How I Got Junior-Level Internships As a Freshman and Sophomore

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This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

Below you’ll find the in-depth story of my recruiting process during Freshman and Sophomore year. I wanted to include my Junior and Senior year in this post, but decided to split my story into a 2-part series to allow for more details.

There’s two reasons why I think this is an important article:

Firstly, people tend to have a very rosy view of the recruiting process. When you look at the LinkedIn profile of someone you respect professionally, you only see their successes. Social media fails to show you how much failure is behind every success.

I hope you get a glimpse of the ups and downs of recruiting that I went through in my first 2 years in college.

Secondly, I want to show you why it’s important to proactively focus on the 4 types of internships: Stars, Staples, Moonshots, and Hidden Gems. Each of these internship categories played a role in my recruiting process, and next week you’ll see how my focus changed as I became a Junior and Senior.

In my story below, you’ll notice that I labeled every internship opportunity with its type.

Freshman Year

Coming into my Freshman year, my career hypothesis was to work at an early stage startup. Growing up in the Silicon Valley, I’ve always been deeply interested in technology and enamored by the David vs. Goliath characterization of startups.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of the world’s next Google or Amazon?

Today, my career aspirations are still similar to my Freshman year hypothesis. However, I’d like to think my current perspective is more nuanced with a better understanding of what it means to work in early stage ventures.

Nonetheless, my career goal during my Freshman year was to learn more about startups and build a baseline business analytical skill set (primarily Excel skills).Half way through my Freshman year, I remember applying and getting rejected to almost every single internship. My resume was empty of meaningful experience and completely filled with fluff. I had nothing, and in retrospect it’s a miracle I even got a few interviews.

However, I did get close to landing an internship with Salesforce [Staple] in the internal audit department and Uber [Star] in marketing analytics. Both companies were very strong brands and would have been phenomenal learning experiences for a first internship.

Despite making it to the final round (and getting very excited), I was rejected from Salesforce in favor of a Junior with more tax experience. The following week, I was rejected from Uber in the second round because I blew the interview.

I distinctly remember the interviewer asking me how I would launch Uber in Sacramento (believe it or not there was a time where Uber was not in every major city). I had no experience answering business strategy questions and started rambling a laundry list of things I would do.

I was disappointed with the rejection but knew I was reaching far above my qualifications. If I actually landed those internships with Uber and Salesforce, it would be because of luck. I had no clue what I was doing.

As I mentioned, my resume was virtually empty. The only reason I got interviews for these positions was because I networked with professionals from both companies beforehand.

I knew getting a start with my first internship would be challenging. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Employers are interested in candidates with experience, but as a Freshman, I needed an employer to take a chance and give me my first experience.

Feeling rejected, I went back to the drawing board and came up with a list of 30 companies (mostly startups) I’d like to work for.

After cold emailing and networking for a month, I landed an unpaid internship at Trumaker [Hidden] in marketing and strategy. This was a job opportunity that had no formal job posting -- I just happened to reach out at a time when they needed an extra hand.

I mean that literally.

For 50% of the internship I got to leverage customer data to build analyses (my first serious attempt at using Excel) and put together PowerPoint presentations for my manager and the founders. The other 50% of the time I indulged in “founder’s work.

”The founder of Trumaker always had a wide grin when he asked “hey Rohan, want to do some founder’s work?” This usually meant manually packing boxes to ship products to customers.

It was a memorable lesson that startup work is not always glamorous. I was happy to do it because I felt grateful that the company gave me my first professional experience.

Looking back, most of the value I added to the company came from packing those boxes. I doubt my Excel analysis and PowerPoint presentations were helpful to anyone but myself.

You have to start somewhere. Hidden and unpaid opportunities are a great way to build foundational skills and validate or reject early hypotheses. Through my internship with Trumaker, I validated my hypothesis of wanting to work at an early stage startup.

However, this hypothesis still needed more pressure testing and further discovery. I didn’t know what types of startups I liked (industry, product vs. service, size), nor did I know which roles were best for me (business operations, product management, finance, marketing, etc.)I remember working with the VP of operations who had 10 years of experience from consulting and private equity firms. I figured building a strong strategic skill set would position me well to add value to startups later in my career.

And with that, my new career hypothesis was to prioritize learning business strategy and eventually leverage this skill in the startup world.

With one professional experience under my belt, I decided to study abroad during my Freshman year summer in London. It seemed like a great time to have fun, and I knew I wanted to spend my next few summers trying different internships.

If you can carve out the time and have the financial means, I highly recommend studying abroad -- even if it’s for a few months. You will make friends across the world, learn about different cultures, and temporarily detach yourself from the hectic environment of your university campus.

Studying abroad is an experience that the vast majority of people who participate remember fondly, with very few regretting the decision.

Sophomore Year

During my Sophomore year, I made massive progress on my professional development and career hypotheses through 3 more internships.

After enjoying my experience with strategy work at Trumaker, I knew I wanted to pursue technology and strategy related opportunities. Around this time, I also picked up an interest in finance through my involvement with a student investing club.

It’s rare to find a mix of strategy, technology, and finance in your first job out of college. Given that I was seriously considering strategy positions for my full time job, I decided to prioritize finding finance experience through an internship. Sophomore year was the perfect time to dabble in other interests, especially with part-time internships during the school year.

I reached out to private equity, venture capital, and corporate development professionals to learn about their industries. They all worked at companies I considered Moonshots for a top-notch junior or senior, and nearly impossible for the Sophomore I was. Nonetheless, my goal was simple: to learn about finance.

Morgan Stanley

Through this process, I ended up getting in touch with a private wealth manager at Morgan Stanley [Hidden] who was looking for an intern.

Quick note: while Morgan Stanley is a well respected firm that is usually considered a Star or Moonshot, its classification is heavily dependent on the department you work for. Wealth management internships are relatively abundant, with less competitive interview processes, and lower compensation than the investment banking or sales & trading departments. As such, I consider it more of a Hidden opportunity. However, I wasn’t interested in wealth management, which is a very different type of finance from private equity, venture capital, and corporate development.

I remember being skeptical before my first conversation with the hiring manager, because I knew some of my peers had bad experiences interning at wealth management firms.

Nonetheless, I went forward with the conversation and it turned out to be a surprisingly unique opportunity. The manager wanted help automating his business, which would require that I learn how to code and work with a large amount of data.

After this conversation, I realized this was basically a software engineering role with a little bit of finance. A huge challenge for which I was entirely unqualified. But life’s about pursuing interesting opportunities, so I went for it.

While working at Morgan Stanley in the fall of my Sophomore year, I continued emailing finance professionals to learn more about their respective industries. Through these emails, I got in touch with various people in private equity and one corporate development team.

Those first private equity conversations were rough. I was not very prepared and came across as inexperienced when talking to relatively senior PE professionals. Despite my embarrassment, I do not regret having these conversations.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, has a famous saying for technology startups: “if you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

Similarly, if you wait too long to become an expert before networking with professionals, I believe you’ve waited too long. The advantages of networking are amplified the earlier you start.

Even though I embarrassed myself with a few of these calls, I benefited in 3 big ways from networking early.

  1. I better understood the difference between a good and bad conversation, and got better at building a relationship with random professionals by asking interesting questions
  2. Despite a few terrible calls (one lasted as short as 7 minutes), I learned quite a bit about private equity -- my original objective
  3. I had a fantastic, 60 minute conversation with an analyst on the corporate development team at Disney -- this one conversation led to an incredible opportunity 2 years later

Networking early pays off, and I learned to love the thrill of emailing strangers to learn about their careers.

The Journey to Levi Strauss & Company

In the winter and spring of my Sophomore year, I was on the lookout for a summer internship. Recruiting happened early at my university, and I knew I had to be on top of it to land something interesting.

At this point, I was still targeting opportunities within my 3 interest: strategy, technology, and finance.

I made a long list of Staple companies, well-known technology startups [Stars], and financial firms like investment banks and private equity funds [Moonshots because of my experience level]. For each company, I searched for an internship posting and point of contact of someone on the team.

Once compiled, I sent emails to each of the point of contacts. A few opportunities surfaced from my outreach.

First, I got in touch with someone on the business operations team at Palantir [Star], a high-growth and infamously secretive startup. The job description sounded fascinating, requiring a mix of strategy and technical skills with a deep passion for technology.

Furthermore, the position was in New York City. I’ve always wanted to spend time in another major city after growing up in the Silicon Valley and attending university just 40 miles away from where I was born.

I thought this internship fit my interests perfectly, and luckily I was able to land an interview through cold emailing and phone conversations.

After preparing for over 5 hours, I did my first behavioral interview over the phone. It was absolutely brutal. I was not prepared for how deep the interviewer dug into my past experiences, and I remember feeling completely hopeless after the call ended.(I didn’t realize it at the time, but the questions she asked me were typical of rigorous behavioral interviews and very much preparable with the right guidance. I wrote a comprehensive guide on this topic here. Learn from my mistakes, please.)Despite feeling like I failed, I managed to move on to the next round. I was ecstatic -- my chances of working in NYC at a Star were not lost.

The next round, they sent me a take home analysis and recommended spending 3-4 hours to put some materials together.

I spent 10 hours putting together the most polished analysis and presentation I could. Eagerly, I sent my materials and waited for their response.

A few days later, I was rejected.

The recruiter told me they were looking for someone who could better “parse out the variables” -- I had no idea what that meant.

Excited by the prospect of working at Palantir in NYC, this rejection felt like falling face first into the pavement.

I was so attached to the idea of this internship that the failure stung worse than my rejection from Salesforce and Uber.

Just when I was building confidence in my understanding of the recruiting process, I got rejected. This continued over and over again.

It took me another year to realize it’s not about preventing yourself from falling into the pavement, rather it’s about getting back up quickly. Rejections are a natural part of the recruiting process and should be expected.

I wrote my thoughts on how to deal with rejection here.

Around this time, I landed 2 more interviews. Neither was because of networking, rather I got lucky from applying on my university career website. One was in management consulting at ZS Associates [Star] and the other was in investment banking at Barclays [Star].After going through the interview process for both firms, I ended with an offer from ZS and a rejection from Barclays.

This was a comfortable spot to be - I finally had a solid summer internship. But I knew there were still opportunities that were even more exciting.

I heard about a strategy team at the Levi Strauss and Company [Staple] that hired an intern the previous year. So I cold emailed the hiring manager asking to learn more about the position. Instead of talking with me, she forwarded my resume to the recruiter and I got an interview for a summer internship in strategy.

I spent at least 5 hours preparing for this interview by reading through public finance filings and learning about the history of Levi’s. By the end of my preparation, I wrote a full page of strategy-related notes and questions that I wanted to ask my interviewer.

During the interview, I never got a chance to look at my notes but the ideas and questions stuck with me. We talked about my experience at Trumaker (the clothing startup) and discussed strategic challenges the company faced.

A few days later, the hiring manager called to make the offer. She said it was clear that I was the most prepared candidate.

I now had 2 exciting internship offers. While ZS offered significantly more compensation that Levi’s, I ended up choosing Levi’s for a few reasons:

  1. It felt like the most exciting and interesting opportunity of the two
  2. I was curious to learn about strategy in a Fortune 500 company
  3. I intended to recruit for other management consulting firms the following year and felt that in-industry strategy would better compliment future consulting experience rather than spending two consecutive summers in consulting

I was lucky in that I could prioritize the factors above instead of maximizing my compensation. Unfortunately, some don’t have this luxury.

SaaS Startup

In the spring of my Sophomore year, I came across someone’s profile on LinkedIn that caught my eye. He worked in management consulting, attended a top business school, and now leads business operations at a software startup.

Because of my interest in consulting and startups, his background was perfect. I knew I needed to talk with him.

Motivated by my prior successes with cold emailing, I sent him a brief but authentic email asking to chat about his career. After multiple follow ups and back-and-forth emails, we finally had a phone call while he was waiting for a flight at the airport.

What I thought would be a 20 minute phone call with a busy startup Vice President ended up lasting a full hour. He offered valuable advice that shaped my perspective and validated my decision to pursue management consulting.

Towards the end of the call, he started pitching me on a short, paid internship with his startup. He was impressed with my persistence in emailing and following up (it took 3 attempts to get in touch with him) and wanted my help on a project before starting my internship at Levi’s.

My career hypothesis was to learn business strategy skills then move to an early stage startup, and someone who did exactly that was offering me the opportunity to work for him. I took it in a heartbeat.

By the end of Sophomore year...

In the span of just 1 year, I went from having only one professional work experience to four. From struggling to fill a full page on my resume to struggling to fill only one page on my resume.

I exposed myself to an incredible diversity of functions, cultures, and industries:

  1. Data analysis and engineering at a bank with strong traditions and a formal work culture (wore a suit to work)
  2. Corporate strategy at a 100+ year old apparel company with rich history and a casual work environment (wore jeans to work)
  3. Sales operations at a high-growth startup that’s evolving faster than it was staying constant (wore shorts to work… just kidding, it wasn’t that casual)

Through these internships, I validated my larger hypothesis of wanting to learn business strategy and work at an early stage startup. Simultaneously, these internships helped me validate and reject many mini-hypotheses about the type of work I like to do and environment I thrive in.

A few things I learned about myself are:

  • I enjoy the hyper-growth culture of an early stage company, and become restless at slower-paced large company.
  • Similarly, I enjoy the technology aspects of companies because of how quickly the industry evolves
  • I realized that the culture, skills, and challenges I engage with on a daily basis are bigger drivers of my day-to-day happiness than the actual product or service the company sells

Here’s a chart to better visualize this iterative learning process.

Career Hypothesis

Through these iterations, I felt a growing sense of conviction in my career aspirations and confident in my prospects for Junior year recruiting. It’s incredible how much you can learn in just 1 year by putting yourself out there and seeking new experiences. It takes a rollercoaster of thrilling highs and confidence-shaking lows to learn these lessons, but it’s 100% worth it.

A question for you

Try taking a stab at filling out this blank career hypothesis chart.

Career Hypotheses Framework-03

If you’re struggling to list hypotheses, get more involved with the opportunities around you. Be strategic about the Star, Staple, Moonshot, and Hidden Gem opportunities you target to maximize your success and learnings. Next week I’ll finish the story of my undergrad career path by describing the roller-coaster of Junior and Senior year.

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