How to Find an Internship in Washington, DC

If you opened this thinking, “it’s not next spring, Shannon…why are we talking about internships?”, please give me a chance. I’m here to tell you that it is never too early to start looking. New York City might be the “city that never sleeps”, but Washington D.C. is the “city that makes you apply for internships 9 months before you would start and then makes you feel bad about missing all the deadlines”. Maybe this is a unique to DC thing. Or maybe it feels like it because the city holds a lot of government agencies and ~security clearances~ are a dime a dozen here. Finding an internship in DC isn’t impossible, but you have to be up to the challenge.

So let’s pretend that you’re looking for an internship for summer 2018. I’ve laid out a fairly simple timeline for you to follow, but it is flexible. It’s also definitely dependent on the type of organization you want to work for. I’ve tried to make it as all-encompassing as I could. Finding an internship in this city is one of the worst things I have ever had to do (and I’ve done it a lot). Here’s to your process being easy and quick!

September-October 2017

You will only find yourself in this portion of the timeline if you have hopes of working for any government agency. Power up your laptop and start with USAjobs.gov. Most internships through the federal government will be posted here. Definitely make sure you check the website of the agency you’re interested in just in case, but if you’re not picky, start here. Most will be unpaid positions, but paid positions do exist. They will all be incredibly competitive but don’t let that stop you from applying.

Once you’ve found the posting you want to apply for, go attack your resume. You will need to create a federal resume, which is widely different than a normal one-two page resume. Federal resumes can be as long as you can justify them. At 23, mine was five pages and I’ve seen some that were easily 15 pages. If you don’t change your resume, you likely won’t make it past the computer screening system of USAjobs. They have some great resources on what to include and there are hundreds of articles about how to write one floating around. It’s annoying and intimidating, but don’t let it phase you. The fact that you’re writing a new resume will set you above some of your competitors.

Make sure to include key words from the job posting (especially the qualifications) in your resume and in your cover letter. That will help you get past the computer, too. These positions won’t be up very long so if you see one you want, don’t hesitate!

Mid October-Mid December 2017

Everyone who isn’t trying to break into government can come back and join us– towards the end of this time frame (mid-Octoberish), internships for SPRING might crop up at organizations you’re interested in (i.e. NGOs or non profits). If you’re not DC-based, check and see if you could find one remotely. It’s a bit different, but I would say it’s worth it. One of my best internships was remote.

December 2017-February 2018

Positions for other organizations can come out as early as December and as late as April or May. In my experience, you are best off starting your search early. Start your search at places like DCjobs, Indeed, Idealist and sign up for list serves through Brad Traverse and District Daybook. Some of these are free, others cost about $5 a month. These two list serves I have mentioned will be your go to for positions on The Hill aka Congress. However, if you want to go this route, I would start by reaching out to your Senator or Congressman/woman’s local/state office. Use the fact that you are one of their constituents to help you get a job.

If you don’t see a position open at an organization you want, find the email for someone in HR (or email their general contact page if nothing else). Send them a quick note explaining how excited you are about potentially working with them and see if they will tell you when things will be posted. I know this is weird. I still get weirded out by doing it, but it is so normal in this city. Everyone got to where they are because of someone else (and if they say they did it alone, they’re lying). This could potentially give you a leg up in the application process. Anything that will help HR recognize your name if your resume comes across their desk is worth doing.

March-May 2018

If you haven’t landed something yet, don’t fret. Some places are really last minute. So keep looking. 90% of my internships have been found in the early part of this time frame. Many organizations will wait for their spring internship programs to get rolling before posting for the summer. You should also use this time to work on your LinkedIn profile and connect with people who are in your field. Basically, network. I personally know someone who was offered an internship because he reached out to someone on LinkedIn and asked to set up a Skype informational interview. You truly never know what might happen. Craft your best introduction note and send it along! Do whatever you can to not sit on your hands.

My Advice

The unfortunate part about internships in DC is how important it is to actually really need to network. Leverage your professors and their connections if you don’t personally know anyone. Because of the sheer volume of applicants, knowing someone who could pass your name along is vital. It might not get you the gig, but it could get your resume looked at in greater detail. (We have a great networking post for you to check out if you’re not the best networker!).

If you would rather have some more structure in your summer (and more help finding a position) check out the internship program at American University. It is called the Washington Semester Program I believe. It holds a place in my heart because it’s the reason I met Carrie. You enroll in the program, take a class, and then spend most of the summer interning. They provide some support finding a position but don’t expect them to do it for you. You can also look at GW or other schools for summer programs, but I can’t personally speak to those programs.

It’s also important to remember not to get discouraged. The best and brightest come to DC looking for and competing for the same few positions. Most people are overqualified for unpaid work but it’s the best way ‘in’ to a company. You’ll find yourself competing with the Ivy League educated and world travelers- but don’t get discouraged. You will find your way.

Last thing

If you have any specific questions, please email me. I have had five internships in DC and seven total in the past couple of years so I have really been through it all. In fact, I’m still doing it (anyone wanna hire me for the fall?). It is really hard to give a lot of generic advice because a lot of it is field dependent. I am more than happy to talk with anyone one-on-one about any concerns you have. I won’t claim to have the perfect solution, but I will do everything I can to help. There is something to be said about paying it forward (I hope) so truthfully…don’t hesitate.

Shout out to loyal friends and readers, Jackie (@jackiecampbell_) and Jessica (@_jlach) for being my sounding board for this post. Us former interns have to stick together!

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