Student's perspective: Applying for an internship - reality check.

How important are your networks and what you need to know before you start a job hunt? Find the answers in this internship testimonial by Peter Starr, UPDM Graduate 2018.

Introduce yourself - Which course are you on? What year?

Hi, I’m Peter. I recently graduated from the Urban Planning, Design and Management course and will start working as a Graduate Urban Planner at AECOM in London - I also founded the BSP HelpHub with Hassan and Anastassia. I particularly enjoyed the planning and design concentrations of the course and value the balanced perspective on urbanism it provided me.

Which company have you recently been involved with as either intern/job/work-experience? And for how long? Please tell us about the application process.

I’m going to use this opportunity to reflect on an internship I did between my second and third year at UCL. I believe that the summer before your final academic year is the most important one – it’s a crucial opportunity to get some professional experience towards strengthening your applications.

I studied abroad at the University of Hong Kong from January to July 2017 and had limited access to networking opportunities back to UK, which meant that many of my online applications for internships were rejected, or even worse, completely ignored. It was a rough reality check but a very important experience as it taught me to be more pragmatic and proactive when applying for jobs in third year.

In my (relative) despair, I decided to reach out to my network to find potential internship opportunities. I was extremely fortunate that a close acquaintance of mine worked in higher education in the Middle East and knew a guest lecturer in Urban Planning at New York University Abu Dhabi. This person previously worked in the private sector and was in close contact with the Abu Dhabi, UAE office of Broadway Malyan (BM), an international urban design and architecture firm (for those interested, BM are listed in the companies section of this website). I sent to this person a copy of my CV and they agreed to introduce me to two senior designers at BM. I sent them an email cover letter and then got an interview, in which I performed well. I did a ton of research on the company and shared examples of design work I had done at university, so they were impressed by the amount of effort I put into preparing for the interview. In total, I spent just about 2 invaluable months at BM Abu Dhabi: they are an outstanding firm with the nicest people and fascinating projects.

Has your work-experience enhanced or changed your view of where your career aspirations lie?

Without being too dramatic, it changed everything. There’s no substitute for practice. The only way to find out exactly what you’re interested in is through experience – the hands-on stuff. I initially thought I wanted to be an urban designer but following my experience at BM I realised that I enjoyed both planning and design, as well as urban analytics. My internship shaped my perspective and approach to my final year. I also mastered the Adobe Suite and became proficient with SketchUp and AutoCAD, two softwares that were highly useful for the third-year design modules.

How much has your current university education prepared you for your recent work/internship? Have any modules stood out as preparation for professional work?

The Urban Planning, Design and Management course is excellent in the sense that it really does balance practical and theoretical tasks within the various modules. As I was working in Urban Design, I was often required to take notes and draw. Graphic communication is an important part of the design process, so translating my ideas into sketches (and eventually into draft masterplans) was something I did quite often. The urban design modules, particularly in first and third year, that emphasise sketching out concepts proved to be useful in preparing me for the job. But the more policy heavy modules, such as Green Futures and Introducing Planning Systems, were equally helpful as I learned to appreciate the political and administrative regulations that shape the development of urban environments. Besides, these modules helped me understand the politics of urbanism, as many projects reflect political aspirations and are a physical manifestation of the vision that officials have for their cities. This is especially the case in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), where most of the projects I worked on were grandiose – the UAE want to demonstrate their ambition on a world scale (just look at the Burj Khalifa). In sum, the aforementioned modules contextualised the work I was doing and helped me reflect on the implications of urban planning and design.

Any tips?

A few.

Building your CVs and Covers Letters takes a long, long time. The earlier you start, the easier your life will be when the studies get tough. Make the most of the information here on the HelpHub – it’s the whole point of this platform. We’re trying to consolidate all the information you could need on one platform, so keep a look out for updates on the site over the next few months. I also recommend to set up a meeting with both the Bartlett and UCL careers advisors to get a professional opinion but do so early as after November it can be hard to set up an appointment. Visit the Career centre at ULU and pick up some brochures to help you when you’re putting together your CVs and applications.

It’s also really important to tailor your CV and application to each company you apply to. Do thorough research on each company (values, skills they look for, projects, etc). Again, the HelpHub will be helpful for this. Build up a list of folders for each company on your computer so that you can quickly sort through your application material. Its good practice to have a master CV and cover letter that you can then adapt to each company.

On that note, the best way to get a feel for a company is in person. Go to networking events, seminars or workshops whenever possible. It can feel like a burden sometimes, especially when you’re tired, but you feel really productive after. It will greatly strengthen your application if you can say that you attended an event organised by that company and even drop a name of someone you met. Chatting with professionals will equally develop your networking skills.

You have a better chance of finding a job if you’re in contact with a human being rather than having your CV screened by a computer.

Another thing to consider is that online applications for graduate schemes and internships are viciously competitive, especially if you’re applying as an undergraduate. Although it can be quite daunting, the best and most effective way to find opportunities is by creating them. Build connections and reach out directly to your network to enquire about potential internships, jobs etc. Develop relationships with your lecturers, as they will be happy to help you. You have a better chance of finding a job if you’re in contact with a human being rather than having your CV screened by a computer. For 3rd year undergrads, make sure you apply to the Work Placement Scheme early on as this maximises your chance of getting a placement that matches your expectations.

My last tip is to avoid emotional attachment to certain companies or jobs. The more you’re attached to a position, the more devastating the disappointment will be if you get rejected. The reality is that you will get rejected multiple times, everyone does. The process is really, really hard and really, really disheartening. But persevere. Don’t be disappointed and, more importantly, don’t give up.

Connect with Peter on LinkedIn and ask him any other questions you have in mind.