What Works When You’re Looking for Work

A pandemic job hunter shares what she’s learned about securing internships and more.

April 5, 2021

Oli Bentley ’21

student typing on a laptop with a cat by her side.
Photo credit: courtesy Oli Bentley

In the past year, so many aspects of our lives have gone virtual—from school to concerts to social gatherings. I spent more time on my computer last year than in all of my other years combined.

As I approached the end of my undergraduate life at Oberlin, another challenge I needed to become accustomed to was my search for jobs and internships.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling lost when it came to finding ways to gain experience in my field. When the pandemic hit, I was applying for hundreds of internships in what would be my last summer before graduating—a period that is typically crucial for students to build their résumés. But COVID ensured that no internships would happen that summer, and I felt like I had failed. The disappointment of not even getting responses to my applications amounted to another mental hurdle I needed to overcome.

But I continued to stick my neck out there. And I was surprised to learn that I actually was experiencing more success applying for jobs than internships. There’s some truth to the saying “Shoot for the moon and you’ll end up in the stars.”

I applied to any job that sounded interesting, regardless of whether it seemed like too much of a reach. A friend sent me a post on Instagram advertising an audio software company that was looking for someone with a design background. It would be a far cry to call me a graphic designer, but I had some experience making posters and animations, so I threw my name in the hat. And they responded! While I wasn’t exactly right for the job, I was right enough to earn an internship with this company, working remotely while I finish out my senior year. 

I have failed lots more times than I have succeeded, but this process of trying has taught me a few things that might help you on your career path too.

• Approach your search by considering opportunities in three different categories: internships, jobs you think you’re qualified for, and jobs that might be out of your reach. Then don’t be afraid to go for any of them!

• Look at the résumés of people in your field. Lots of people post them on their websites, and I found it really helpful to become familiar with the ways other people talk about themselves. It helped me plan how to structure my own résumé, as well as what language to use when describing my skills and experience.

• Not everything on your résumé has to be a job. Oberlin offers so many great summer and winter programs that could add a lot to your résumé and help you connect with great people in your field. 

• If you don’t have much experience in the field you hope to work in, think of the relevant academic work you have done. If you earned a grant or are an apprentice to a professor, those are things that show you can be trusted with responsibility. Professors and mentors also make great references. 

• Cater your résumé and cover letter to the specific position you’re applying for. It might feel like a tedious extra step, but it’s definitely one worth taking every time. Put your most relevant jobs and skills at the top of your list of experience. A recording studio will be more interested in my experience in recording music than my social media work. You want to prove that you will be an asset to the company and be able to hit the ground running.

• Apply for internships (and even jobs!) even if you aren’t sure they exist. Send emails to companies you admire—even DM them on Instagram. You don’t need to wait for people to be hiring to get your name on their radar.

• Use your campus’ career services and professional development offices. They want to see you succeed, and they can be helpful with everything from developing a strategy, to uncovering opportunities, to critiquing your résumé and cover letter.

• Ask your professors if they have colleagues who might be a good fit with you. You never know where a little connection may take you or what you might learn from somebody you don’t even know yet. 

• Don’t be afraid to think small. The most high-profile internship opportunities also tend to get the most applicants. I had much more success getting responses from smaller companies. Even if their answer is no, it can be much more encouraging to hear back than to be left waiting in limbo.

• Whatever you do, be sure to follow up! This one was a hard one for me to learn. I felt like people would find me annoying if I emailed them too much. While there certainly is a point where contact can become excessive, being eager and interested in the job you are applying for lets the people hiring know that they weren’t just one of a million internships on your list. 

And remember: If your dream gig doesn't work out one summer or winter term, don’t think of it as time wasted. There is a lot you can do to bolster your résumé, from pursuing personal creative projects to building a website.

Applying for internships can be stressful, disheartening, and downright unfair sometimes, but it can also teach you a lot and give you great experience. If you can keep your head up and keep trying, you’ll find the opportunity that’s right for you.

Oli Bentley is a fourth-year TIMARA major and a contributor to the Office of Conservatory Communications.

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