especially for unpaid internships, employers often tell applicants they can take time to think about whether they want the job. Berger says you should break in and say, “I know I want this.” Berger’s eagerness and persistence came through and she got the Zimmerman internship.
6. Volunteer to be the company’s first intern. Berger’s second internship, in the summer of 2002, was also prompted by her mother. “She called and said all her friends’ kids were going to New York to intern,” says Berger. But Berger had no contacts in New York. She asked the Zimmerman internship coordinator for advice, and the woman helped her use the firm’s media guide. This time Berger wanted to work for a publication. But she got rejections or no responses from half a dozen big magazines like Us Weeklyand Seventeen.
Finally she stumbled on a theater publication called Back Stage. Berger’s cold call reached the editor in chief, but the woman said they didn’t hire interns, and wanted to get Berger off the phone, insisting Back Stage didn’t hire interns. Berger persisted. “I said, ‘I can be your first intern,’” she says. The editor was persuaded.
7. Make a dream list of companies where you want to work. Once Berger had a few internships under her belt, she was ready to shoot for a job that focused on her interest in celebrities. She started looking up her favorite stars and checking which PR firms represented them. “I saw most of them were coming from five different companies,” she recalls. Berger put those firms and five others on a list that included internship coordinator contacts and deadlines. She went through her list methodically. One of her top choices, BWR, expressed interest, but said she had to interview in person. So Berger accepted an offer for a part-time internship with a boutique PR firm that agreed to interview her on the phone. When she got to L.A., she interviewed at BWR and that internship came through as well.
8. Follow up. Berger recommends checking in about your application two weeks after you have send it. Write a short note asking whether your materials arrived and offering additional information. If you applied through a website, call the company and ask to speak to the internship coordinator. If you can’t get through, send an email to the coordinator.
9. Ask for a letter of recommendation two weeks before the end of your internship.Berger suggests you leave every internship carrying one or more letters of recommendation, which can help you land your next internship. Her advice: get the process going two weeks before your job ends and offer to write the recommendation yourself. “Say, ‘look, I know you’re extremely busy. I’d love to get a recommendation from you. I’ll write one and you can take a look at it.’”
10. Work hard and send handwritten thank-you notes after your internship concludes.Berger says she plugged away at each of her internships. During down time at her summer 2005 Fox television job, she and another intern reached out to eight senior executives and asked for informational interviews. Six said yes, and Berger was able to add those contacts to her network. After each internship concluded, Berger says she wrote to her employers by hand, thanking them for the experience. She kept copious notes of all her colleagues and superiors, and sent snail mail notes to each one. Her rule about staying in touch: email is fine for subsequent contact, but do it three times a year, in the fall, spring and summer.
One of the most intriguing things about Berger’s story is how far she got with cold calling, diligence and sheer persistence. Since she started as an intern back in 2002, she has tirelessly built a network of thousands of contacts. But she got her first internships without a single connection.
Post script: After college, Berger used her Los Angeles connections to land a job at Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills. At that point, she wanted to start a business helping students find internships. She talked about it to everyone she met through the job, including producer Marshall Herskovitz (Thirtysomething, Traffic, Blood Diamond), who wound up funding her company with a 12% stake. Berger charges $100 to companies to post internships for a semester, and $250 for a year. She says she has 800 clients and she also does multiple speaking engagements. Internqueen specializes in fashion, PR, marketing, entertainment and production companies in New York City and Los Angeles.