By Anna Miars and Jolie Lee
As warmer weather approaches, intern season — the summer months when the intern population swells to noticeable levels — will once again return to Washington, D.C. And with it, tens of thousands of college students looking for work experience.
The exact number is unknown, but calculations range anywhere from Politico’s 2009 estimate of 20,000 to The Fund for American Studies’ (TFAS) estimate that Washington is home to more than 40,000 interns each summer. More than 6,000 summer interns will work in Congress alone.
Regardless of the precise figure, the number of students doing an internship, and the number of students completing multiple internships, is rising.
“Any college that I’ve talked to recently says that they are seeing greater numbers of students doing internships than ever before,” said Jenna Johnson, higher education reporter for The Washington Post. “Everyone feels like they have to have one because future employers expect to see them on resumes now.”
A 2011 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found 47.6 percent of college seniors had completed at least one internship.
In 1967, Meryle Secrest estimated that more than 700 summer interns came to Washington, through college and organization-sponsored programs. “Almost always unpaid and occasionally bolstered with modest scholarships, they are attracted to the glamour of politics, life in a sublet Georgetown house, and by the lure of [sitting in on] decision-making sessions,” Secrest wrote in the Washington Post.
Combine Secrest’s and Politico’s numbers and it adds up to a 2,700 percent increase over the last four decades.
For the slew of college students from universities around the country who will be traveling to and living in the District, the work they do this summer is likely to help them after graduation.
“Career services offices say that more and more students are using internships as a proving ground to land a job,” Johnson said. “Beyond gaining knowledge and making contacts, there is a growing expectation that a professional opportunity will come out of it.”
Employers that took part in a NACE 2010 Internship and Co-op Survey reported that 44.6 percent of their 2009 hires came from their own internship programs.
That’s a significant increase from the previous year’s survey results, when employers reported that 35.3 percent of their 2008 new college hires came from their own programs. This suggests that there is greater reliance on internship programs to identify potential full-time hires.
Another NACE study found that 42 percent of the seniors with internship experience who applied for a job received at least one offer, compared to only 31 percent of seniors who had no internship experience.
“Students entering college in the last few years have been told something different about the college experience than previous generations: to be successful you have to do at least one internship, if not two or three,” said Johnson.
In spite of increasing competitiveness and fewer paid opportunities, college students continue to flock to Washington, wanting to get as much experience in their field as possible before graduating.
Not just politics anymore
Since the early 1960s, a sizable number of summer interns have flocked to the city looking to gain professional experience and connect with the country’s most influential figures.
While politics is still the main draw, Johnson said at least a third of summer interns work outside of government in areas such as journalism, advertising and international business. The other two-thirds are split equally between Capitol Hill and federal agencies, like the departments of Education and State.
In recent years, the city has seen a wider variety of interns, from science to media to the arts, said Mike Smith, president of The Washington Center, a nonprofit that helps place students in internship programs that include work experience, academic lectures and training.
Since 1975, the Washington Center has placed about 50,000 interns, Smith said. In the last 20 years, the number of students who intern during their college years has “exploded,” he added.
“A lot of undergrads see this as a place to not only put in place what they’re studying but to use it as a launching pad and, at the very least, to get a great job recommendation,” Smith said.
“It went from not even being a blip on the radar to where most undergrads feel they have an incomplete experience if they don’t intern.”
Many universities across the country have set up permanent offices in Washington, D.C., to facilitate summer internship programs for their students. Cornell, Harvard and Stanford are just a few. For students who attend schools without ties to Washington, a number of universities in the District — including Georgetown, George Washington and American — offer programs that invite undergraduates to study in the nation’s capital from late May to early August.
American’s Washington Semester Summer Internship Program is affiliated with 175 universities outside the D.C. Metro area, which account for 98 percent of participating students each year. The program offers six tracks and three to six academic credits.
“We’ve received more applications and more deposits year over year,” said Robert Walter, the Washington Semester Program’s assistant director for recruitment and admissions. “Right now, we have 136 deposits, 10 more than last year and more than double what we had in 2010.”
Walter expects numbers to grow further in coming years. He estimates that 40 percent of the city’s summer interns utilize university or nonprofit programs, while 60 percent secure an internship independently.
“Today, gaining real world experience in a professional setting is invaluable,” said Walter. “By the time students graduate they need to have two or three internships just to be competitive with their peers.”
Gaining political clout
As the nation’s political nerve center, it is no surprise that summer internships in both the House of Representatives and Senate are the most popular and competitive.
Internships in congressional offices vary widely from lawmaker to lawmaker. In some offices, interns’ jobs are answering phones and giving tours to constituents. Others work behind-the-scenes, researching issues and writing memos.
“Spending your summer in Washington is more than just an introduction to politics and the political way of life,” wrote Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Hartigan in 1985. “It’s also an introduction to the political state of mind.”
Writing skills are crucial to land an internship with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Along with a resume, cover letter and two letters of recommendation, applicants must write a letter to a constituent as if it is from the senator, said Sue Walitsky, communications director for Cardin.
Cardin’s office receives as many as 1,000 emails a week from constituents, and interns play a big role in responding to them, Walitsky said.
Meanwhile, as many as 40 summer interns work in the main office of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Applicants from Massachusetts receive preference in the intern selection process, said Whitney Smith, Kerry’s press secretary and a former intern herself. Home state preference applies, too, for Harper’s and Cardin’s internship programs.
“We view internships as a constituent service,” Smith said.
Kerry’s press office alone accepts up to four college students each summer in addition to the 40 in the main office. The press interns compile press clippings, do research before the senator has to do an interview or give a speech, and help organize press conferences and other media events.
“There are no coffee-makers here,” Smith said.
But students still need to be willing to do some of the “nitty gritty” work in the office, said Nellie Elizabeth Plunkett Freeman, the internship coordinator for Cardin’s office.
“If you do a shabby job on it, they’re going to go with someone else,” Freeman said.
She added that enthusiasm helps.
“If you can’t be psyched about being on the Hill right now, you shouldn’t be here.”