Landing an Internship at a Top Technology Firm: Advice You Can Use

If you want an internship at the likes of Google, Amazon or Facebook, a new study suggests that you’ll need to present yourself in a certain way.

Undertaken by academics at the University of California Irvine, the study* looked at class biases at large technology companies. Two computer science PhD students at UCI interviewed 36 “evaluators” of candidates for elite PhD internships at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon.  The study focused on candidates for UX roles, but could equally apply to applicants for other product or developer positions.

If you want to get in on the bottom rung of a top technology firm, the academics discovered that a few techniques will help, both when it comes to assembling a résumé and presenting yourself at the job interview. 

Use the word “impact” on your résumé to show that you are capable of making actionable recommendations. 

When it came to internships, the study found that evaluators were biased against students who seemed too focused on written research that didn’t translate into the real world. In response to this, evaluators consistently emphasized the need for students who could have “impact.” 

“You should highlight the impact that your research has had or can have on products,” said one Google evaluator. “If you’re presenting your academic work, you need to give actionable recommendations for industry stakeholders so that they can use your research to make real-world changes.”

Evaluators stressed that internship candidates coming from academia often needed coaching to think about how they could translate research findings into “industry-relevant recommendations” that would actually result in real-world changes. 

“All evaluators favored applicants who can articulate the kinds of research methods and study designs that are more likely to yield what evaluators considered as actionable recommendations for product teams,” the study stated. This meant evaluators loved applicants whose résumés were peppered with “symbolically-loaded keywords (e.g., impact, actionable, etc.)” and who were therefore perceived “as a good “fit” with the industry.”

Ideally, you need to get your résumé checked by someone in the industry. Failing that, the report suggests, look at the language existing FAANG employees use on their LinkedIn profiles and emulate that when applying for internships.

Don’t write an internship résumé that just lists all your academic achievements and research.

The evaluators also revealed a bias against overly academic résumés. “For academia, it’s useful to list all your papers, and you never list any real experiences,” one said. “But for industry, the papers are less interesting to us. We’re more interested in knowing about the work you did. Did your work have bearing on partnering organizations or stakeholders, or was it an individual project? Just looking at the résumés themselves can tell you what the frames of applicants are, and we’ll cull applicants that way.”

Write a résumé that focuses on outcomes and impact. 

As well as including keywords like “impact,” the study found that it helps to structure your résumé in a particular way to appeal to the FAANG recruiters. Successful students emphasized the “outcomes and impact” of the work they’d conducted in the past. Unsuccessful candidates were more likely to focus on academic deliverables. (This is good advice for applying for technologist jobs in general: Make sure every line of your résumé shows your results and impact on the broader team and/or organization.)

Prepare for interview questions that probe for awareness of the constraints of working commercially.

In the same vein, the study found that evaluators liked to ask questions probing candidates’ understanding of the realities of commercial work. A favorite UX case study interview question was: “Let’s say that the product team wants to improve the usability of a mobile app. How would you go about designing and conducting a research study if you only had three weeks?”

One evaluator said unsuccessful student applicants often responded with: “We’re going to do a, b, c, d, e, f, g,” without considering time or resource constraints. Successful applicants demonstrated an awareness of these constraints in their answers.

If you’re asked to make a presentation, keep it simple.

If you make it through to an interview, you’re likely to be asked to make a presentation on your past research.

Evaluators said poor academic applicants often approached these presentations all wrong, using “too much jargon” and “too many details.” To make a successful presentation, you need to condense findings to key points and use clear language. “By contrast, academics want to see everything on the slides, like the methods down to the 20 or 50 pages of appendices. That’s not how it is here,” one evaluator said.

Try for a referral. 

If you can get a personal referral, it will make all the difference when applying for internships.

“I’ve interviewed referred candidates, where my manager or colleague was rooting for them to join the company. Because these candidates have already been vetted by company folks, I feel like I’m interviewing them for formality’s sake, which is very different from weeding out candidates who might not be a good fit,” said one evaluator.

Act like everyone who works in tech already.

The study also found that top tech recruiters tended to gravitate towards people who were perceived as “nice,” “smart” and “competent.” Appearance and mannerisms mattered a lot when it came to who landed internships.

“From just looking at the interns now, you can see that the interns tend to speak or behave similarly to their managers,” one evaluator said. “And what’s funny is that sometimes they even dress alike. We do try to hire people who are different from ourselves so that the team is more well-rounded, but sometimes things just pan out this way.” 

*Are You One of Us?: Current Hiring Practices Suggest the Potential for Class Biases in Large Tech Companies

A modified version of this article originally appeared in eFinancialCareers.