Freshmen technical internships are growing in popularity among large companies who want to recruit early. Research shows that students with an interest in CS who engage in a technical internship after their freshman year are far more likely to stick with the major, and companies looking for CS majors like that. Still, the options for freshmen are slim pickings. Of course, there are definitely exceptions. It’s definitely not impossible for a freshman to land an internship geared toward sophomores and juniors. But for the majority of freshmen, big companies with freshmen internship programs are a good first stop.
Google’s Engineering Practicum and Microsoft’s Explore Program are the most popular freshman/sophomore internships - which means that they are also quite competitive. Both Google and Microsoft generally start interviewing in the fall, and spots fill up by January or February, if not earlier. Google and Microsoft used to begin inviting candidates by late September or early October. Google has since pushed back its recruitment timeline for freshmen, but it’s still midway through fall semester and Microsoft’s timeline is still just as early as its software internships for older students. If you have missed those early deadlines, never fear. Facebook has Facebook University, also a paid freshman internship program. Applications open in January. It’s only eight weeks long, and more of an educational program than an internship. However, it’s an excellent opportunity and a foot in the door. Twitter has #TwitterAcademy - applications close in February. Likewise, Pinterest and Amazon have finally hopped on the freshman-internship train. More and more companies are creating opportunities geared toward students early in their college careers.
While many companies prefer upperclass students, many are not entirely opposed to freshman interns. Many companies who claim to prefer juniors upfront have, indeed, hired freshmen - including Yelp, Amazon, Salesforce, etc. However, these companies tend to hire freshmen only when they can demonstrate the proficiency level of an upperclass students. That being said, it is always better to apply and let the company decide whether or not they want to move forward. In many cases, they might offer a freshman with an impressive resume an interview. Whether or not the freshman makes it past the interview, the experience can give the applicant a better sense of the interview process and the specific company.
Most recruiters and hiring managers specializing in programs targeted toward freshmen are aware of freshmen’s lack of experience. While they expect applicants to have a solid understanding of basic programming principles, they understand that their applicants are just beginning their undergraduate education, and will likely be miles ahead by the upcoming summer. The three things they tend to look for in freshmen are problem-solving abilities, involvement, and passion.
Problem-solving abilities correlate with an ability to learn new technologies and use them to learn a lot in a short, ≈ 3 month internship. Most interviews catered toward freshman applicants are light on data structures like trees, stacks, and queues (and understanding if the applicant has not learned those concepts). They focus more on basic programming principles - arrays, strings, loops - and seek an understanding of how the applicant works through a problem. They expect a deep understanding of basic programming concepts, but care more about candidates’ abilities to work through problems and handle the unknown.
It isn’t always possible to glimpse into day-to-day life at a company through its hiring process, but what companies value in applicants can shed light on how they see employees. Take two hypothetical companies: Company A is a startup that is looking for a full time software engineer with iOS experience. In your interview with Company A, you are asked several questions about Objective-C - some logical, some leaning toward language syntax trivia. Company B is a large organization looking for a full time software engineer with programming experience. In your interview, you are asked to invert a binary tree using any language you choose. Given these hypothetical interview experiences, the person who fills Company A’s position may be valued on his or her iOS skills and ability to solve a very specific problem (mobile development) within the company. On one hand, if the iOS app is no longer needed or valued differently, Company A might value the engineer less. On the other hand, the engineer has an opportunity to impact the company with his or her unique expertise, and grow in that given area. The person who fills Company B’s position may may be valued for his or her problem-solving abilities, and long-term potential in helping Company B solve problems in many different areas. On one hand, the engineer could feel/be replaceable, without any initial specific skillsets that the company values. On the other hand, the engineer may have a lot of flexibility as to what he or she works on. This could translate into job security. If the engineer’s current project area becomes obsolete, the company will still value his or her skills in another area. Also, if the engineer wants to switch focus, he or she may have the opportunity to change teams within the company rather than finding a new job.
Large companies that tend to be open to freshmen are usually more like Company B. This benefits the majority of freshman applicants, who do not yet have deep expertise in specific areas. It also shows why companies with internships targeted at freshmen are more likely to care that an applicant can use logic and perseverance to push through a difficult problem than whether or not they have learned the ins and outs of encapsulation.
Companies also look for motivation and drive - both in and out of tech-related activities. While companies want employees with strong technical skills, they also want employees who can commit to their jobs and communicate effectively with their coworkers. For that, recruiters and hiring managers skim resumes and listen in phone interviews for involvement and passion. Participation in Model UN exhibits communication skills and an ability to analyze (or shall we say “parse”) information. A club leadership position suggests - again - communication skills - but also, initiative and commitment. Involvement in non-tech activities like sports and hobbies show that you are more than just a code monkey - you are a human being with likes, dislikes, and interesting experiences that will contribute to the company culture (which will improve the quality of life for other employees and thus increase productivity). Some non-tech related activities are difficult to convey on a resume - as some companies frown upon it - but great to mention in interviews with hiring managers, who want to evaluate your technical ability just as much as they want to get a sense of what it’s like to work with you.
Tech-related side projects and activities are also important. As much as your commitment to badminton might demonstrate how multi-faceted your personality is, it doesn’t show that you love to code. Companies want to know (or at least, think) that you will love the job. In fact, one goal of freshman internships is to increase commitment to computing majors (in other words, passion) and prevent underclass students (future pipeline) from leaving tech. Side projects are great - they show initiative, creativity, and genuine passion for computer science. They can also reveal your values, and demonstrate that you understand the importance of technology in society. A student makes an iPhone app that encourages people to stop texting while driving in their free time. Another alters a cookie jar with Arduino to open only when the user’s Android app’s pedometer hits 10,000 steps.
Hackathons wrap everything companies want to see up with a neat bow. A hackathon is a 36 hour (or 24, etc.) event during which participants are encouraged to come up with an idea (sometimes answering a prompt) and implement it with technology. Generally, collegiate hackathons involve many students of all experience levels, and participants usually work in teams. Attending a hackathon shows a company that a student has the initiative, motivation, and passion for technology to spend 36 hours on a technical project. It demonstrates that the student can work with a team, running on caffeine and cold, hard perseverance. After the hackathon, assuming the student has build something, they can talk about what they made, why they made it, and the technical and nontechnical hurdles they overcame in the process.
All of this wraps up in one word: promise. Companies looking for freshman interns are looking for students with promise - students who have already gone above and beyond, and have the skills - both technical and non-technical - and drive to succeed. Ultimately, companies want to increase the engineering pipeline - specifically, their engineering pipeline. By providing promising students with technical experience, these companies can instill in the students a deeper love for technology, a deeper love for the specific company, and skills that will increase the number of qualified engineers from which they can choose in the coming years.
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