How to land your dream summer internship

Lauren Berger did 15 internships during college. She's blown up coffee machines and jammed paper in printing machines. She's received job offers and learned from top-notch professionals. She's interned at Fox and MTV.

But there's one thing she didn't take away from doing so many internships: regret.

"Internships are priceless," says Berger, author of "All Work, No Pay" and founder of Intern Queen Inc. "You have the opportunity to walk into a business where you may want to work and learn everything about what the industry and specific company have to offer. An internship is a strong resume builder, great networking tool, and gets you preparing for your future."

Maybe 15 internships isn't your cup of chai tea. But research suggests you should do at least one internship during college to avoid joblessness at graduation time. A 2011 survey conducted by National Associations of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that the responding companies converted nearly 58 percent of the their interns into full-time hires.

But don't go into the application process blind. With deadlines for summer internships arriving, you need to act now. Here's a guide to landing a great summer internship.

Make some decisions

To expedite your search, there are a few questions to answer before applying:

  • Am I willing to do an unpaid internship?
  • Am I willing to relocate?
  • Am I willing to intern at a start-up company?

Fortunately, more than half of internships the class of 2011 did were paid, the 2011 NACE survey reports. But unpaid internships can still be just as valuable, says Heather R. Huhman, author of "Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle." However, sometimes companies use unpaid internships as free labor. To make sure the internship is legal, look at the list on the Department of Labor's website.

As for interning with start-up companies, Huhman thinks you should specifically target them, since it could be what helps turn your internship into a job offer. "Start-ups offer more hands-on experience than you'll get at most big companies," says Huhman, who's also an experienced hiring manager. "They are more likely to be impressed by your work because you're a big fish in a small pond."

Find your dream internship

Now that you have an idea of what internships you'll take, here's how to apply:

  1. Make a list of about 10 places you'd like to intern. Huhman says if the company doesn't advertise an internship program, draft a proposal about how valuable of an asset you'd be during an internship.
  2. Look over your contacts. Since companies will usually hire someone they know if they can, Huhman says it's always best if you have a contact within the organization where you're applying.
  3. Try the traditional route. Look at job boards, go to career fairs and consult your school. Keep in mind that you'll be competing with more people when applying for these advertised internships.

Though it may be difficult to gauge the quality of the company's internship program beforehand, do a bit of research. It's better to apply for good internships now than turn down bad ones later. There are a few things to look for.

"An internship should be organized, structured, have a start and end date, a list of tasks specific to the interns, and everything the intern does should have some sort of learning initiative associated with it," Berger says. "...if you sense that the company doesn't know what they would do with interns, you may want to reconsider."

Master the application process

To stand any chance at all of landing a good internship, you need to customize every single cover letter and resume. Otherwise, "they can tell it's generic," Berger says. Make sure your cover letter and resume are flawless. And never send an incomplete application or your application in pieces, Berger says.

Following up after submitting is crucial. This is you informing them of your submitted application and reiterating your interest in the position. Huhman says to do this every 7-10 days, up to three times, but always over email, since "unexpected calls are incredibly disruptive."

If you master all of this, you'll be a competitive candidate for a great summer internship.