(High School Insider)

Education

Column: How I secured an internship at UCLA

Paying extra attention to the contents of an application are important.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/jessicasheng05/" target="_self">Jessica Sheng</a>

Jessica Sheng

May 16, 2022
Getting an internship during high school can do wonders for your education, opportunities and not to mention college applications. As a high school junior, some of my friends have been looking for internship opportunities through programs offered at different universities, which typically require you to go through an application process and a fee to attend if you get accepted.

Rather than looking through the readily offered programs, I instead reached out directly to college professors through their emails. Before long, I landed an internship opportunity at UCLA.

General process:

The process I had to go through was relatively straightforward.

  1. Find which colleges were at least somewhat close to where I lived (for ease of travel).
  2. Go into their faculty list and find professors who were in a field that I was interested in.
  3. Put the contact information of the professors I was interested in into a spreadsheet.
  4. Wrote out a generic cover letter to be emailed.
  5. Sent a mass email using GMass (a Chrome extension) that automatically replaces information in the email with the ones I entered into the spreadsheet.

While simple, it was an extremely tedious process. Some of the websites of colleges I had looked into had a terrible user flow that made it almost impossible to find some professors’ contact information or research focus.

Even with the ones that did, I had to click on each professor’s profile one by one, searching for someone in a field that did something where I could apply my skills.

In addition to adding their information to my spreadsheet, I also had a section where I included a few sentences about their research area and how it intrigued me. This makes the email seem less automated and robotic. When all the busy work was finally completed, I sent out all the emails using GMass.

Example of the spreadsheet format.

Reality check:

Landing an internship is not easy. In reality, very few professors will even respond, and the few who have responded, in my experience, will only respond to reject you. Most of them also don’t allow high schoolers in the lab, which is another contributing factor to the low success rate of landing an internship.

As my college counselor told me, the success rate is around 1-2%; most of his students take around 100-150 emails until they land an opportunity. However, I got extremely lucky and received a chance to intern at UCLA’s engineering department within my first round of 25 emails.

Contents of my email:

Now, as a student attending an art school, I naturally had an extensive art background, yet I was still able to land an opportunity within the STEM field. I believe the contents of my cover letter and how I presented myself and my skill sets played a large factor in my acceptance.

First and foremost, my cover letter included some basic information, such as my GPA, the classes I am taking and the clubs I am in. Since my background is quite inconsistent with the field I am trying to intern for, I blatantly went forward and admitted this.

It is important to be honest and humble, recognizing my own shortcomings. Rather, I used my inexperience with engineering to create an opportunity for me to express my fascination and curiosity about this field.

While I am in high school studying visual arts (most typically associated with fine arts), I did not present any of this type of art to the professor. Instead, I showcased my previous product design projects. This type of art is very applicable to a variety of fields, unlike fine art.

Most skills people gain from their hobbies and interests can be employed in a diverse range of situations that can be transferred across an array of fields. My experience with the design process has also helped me learn skills such as researching online and conducting interviews with professionals. Skills such as these that have been gained through participating in one’s personal craft are indispensable, malleable and transferable to different situations.

Another experience I included was an online internship I had been a part of during the pandemic quarantine. This was a student-run organization (Operation Climate) that sought to educate others on climate change; the experience of working along with such an organization allowed me to gain experience with working in a team and learning to collaborate and communicate with others effectively.

Past professional experiences such as working with an organization, shadowing someone in the workplace, or even tutoring someone shows I know how to work, communicate and conduct myself in a professional setting.

To add some experiences I have had with technology, I created a resume in LaTeX using an online editor called OverLeaf. Within my cover letter, I was able to frame my experience learning OverLeaf as an insight into my character — someone who enjoys challenges and learning new software/technology.

In addition to attaching the resume I created (the resume is just a formality and does not need to be impressive), I also attached some of my previous design projects as a reference. Most of this is simply a formality, but it is an important element to show an extra level of professionalism and proactivity.

Attachments such as my portfolio allowed me to further illustrate my skills. Of course, the most important element of all is to be polite and show you are willing to learn and accept new challenges.

Weaknesses and Strengths

Although my experience with scouting for an internship was a success, there were still aspects I could have improved on. The biggest drawback in my actions was actually my inaction in certain areas.

For one, I could have sent a follow-up email to some of the professors that did not respond to my first one. Showing a little bit of determination will not do any harm to how they perceive you. The first email with all the contents shows proactiveness, and the second one shows perseverance.

If I had done so, perhaps I would have had greater chances of obtaining an internship. Again, I got incredibly lucky, but the odds are usually only 1-2% of being offered an internship this way. To meet that 1-2% threshold, I also could have reached out to more professors as well. 

Another action I did could be seen as both a strength and a weakness — I searched for professors within a really specific and narrow niche, which greatly limited the number of professors I could find. If I had opened up my range more, I would have had a better time finding professors to email my cover letter. But the strength of this is that it helped me to find opportunities that will be more suited and applicable to me and my skill sets. 

Lastly, what I did was I kept editing and rewriting my cover letter. I kept going back to consult with my school teachers and my counselor throughout the entire process to check whether I was lacking in anything. This allows a professional opinion to be given by people within the field and is ultimately what helped me the most with my process.

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