May 16, 2022

How to Make Yourself Stand Out from 250 Other Internship Applicants

It's hard, but you can do it.

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When I announced the R for the Rest of Us internship position, I expected to receive maybe 20 or 30 applicants. Instead, I got 250. Yes, 250 applicants.

The applicants I got were far more qualified than I expected. I anticipated receiving applications mostly from undergrad students. I got plenty of those, but also many from Master’s students, and even some folks in PhD programs or with PhDs in hand.

I haven’t yet hired an intern. But I have emailed those who did not make the shortlist. Many people responded asking for feedback on their applications. While I’d love to offer this, I simply don’t have the time. I asked on Twitter how to handle this.

Several people suggested writing a blog post. So here we are. This is my advice on how to make yourself stand out from 250 other applicants to an internship position.

Always submit a cover letter

If you’re asked to submit a cover letter, do. With so many applicants, I threw out any application without a cover letter.

I get it. I’ve applied to plenty of jobs and I know that writing cover letters can be annoying. But without a cover letter, I don’t really know who you are.

A cover letter is your place to tell your story. I spent so many hours looking at CVs that they just kind of blended together. A compelling, well-written cover letter got my attention right away.

Use your cover letter to highlight things on your CV. Talk about where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Make your story interesting. Because getting an internship is really just such a good story that someone wants to hire you.

Start with what you give, not what you take

When applying for a position, start with your skills, not what you hope to gain from the position. Now, I get that this might be a bit different because I am hiring an intern, which is all about learning. But even in this role, knowing what you can contribute is huge. Even more importantly, knowing that you are selfless enough to put what you can give before what you plan to take showed me who would be a good team player.

Don’t get me wrong: I plan to mentor whoever I hire as an intern and teach them a ton. But I also need to know what you can offer to R for the Rest of Us. Put this first.

Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is an important maxim in writing. Don’t tell me that someone is clever. Show me how they clever they are by describing the clever things they do.

I got many applications that told me about the amazing things the applicant could do. But far fewer applications showed me. The most successful applications had a link to a GitHub profile, a personal website, or both. I took the initiative and emailed several promising candidates to ask for code samples. But it would have been better if they had these on GitHub so I could see them without asking.

Before applying to an internship or job, if you’re not already using GitHub, set it up! Create a profile README and organize your repositories. Link prominently to your best work. Don’t make me wade through repositories to find something that shows what you can do.

Do your research

I got many applications that talked about skills in other programming languages. This is great! But … it’s not relevant to me as someone reviewing your application (unless you explain your cover letter how it is relevant).

I also got multiple applications where the candidate talked about R skills that aren’t relevant to the work that we at R for the Rest of Us do. Complex statistical modeling is an important and useful skill, but it’s not what we do at R for the Rest of Us.

Do your research on the organization you’re applying to and highlight skills that contribute to their work.

It’s not you – really!

I know people who have become discouraged applying to jobs and not getting them. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think it’s something that’s wrong with you.

In hiring for the first time, I learned how important the fit between the candidate and the position is. For the internship position, I need someone with decent skills in both R and business. I recognize that this is an unusual combination!

If you didn’t make the shortlist you may have had great R skills, but didn’t seem to have skills or interest in the business side of things. It’s not that anything is wrong with you; it’s just that you might not have been the best fit for this position.