Land, Survive, and Get the Most Out of Your First Tech Internship

26 July 2023
Tech Internship interview questions to prepare for_how to write an internship resume_survive your first internship

To intern or not to intern. That’s the top priority of most university students when planning their vacations. Some undergraduates use internships as opportunities to get a better feel of which roles fit them best, while others need to complete internships as part of mandatory graduation or scholarship requirements may find them more of a chore.

No matter where you stand, understanding how internships can influence your career trajectory upon graduation and beyond can help make this daunting process easier to stomach. If you’re eager to get your hands dirty with real work experience to pick up practical skills that a traditional classroom can’t offer, then read on as we provide pointers on how students can land their first internship with little to no experience, and whether it's worth the effort in the first place.

What can undergraduate students learn from internships?

More than a few extra lines to add to your resume, internships can enrich the rest of your undergraduate journey by adding an extra layer of perspective. There’s no doubt that school exams can be stressful, but work is typically where the stakes are higher, where your performance can directly impact business outcomes where real money is involved. As a result, you’ll be expected to deliver regardless of how prepared you feel. And if you’re thrown into the deep end of a particularly busy department, you may even have to endure periods where you work tirelessly with no end in sight.

But those who emerge from these trials will have superpowers that give them an edge over their peers. For example, if you’ve worked in a role directly tied to your major, you’ll have real world experience to tap on whenever brainstorming for project ideas or contributing to discussions in class. Internships and academics also form a self-reinforcing cycle where you can directly apply and internalise what you’ve learned at school in the context of the real world. The game-changing confidence that this brings truly cannot be understated, and will help you better navigate stumbling blocks presented to you both in school and at future job interviews. 

Do I have to do internships directly related to my major or future career?

With the exception of students who are fulfilling graduation or scholarship requirements, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule about what industry or role you should gun for. In fact, having a range of experiences can only benefit you further down the road. As many as 60% of companies are looking to hire people with external industry experience when closing skill gaps. And with 64% of business decision makers stating that there’s a skill shortage, having a cross-industry internship in your back pocket can prove useful not just for landing your first job out of graduation, but provide you with more flexibility to transition between industries in the future.

Do employers value internships and consider them as real work experience?

Having internship experience on your resume often provides concrete proof of your general aptitude, giving future employers greater incentive to call you up for an interview. This doesn’t just boost your chances of landing a job post-graduation, but can also give you more leverage to pick and choose for roles with greater potential in terms of progression, compensation, flexibility, and more. 

According to a 2021 survey about the future of work, companies in Singapore look out for the following traits when deciding on who to hire:

  • Technical skills (39%)
  • Transferable skills (31%)
  • Work experience (12%)
  • Education (8%)

Looking at these numbers, you might be scratching your head wondering why we’re advocating for internships when technical and transferable skills are heavily favoured. Well, internships (good ones where you apply yourself, at least) are some of the best places to learn these in-demand skills! 

Without discounting the value of Boot Camps or summer classes where you dive deep into certain skills, internships take things one step further by letting you work alongside industry professionals. This will allow you to quickly realise what’s truly important in the industry, such as whether a popular coding language that is always raved about in school is truly prevalent or relevant in business. 

Furthermore, internships also provide you with your first encounter with client management and the challenging terrains of office politics. Navigating these challenges will serve as a training ground for soft skills such as communication and teamwork that can impact how well your technical competencies translate into business outcomes and recognition. 

Landing your first internship interview with no experience

Of course, you can’t gain any of these valuable skills without landing an internship in the first place — and that’s a whole other challenge in itself. Getting your foot in the door of your dream industry requires overcoming two major processes: Landing an interview with an impressive resume, and impressing at said interview.

What to put on a resume to secure your first internship

Applying for an internship with little-to-no real work experience can be a bit like dealing with the proverbial chicken-and-egg. But fret not. The first thing to recognise is that employers who are looking to hire undergraduate interns already expect not to hire people with extensive experience (or at least they should!). Furthermore, it’s entirely possible for students to write impressive resumes by emphasising achievements, hobbies, and other activities. Common things to consider including are:

  • GPA (if it’s high enough), relevant coursework, and other academic achievements
  • Volunteer work and co-curricular activities, particularly in areas relevant to your major or the role that you’re applying for, or where you’ve held leadership positions
  • Personal projects, odd jobs, and certifications that highlight your competence in relevant skills

Keep in mind that these are just nice-to-haves, so don’t worry about checking every single item off the list as long as you have enough information to fill up a page. Even so-called “irrelevant” jobs can add value to your resume if you know how to use the experience to highlight instances where you’ve demonstrated soft interpersonal or critical thinking skills. 

Should you find yourself getting stuck, circle back to the job description that you’re applying for and look out for specific keywords that can be incorporated strategically throughout your resume. This is not only important to get your resume past automated filters, but more importantly, it will help you prioritise details that are important and weed out ones that are not. It can be tedious for sure, but tailoring several resume versions for specific internship positions can significantly increase your chances of landing a coveted interview.

Common internship interview questions to prepare for

If you manage to book yourself an interview, congratulations! You’ve crossed a significant career milestone. Don’t let the thought of being judged by industry professionals scare you. Making it this far shows that your qualifications are enough, so don’t fret about what you have or have not accomplished. 

Instead, direct your attention towards making yourself as presentable as possible. You do this by reading up on the company that you’re applying for, understanding how the internship position fits into their overall business structure, and demonstrating a willingness to learn.

Being tongue-tied is the last thing you want to do at an interview, so be sure to prepare for common questions that your hiring manager and/or recruiter will likely be asking. These include:

  1. Tell me about yourself: Rather than telling your life story, use this as an opportunity to sell details that are relevant to the role. These include your educational background, skills that you’ve mastered or are currently picking up, and relevant projects, volunteer experiences, or co-curricular activities.
  2. Why are you interested in this internship/company?: While it’s important to talk about how an internship aligns with your career goals, you’ll want to remember to address the audience by highlighting how your addition can bring value to them. This can be done by emphasising what you hope to accomplish at the role, especially if it aligns with the company’s mission or ongoing projects. 

*Remember, as much as companies are assessing you, you are also assessing them! You can show genuine interest and get a better idea of the company culture at the same time by bouncing questions off your interviewer when they start introducing their company and role. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative instead of waiting for your interviewer to arrive at a question that you’ve prepared for! If anything, doing so will demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and score you some brownie points.

  1. What are your strengths and weaknesses?: Discuss strengths that demonstrate how you can be a valuable member at the workplace, and remember to use examples to support them as well. That’s straightforward enough. The tricky part comes when discussing weaknesses. You’ll want to be honest without bringing up something that could paint you in a negative light. So rather than blurting out bad habits such as tardiness or laziness, use this as an opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness and efforts that you’re taking to overcome your weaknesses.

Apart from these questions, your hiring manager may or may not have you sit for a technical assessment depending on the nature of your role. For example, programming interviews will likely require you to code right in front of your potential employer or write out pseudo-code on a whiteboard. If this is something that you can realistically expect, then be sure to get enough practice on websites such as CodingBat and familiarise yourself with programming fundamentals.

How to present yourself during an internship interview

How you answer interview questions is just as important as what you say. This is because hiring managers are often looking out for cultural fit and potential red flags during interviews. 

It therefore goes without saying that you should get yourself decently groomed before an interview. Whether this involves getting a haircut, tidying up your facial hair, or putting together an outfit suitable for professional settings, be sure to have things planned out in advance so that you don’t find yourself scrambling on the day itself. 

It can also be helpful to arrive early in case of travel misfortunes. Ideally, you’ll want to give yourself a 30 minute buffer and arrive at the entrance about 5-10 minutes before the scheduled time. Once you’re in the room, try your best to come across as confident. Sometimes, a light joke can help soften the atmosphere if you can pull it off well. Whatever you do, don’t slouch! Remember that body language always has more influence on the words that come out of your mouth than you think. 

You’ll roughly get an idea of whether or not your interviewer has warmed up to you by the end of the interview. Here’s when you’ll get the dreaded “do you have any questions for us” question. Whatever you do, DO NOT say no. Use this opportunity to find out more information that hasn’t been covered thus far by asking:

  • What does a typical day of work look like?
  • What excites you about working here?
  • What are interns expected to accomplish by the first month of working?
  • Is the company looking to transition interns into a full-time position?

Even if you’ve already decided that a position isn’t right for you, asking questions will still serve as good practice for your subsequent interviews. And if all your doubts and concerns have truly, truly been answered, then make sure to highlight that as well instead of just shrugging your shoulders nonchalantly. 

And if you’ve managed to do all that you can to land an internship and still get rejected, take comfort in knowing that the problem doesn’t always lie with you. Internship hunting is a bit like dating. Sometimes, two parties who appear like a good match on paper don’t always work out in reality.

Survive your internship with career resources and a healthy support group

Instead of relying on hearsay from people who have never worked in your industry, why not learn directly from experts instead? Tech career conversations run by industry-leading TTAB career consultants will not only grant you insight into the latest tech developments, but also open up internship opportunities that you wouldn’t come across otherwise.

Get in touch with like-minded individuals by following TTAB on LinkedIn and Facebook to be alerted of our next career workshop or networking event, or drop us a message on Facebook to receive personalised tech career advice.

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