Deciding How Many Internships You Should Apply For (aka The Story of Goldilocks the Editor)

Once upon a time, there was a young editor named Goldilocks. She lived at the edge of the City with her family. One morning, while she was on her way back from school, Goldilocks wandered into Manhattan and found herself surrounded by huge skyscrapers leased by publishing houses. She was very frightened until she saw a friendly job board in the distance with a dozen internships up for grabs…

I’d continue, but you probably see where I’m going with this. Depending on where you live, you can find an incredible number of opportunities to get your foot in the door, provided you do your research. So how much effort does Goldilocks need to put in to ensure she gets her perfect job, without burning bridges with too many applications or leaving her days cold and empty for a semester? See what I did…sorry, I’ll stop now.

I’m here to help people formulate their strategy, if only by relying on the stories of my mistakes to give some important advice.

  1. Don’t ever assume that most of your applications will lead to a response,
  2. so plan ahead by estimating which publishers will take longest to respond (if at all),
  3. and then make a hierarchy of which internships you want the most, which you would turn others down for, and which you don’t really want to do.

To figure out your plan of attack, the first step is recognizing that not all publishers are created equal when it comes to responding to applicants. Publishers have two basic styles of attracting interns to apply for internships: post three hard deadlines for Spring, Summer, and Fall positions on a dedicated career page and wait for the applications to come pouring in, or use college career sites, job fairs, and specific website postings to announce an opening with a specific application window. I would argue that the likelihood of a publisher bringing you in for an interview is directly proportional to how much effort they took in getting you to apply.

If you respond to a recent listing, that usually means a staff member has dedicated herself to the task of intern wrangling and will respond within a week. I think that publishers feel obligated to give responses and interviews to those who were watchful and enthusiastic enough to respond quickly to a listing. If you have confidence in your interview skills, this is the only window of opportunity you’ll need, though keep in mind that not all interviews are created equal: I had one interview where it became immediately apparent by the interviewer’s indifferent attitude and the 15-minute duration of the meeting, including the questions I’d prepared, that someone had already won the position de facto. Overall, once you respond to a listing, you typically have three to four weeks until you’ll have a potential decision: one-to-seven days for an email acknowledging the application, about 1-2 weeks until the scheduled interview, and anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks for their decision.

Job listings are straightforward; hard thrice-a-year deadlines are a total crapshoot. More people apply to positions that one can find easily on a dedicated internship page, and the editor or HR rep in charge here is more likely to see applicants as a mass of annoying, unproven applicants than hard-working professionals. Moreover, take that attitude with Boston publishers and multiply it by a ten for paid positions, and by a hundred for New York publishers for their summer programs. Unless you apply well before the actual hard deadline with a cover letter that jumps out somehow among the hundreds of other applicants, you won’t even get a response—except perhaps a rejection email two months later, or an announcement on a Facebook careers page stating all positions have been filled.

The hard math: I’ve gotten interviews from 80% of job listings I’ve responded to with an above-average success rate, while <40% of the other category even responded, with half of those responses promising interviews.

Herein lies the dilemma. You have no way of knowing when or where internship listings will pop up, nor any idea when certain publishers will respond if at all. For my summer internship search one year, I applied for 10 internships in early March and got 2 responses in March, 2 in April, and 2 in May. My best example of the awful choices you’ll have to make: I literally received an email notification for my dream internship in the middle of my second interview for another position at X publisher, which would offer me the job two days later. I ended up losing both and going with a third from a later job listing. Another more pedestrian problem: coming off a fall internship with a great publisher, I applied to only 2 or 3 positions that spring with confidence that my updated resume guaranteed my success. That spring semester was incredibly boring.

Prepare yourself for this anguish in advance, because it’s part of the job description for interns-seeking-work. But you also have to be prepared to make hard choices before reaching the interview phase. If you’re offered an interview when you’re still waiting on the position you really want, consider turning down the interview. You will receive no strong assurances from your dream position in the time it takes to hear back from your safety pick, and publishers are much more understanding toward turning down an interview opportunity than turning down a position you convinced them you wanted a few days ago. So if you go into an interview, you have ostensibly decided that you are abandoning any other future offers you might receive.

 

Your plan of action:

Find the websites for the best publishing houses in your city and their corresponding internship pages, and write down the deadlines for the next internship period. Choose five that you’d want to work for, and of those five try to include at least two or three that allow you to apply for more than one department to avoid the cluster of editorial applicants. By my math, you’ll hopefully hear back from two, and that’s all you want to handle. You can certainly try applying to as many as you can find, but it may not be worth the effort. Consider making iCal or Reminder messages for a couple of weeks prior to the deadline so you have time to construct personalized cover letters for each.

Then start trolling every specialized job board you can find. Try Bookjobs for a huge listing of internships, half of which are up to date. For Bostonians, try Bookbuilders of Boston for a great list of jobs and internships that is regularly updated. Register yourself on publisher websites that send weekly updates on jobs with specific keywords like “intern” and “editorial,” such as Pearson or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And if you’re truly serious about publishing as a career, consider enrolling at a school with a specialized publishing program. Emerson College has regular job fairs that publishers frequently attend looking for interns, and other publishers often send listings to our media coordinator to distribute to students. These perks make your job of researching opportunities that much easier. I’m sure Columbia, NYU, Pace, Portland State, and other publishing programs offer similar opportunities.

As I stated above, apply to listed jobs with the knowledge that you’ll have an answer quickly, and that you have to accept the loss of other potential opportunities without any regrets. You’ll regret it much more if you turn something down only to find nothing else waiting for you.

There are ways of improving your odds, from better cover letters to better interview strategies, and I’ll be covering those in depth in upcoming posts. But a lot of it comes down to luck and hard numbers, and my estimates only go so far.

So good luck, and thanks for reading!

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