PrimeTime: Cement Your School Situation BEFORE Applying For Internships

No one wants to hire the person who claims they'll be ready if they're offered an opportunity; employers want to hire the person who's ready NOW, already exuding competence and preparedness.
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Today's question comes from Nancy, who asks …

I'm applying for internships, and many require I receive college credit. I took your advice and told them in my cover letter that I plan on enrolling in community college part time, so I'll be able to receive credit. However, one of them emailed back asking me to confirm my enrollment, and after I did (perhaps too vaguely, since I didn't specify which college), I didn't hear from them again. I'm not sure if they want [...] full-time students, or are okay with older applicants like me? Since you work with interns, can you provide some insight?

[Also …] I don't intend to take classes, and just need to enroll somewhere to receive internship credit -- does it matter where I'm enrolled? My father teaches at a community college in Illinois, so I can enroll for free. However, it'll be pretty obvious to employers I'm not actually going to school there ... and just enrolled to get credit. I feel kinda shady just asking this ... but hey, if I can save a couple hundred for rent, that'll be awesome!

I'm a huge fan of internships, Nancy -- I think they can be, when run well, a great way to get your foot in the door, learn the business, make professional contacts -- and I do a lot of work with interns from my own alma mater, as well as other schools.

Now, before diving into a conversation about internships, a couple important and interesting points:

• Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor released new rules concerning unpaid internships. These include a six-part test from the Fair Labor Standards Act. While I don't know how enforce-able these rules are … and I think many companies probably feel they're not … I think the idea is good; I believe all workers should be compensated for their work, whether in money or academic credit. I also know there are companies that misuse their interns, so hopefully these rules will curb some of that misuse.

Here are links to a couple good articles concerning these new internship rules:

• Secondly, two former interns on the movie Black Swan recently made headlines when they decided to sue Fox Searchlight for violating labor laws. I don't know whether they'll win or not … and I don't know the details of their lawsuit or their case … but they've probably just torpedoed their future movie careers. At any rate, it's an interesting article to post in light of this conversation.

Having said all that …

Many companies, like Disney and Reveille, have wonderful, sophisticated internship programs. When I was in grad school, I made sure I had an internship almost every quarter. Some, like interning for Gil Cates and the Academy Awards, were amazing; I was in the mix, helping, doing valuable work, making contacts, learning how things worked.

If you can't solve provlems with your own application, you'll never convince an employer you can solve THEIRS.

If you can't solve provlems with your own application, you'll never convince an employer you can solve THEIRS.

Others were totally worthless. I once had an internship in the promo department of a major cable network, where I was never once assigned an actual task; I would show up, sit in a back room, and do homework. The head of the department actually thought my name was "Chuckie" -- I'm not even kidding. I had another internship for a movie producer, where the most valuable thing I ever did was go to a movie theater to save seats for my boss. (In fact, I was actually fired for not saving good enough seats. I was then rehired the next day by another one of the execs who liked me.)

All of this is to say: Different companies run their internship programs differently and companies have different expectations or requirements of applicants. Some require only that interns are enrolled for some level of credit — at least one hour or more — at any higher education institution. Others say, "We need you to be enrolled part-time." Other companies say, "We need you to be enrolled full-time."

Rules vary from company to company, so the onus is on you to ask each employer and find out what their requirements and expectations are BEFORE you apply.

I also think that it would behoove you NOT to tell companies that you're not yet enrolled in a college. Companies want to know you are 100 percent ready to go. They don't want to have to worry about hiring you … and then waiting for you to figure out how to make their internship work. It's a bit like saying, "I don't dress very professionally YET … but if you give me a job, I promise to get some professional-looking clothes."

If you can't solve problems with your own application, you'll never convince an employer you can solve THEIRS.

No one wants to hire the person who claims she'll be ready if she only has an opportunity; employers want to hire the person who's already ready, exuding competence and preparedness.

Your job, as an intern, is to be a resourceful problem-solver; if you can't even solve the problem of getting academic credit before you apply, it doesn't suggest you'll be a very promising intern.

Now, I'm not suggesting you LIE; I'm just saying do some research first. If you plan to enroll in a community college simply to get credit, to make your internship "official," identify which college you plan on using. Understand the school's application and enrollment procedures, so once you accept an internship, you can enroll immediately, easily, and cheaply.

As for finding the best college for your needs, I'm sure a quick Google search can turn up some community colleges in your local area, whether that's L.A. or Wisconsin. Your employer won't care.

We have an intern at the company where I'm working now who's enrolled in community college in her hometown in Louisiana. Some people enroll in online universities. I work with students who go to school in Tennessee and come out to internships in Los Angeles. Schools such as Emerson College in Boston and Columbia College Chicago have actual programs where students spend many weeks or semesters in Los Angeles, going to classes and interning at professional companies. Most offices don't care where you're getting your credit; they simply want to make sure you're receiving credit from a legally accredited institution.

So if it's easiest for you to enroll in your father's college in Illinois, that may be the best path for you. (And I wouldn't feel shady about this at all. Employers don't care whether you're getting a great education; employers care only whether or not you're enrolled in a legitimate institution and they're abiding by the law.)

Again, I would do some research into companies where you want to intern. Contact companies you're interested in and learn what their policies and procedures are. You can then plan your college enrollment and internship application processes accordingly.

I hope this helps, Nancy … lemme know where you end up interning!

And if you, or anyone else, has other questions, please don't hesitate to post them in the Comments section below, email me at, Facebook me at, or tweet me @chadgervich.