Students, Here’s How To Stand Out From Your Fellow Grads

For students today, glancing around your graduate ceremony can be overwhelming – and we’re not talking “overwhelmed with joy”. With so many fellow graduates competing for jobs, how can you ensure you’re standing out among floods of applications? This can be where interning comes in.

While university might be important, both in terms of your education and networking, there are potentially hundreds of students doing the same course as you, all graduating at the same time. Internships are a great way to stand out and prove that you have on-the-job skills specific to the role you’re applying for. So what are the benefits of interning? And some of the pitfalls? And what happens if you can’t really afford to work for free? We go deep into the world of interning.

Winning friends and influencing people

For many jobs, networking is key to knowing when roles become available – often you have to know someone to even be considered. Make a good impression as an intern, and you might be the first to know about any positions that come up in that company. In plenty of industries people in different companies keep in close contact, and are aware of what roles are available. So while a job might not be freeing up in the company where you’ve interned, there might be one in another workplace where one of your managers has contacts.

Repeat after me: networking is everything.

On-the-job experience

Every graduate of your degree has the same piece of paper. And in a lot of degrees, the numbers and letters on that paper don’t really matter. What recruiters are looking for is actual on-the-job experience. Employers will look kindly upon your time spent in an office in the industry you want to be in – it will show that you know how to work within that world, and that you are happy to work your way up from a menial position into something more exciting.

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“I started interning early, during my first year of uni,” says Digital Fashion Editor at Bauer Media, Grace O’Neill. “I went on to intern at a handful of different publications before I got my first paid gig, which was after about three years. My first full-time job was a year after that.”

Do you actually want to do this job?

A lot of people finish up their internship and realise that they really, really don’t want to work in their chosen industry. If you’re excited about doing crappy jobs to get your foot in the door – and are still keen to enter the industry even after being everyone’s slave for six months – then you’ll know you’re on the right path. If going into your internship every week is your idea of hell, it might not be the job for you.

Employers dig candidates with skills

Though many unscrupulous companies hire interns to pick up the slack when they don’t want to fork out for a paid employee, or just go through the motions by giving interns tasks that aren’t contributing to their learning experience at all, a good internship will give you the basic skills you need to enter the workforce – skills that often aren’t provided in generalised university degrees. (Here’s looking at you, Bachelor of Arts!)

“A large chunk of the skills I use day-to-day I’ve learned on the job,” says Grace. “I don’t think my writing would have been up to scratch, and I wouldn’t have had enough understanding of the industry, had I tried to get work straight out of university without interning.”

Good job

If you’re good enough at your internship, you might just be offered a full-time position – or be first in line when the next job comes up. Show up to work on time, be enthusiastic about what you’re doing, and differentiate yourself from other interns by contributing ideas and doing more than what’s asked of you. A lot of the time interns are the first to be offered entry-level jobs when they become available, so make a good impression.

“I learned on the job and once my work had graduated from ‘intern’ quality to ‘freelancer’ quality my editor started paying me for my pieces,” says Grace.

“Be proactive. Come in with original ideas, do above and beyond what you’re expected to do and be enthusiastic. As the great Steve Martin said, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you’.”

Not for everyone

While interning is a great way to get your foot in the door, gain real-world experience and network, for some people this route isn’t really an option.

“The main issue with unpaid internships is that they create a barrier for those that can’t afford to work for free,” says Interns Australia Executive Director Sarah Ashman-Baird. “They become limited to people that can either support themselves, or have the financial backing of their parents to support them working for free.”

She explains that people who need to support themselves with part-time work are essentially locked out of interning, as they often don’t have the luxury of quitting, or putting on hold, their paid work. Often, internships actually cost participants money, further locking the financially disadvantaged out of those opportunities.

“There are often substantial out-of-pocket costs associated with an internship in the form of travel or accommodation costs, uniforms, protective equipment, or even insurance,” she says. “Without a wage to fund these costs, it becomes almost impossible.”

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A recent study conducted in the UK found that “a culture of unpaid internships can create long-term systemic issues where entry into certain industries is disproportionally skewed in favour of those that are more affluent,” Sarah says.

So, what can you do if you can’t afford to intern?

“A paid casual job that isn’t directly in the industry being aspired to, but requires a similar skill set, is worth considering,” said Sarah. “Tutoring others in a relevant subject is a great way to show employers expertise in a particular area. Learning a new skill through an online course or getting involved with a university society or not-for-profit also shows dedication. Most of all, it’s important to keep an eye out for new paid internship opportunities that come up, and to keep applying.”

And with interning horror stories abounding in the media, it can be hard to know whether an internship is going to benefit you, or if you’re just being taken for a ride.

“Unfortunately, the law isn’t completely black and white when it comes to what constitutes a legal internship in Australia,” says Sarah. “When it comes to unpaid work, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s (FWO) stance is that the person who’s doing the work should get the main benefit from the arrangement. Therefore when undertaking an unpaid internship, interns should look out for a few things.”

She lists the below as warning signs of an internship that’s taking advantage:

  • The arrangement was set up to benefit the business rather than the intern
  • The work is usually done by paid employees
  • The longer the internship, the more likely it should be paid
  • The intern is contributing to the ordinary operation of the business

“Another thing to look out for is ‘placement’ organisations that charge a fee to undertake an internship – these are often designed to churn through a high volume of interns paying for some sort of experience,” she says. “If it’s not clear whether the internship is legal or not, the FWO’s website is a good place to start as it outlines the key indicators to help determine whether an internship is lawful. Local legal services can also help. This often isn’t enough however – there’s a real need for the law on internships in Australia to be clarified.”

Che-Marie is a London-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Australian Gourmet Traveller, Collective Hub and Virgin Australia Voyeur among others. Follow her travels on Instagram @chemariet