All business internships are not equal. There’s the Fortune 500 and obscure startup internships. Internships that are hyper competitive and those that fly under the radar. Companies with formal on-campus recruiting and those that recruit for a single position, seemingly on a whim.
Yet it’s easy to think about an internship as just an internship. Homogeneous and therefore deserving of the same approach.
However, from my experience recruiting for general business internships, I noticed that internships fall under 4 categories – each with distinct attributes that warrant a tailored recruiting approach and mindset:
4. Hidden Gems
While this is modeled from my experience with business internships, the categories and principles apply to nearly all functions and industries. This article is relevant even if you are not recruiting for business internships. In this post, I will explain what defines each category and why you may benefit from intentionally focusing on one or two internship categories, while temporarily ignoring others depending on the stage of your career.
All internships are not equal, so you can dramatically increase your chances of success by focusing on opportunities that are the best fit for your level of experience today, while setting yourself up for success in the future.
Internship Category 1: Stars – well known firms with formal recruiting processes
Headline: The Stars are firms that come to your college campus, host info sessions, have specific application deadlines, and usually run interviews directly on-campus
.Examples: Each university has a distinct set of companies that are considered Stars. At UC Berkeley, these are firms like PwC, Google, Bain, Deloitte, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, etc.
Discoverability and Competition: These firms typically invest significant funds into building their campus presence and as a result are widely recognized by students. The widespread recognition breeds a very competitive environment where everyone is trying to land interviews and offers with the same, limited set of firms.
Other Characteristics: Most Stars tend to be well known companies with formal recruiting processes, meaning they recruit at specific times of the year in a highly structured manner. They often only interview Juniors or Seniors, however some have diversity programs that recruit younger students.
My Advice: I highly recommend getting familiar with the Stars at your university. Because these companies are so visible, they are easy to discover by clicking through your university recruiting portal, talking with friends, and exploring info sessions on campus.
Even if you don’t want to work for one of these companies, it’s worth learning about these jobs and understanding the day-to-day of the positions.
If you’re going to break away from the pack by not aspiring to work for one of these companies (and there are fantastic reasons to do so), make sure your decision is well-informed. Having a chef-like mindset requires that you understand the opportunities in front of you.
Conversely, if your goal is to work for a Star, take note of when the interview process happens each year and start networking early. I wrote an entire post on why you’re too late if you waited until the information session to get to know a big company. These firms are simply too competitive to consistently land interviews from last minute networking and resume drops.
If you’re planning to recruit for these firms in the fall of this year, I highly recommend you start networking now.
Internship Category 2: Staples – brand name companies that slip under the radar
Headline: The Staples are companies that are well known to the layman or to professionals in a particular industry. They are often large companies filled with talented professionals; however, they usually don’t have a massive campus presence like Stars. Staple companies slip under the radar for most students, making them one of the best kept secrets in college recruiting.
Examples: Fortune 500 or similar well-known companies such as Procter & Gamble, Walmart, General Electric, Verizon, Levi Strauss & Company, Genentech, etc. This category also includes well-known companies in specific industries, some of which may be smaller in size. For example, reputable software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies include Mulesoft, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Zendesk, etc.
Discoverability and Competition: These opportunities are typically not well-known by students and/or are treated as backup options to the Stars. While they are not particularly difficult to discover, it’s easy for Staple companies to get buried under all the noise from Stars.
Other Characteristics: While many of these companies are also looking for Juniors and Seniors, they are sometimes flexible with younger students. A few also have full time rotational programs, which are fantastic opportunities for your first full time job (obviously no bias here).My Advice: Despite their well-known brand, Staples are ironically one of the most overlooked categories of companies. Stars absorb most students’ attention, leaving a big opportunity for you to intentionally seek Staple companies – an especially effective strategy during your earlier college years.
Staples are a fantastic way to get real working experience at a big company. For example, I was lucky to work at Levi’s Strauss & Company as a corporate strategy analyst during the summer of my Sophomore year. This brief 3-month experience dramatically shaped my career perspective and helped me land interviews with Stars during my junior and senior years.
If your goal was to land a Star internship and you end up with a Staple, it’s not a big deal! There are countless examples of people who move from Junior year internships at Staple companies to full time offers at Stars.
This happens because students with a big company name on their resume signal to future employers that they already went through a rigorous recruiting process (even if they didn’t).If you are genuinely interested in the industry and actively network with professionals at Staple companies, you will stand out from the crowd. While everyone else is focused on Stars, you can use the distraction to your advantage.
Internship Category 3: Moonshots - prestigious firms that may have formal recruiting processes at “target” universities
Headline: Moonshots are highly-respected companies which may be considered Stars at other universities, but do not recruit at your campus. Sometimes, Moonshots don’t recruit at any universities at all, because they tend to prefer experienced hires.
Examples: Firms like Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, Bain, McKinsey, Google may be considered Moonshots if they do not actively recruit at your campus. Similarly, private equity, venture capital, hedge funds, secretive research and development teams, and strategy or mergers & acquisitions teams at large companies are considered Moonshots to nearly everyone because they don’t regularly recruit students (although you can still break in).Discoverability and Competition: Because Moonshot firms don’t recruit at your university, they tend to have minimal recognition with the general student population around you. However, this by no means implies that they are easy to break into.
Moonshot companies are either actively recruiting at top tier universities or they only need 1 or 2 new hires and are selective about who they interview. In either scenario, the competition will be other high-caliber students.
Other Characteristics: Large Moonshot firms have formal recruiting timelines because of their on-campus recruiting at other universities. Smaller firms tend to run a quick and low-key 2-3 week recruiting process. For these firms especially, it’s important to network early and “be in the know” leading up to their recruiting process.
My Advice: I strongly encourage everyone to expand their internship/job search past the standard firms that recruit on campus by actively recruiting for a few Moonshot companies (if relevant to your industry of interest).Despite being the most challenging category of internships to land offers with, there are countless examples of students from non-target universities breaking into the most exclusive, top-tier firms.
It’s easy to write these students off as exceptions who are geniuses or have deep family connections. While this is sometimes true, many are simply above-average students who hustled and set a high bar for their ambitions. If you don’t take the leap of faith and go for it, you’ll never even have a chance.
To land an offer with a Moonshot company, start networking as soon as possible (even two years in advanced is not too early). You will need to build trust with a few professionals at these firms and cultivate that relationship until you’re eligible to apply for the position.
Internship Category 4: Hidden Gems - job opportunities that exist despite not having a visible job posting
Headline: If you’re limiting your career search to job postings you see online, you are missing 80% of job opportunities out there. This is because many companies (especially smaller firms like startups) have an acute need to hire more employees or interns, but they never get around to listing a job posting on jobs websites like LinkedIn, Indeed, or your university career page. Just because the job posting does not exist does not mean that the job opportunity does not exist.
I wrote an extensive guide on finding hidden job opportunities (it’s also the most viral post I’ve written).Examples: I’ve found that most hidden job opportunities exist in startups or smaller teams of large companies. Startups can be relatively big with a few hundred employees such as Udacity, Flexport, Slack, or very small at under 50 employees. Startups are often synonymous with technology, but you can find startups in every industry imaginable.
Discoverability and Competition: There are many startups and teams at big companies that are open to hiring interns. The tricky part is that these companies are not explicitly asking for interns. To find these opportunities, you need to reach out and ask them to consider you.
The advantage of Hidden Gems is that there is little competition because most people are not reaching out to companies without job postings. And due to the vast pool of hidden opportunities with very few applicants, these opportunities are relatively easy to land.
Other Characteristics: Hidden Gems are fantastic for your first few professional experiences because these companies are open to motivated and proactive students regardless of age or experience. The only drawback is that these opportunities are sometimes unpaid, especially if you don’t have much prior experience.
My Advice: Hidden Gem opportunities are how I -- and most of my friends -- hit the ground running in the professional world. While other Freshmen are thinking about taking extra classes during their first summer, you could instead line up an internship through hidden opportunities. In the vast majority of cases, this will allow you to learn about yourself, your preferences, and your interests significantly faster than through academic classes.
Focusing on Hidden Gem opportunities will also force you to become better at cold emailing and networking – two indispensable skills for long term success with recruiting.
I cannot speak highly enough about Hidden Gems.
Concluding thoughts on internships
As you can see, there are nuances about each internship category that require a customized approach.
Younger students may find that it makes sense to zone-in on hidden opportunities, while networking with Stars and Moonshots for the long term.
Conversely, older students may find that it makes sense to put the majority of their time into Stars and a minority of their time into Staples. This allows them to hedge against striking out with Stars.
Unfortunately, many students don’t take any focused approach and rely on “spray and pray”, which entails applying to hundreds of online job postings in one hour. This usually results in receiving hundreds of rejections as well.
It’s better to have a clear, focused perspective on the types of opportunities you want to target based off your professional interests and prior experience. Then come up with a game plan and execute. Send cold emails, network with professionals, apply for specific opportunities…whatever you do, just keep pushing in a focused manner.
Lastly, never lose sight of the original purpose of internships: to discover your professional passions by exploring interesting and challenging jobs in a low-risk, non-committal environment. After college, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to work in new roles and different companies for 2 months.
Use this opportunity to discover yourself!
Do you find this framework helpful for your internship search? What types of internships will you prioritize this year? Let me know in the comments!