“The number of students seeking internships significantly outnumbers the availability of internship positions,” according to Sharon Berry, Ph.D, chair of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC). This imbalance crisis is a variable that’s clearly beyond a candidate’s control. However, you can focus your efforts on what you can control. Here, experts share what students can do to increase their chances of matching for internship.
1. Apply to both competitive and non-competitive sites.
Applying exclusively to competitive internships can limit your chances of matching. Why? Competitive sites have high numbers of applicants but only several slots available, according to Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit. (The APPIC website offers information on the numbers for each site.)
2. Make your fit with a site clear-cut.
Fit is a critical aspect of matching, experts agreed. Gregory T. Eells, Ph.D, director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell University, regularly sees great candidates, but “the key thing we look for is how will they fit into the environment.”
How you fit into an internship is what you want to convey in your application. The goal is “to draw very direct connections between what” you’re looking for and how the site is going to train you to fill in the gaps in your training and expand on the skills you already have, Williams-Nickelson said. That is, your strengths and experiences need to fit in with the internship, Eells said.
In other words, make “sure your vita matches with your stated goals,” and “tie in [your training and experience] in a way that makes sense to the committee,” Eells said. For instance, let’s say you want to look for internships that specialize in eating disorders, and you did some counseling work at a college mental health center, where you regularly saw women with disordered eating. In your application and interview, emphasize that you’ve actually worked with this population, which tends to be a common one at on-campus counseling centers.
Another way to find a fit with a site is by looking at contextual features, Williams-Nickelson said. Look at the “faculty in the program, how long they’ve been there, what types of areas they specialize in [and] their interests in terms of research,” she said. You may find some legitimate matches between your interests and other faculty members that you’re excited about. But keep in mind that authenticity is key, so you’re “not just complimenting faculty or research for the sake of complimenting them.”
3. Write standout essays.
According to Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: “Write excellent essays that truly reflect that you have carefully thought through your training strengths and areas that need more training. Make sure the essays convey a sense of who you are as a unique psychology trainee and capture your own personal goals.”
Also, have “a valued mentor read and edit your essays and your entire application,” Berry suggested. Undoubtedly, a great application is essential for scoring an interview.
4. Practice the interview portion — a lot.
But a great application can only get you so far. In fact, as Williams-Nickelson said, “People who look fantastic on paper and are highly skilled and wonderful clinicians are often terrible interviewers.” The problem? Students “aren’t used to selling themselves or talking about what they know how to do.” They’re “very willing to identify their weaknesses,” but not their strengths. In fact, Williams-Nickelson commonly hears from training directors that great candidates who submit “really good applications that make the fit explicit” still flop their interviews.
Fortunately, this is simply a matter of practice. She suggested candidates role-play and prepare themselves for “a wide variety of interviews, from very informal with lots of feedback to very formal [where the interviewer is] almost being stoic.” If you “actually spend time practicing how you’d interview in those different interview environments,” you’ll have an advantage, she said. It’s important for students to be ready to answer questions and talk about their training, experiences and goals with “confidence, ease, authority, presence and poise.”
For help, check out the APPIC website. She also said that general resources on job interviews can be valuable.
5. Be open geographically.
“Data suggest that applying to a restricted geographic area can limit the chances of matching to an internship site,” Prinstein said. So spreading out your applications can boost your chances of matching.
6. Show that you’re a multidimensional person.
Students should be “able to talk about professional activities outside of [their] academic curriculum” and how these activities have “influenced [their] developing professional identity,” Williams-Nickelson said. Activities can include anything from helping out Habitat for Humanity to serving on your state psychological society to giving presentations to elementary schools about drug abuse, she said.
This gives committee members a “glimpse into who students are as a person which plays into who they are as a psychologist,” she said. These activities also “demonstrate a commitment to activism,” which are again “qualities that are valued in an emerging psychologist.”
You also can discuss interesting hobbies, such as being a ballet dancer or a conservationist, she said. Think about ways that you can link your activities outside of academia to psychology. Consider what makes you an interesting and unique person, she said. Internship sites “want to select people that seem interesting and will help them think better and challenge their ways of viewing clients and the world.”
7. Ask in-depth questions at your interviews.
Eells and his faculty are “really impressed” when candidates have done their homework and ask in-depth, meaningful questions about the program. Asking about theoretical orientation is a common mistake, because each staff member’s theoretical orientation is usually on an internship website, Eells said. Asking “general questions [doesn’t] convey the fit piece as well,” he added.
8. Ask for help.
Faculty and former students from your program can be great resources during the internship process. “Work with your doctoral training program and director of training to guide you with practical advice and guidelines,” Berry said.
9. Select doctoral programs with high match rates.
If you’re just beginning to research grad schools, “select doctoral programs with high match rates and the type of training that will prepare [you] for [your] career goals,” Berry said.
While internship is a “necessary and valuable training exercise,” keep in mind that “this one year won’t make or break your career,” William-Nickelson said. “Internship doesn’t determine your life course,” so it’s important to keep it in perspective, she added.