Good grades and top honors don't cut it anymore. Welcome to the Gen-Z Battle Royale: Internship Edition.
- College students in Singapore are waging an internship arms race to land their dream jobs.
- Some find themselves completing over half a dozen internships before graduating.
College senior Amelia Yamato Leow has done it all, and she hasn't even graduated yet.
Leow, who majors in business analytics at the National University of Singapore, is 23, and she's already stacked her CV with seven internships, from venture capital and fintech to data science and analytics. She's one of what one might call a warrior intern — someone who's spent every summer polishing their CV in the hopes of clinching their dream job.
"My first internship ever was right after secondary school. I did this startup program," Leow said, referring to the country's equivalent of junior high. "I decided to just try working, and I think from there I just used internships as a way to explore."
Leow, who is set to graduate at the end of 2023, says she has completed seven internships, including stints at PayPal and several analytics firms. The cumulative 41 months she's spent at her various stints has led her down the path to what she hopes will be a career in data science and analytics.
"At the start, I did internships in venture capital, then data analytics and research analytics. I think from there, I kind of realized what areas of analytics I was interested in, what use case, and then I tried to seek those out in subsequent internships," Leow told Insider.
Leow's experience isn't as unique as one might think: College students in Singapore are taking on more internships to prepare themselves for the job market.
24-year-old Nicole Ong, a communications major at NUS, told Insider that she's completed nine internships.
"I think it kind of just happened. I had free time or I wanted to learn this skill, or I wanted to save up for the future," Ong said. Ong told Insider she's done an internship every summer break, and has worked during the college semester, too.
Having first class honors isn't enough — if you want to win, you've got to be a warrior intern
Justin Chin, who also studies at the National University of Singapore, told Insider that it isn't surprising now for students to complete multiple internships.
"I think most people used to be focused largely on grades," Chin said. "It was all about first class honors and maybe one or two internships and then they go on and graduate."
Chin told Insider he thinks employers now place a greater emphasis on past internship experiences when screening candidates, so students feel the need to pad their CVs to meet that demand.
The business administration major is slated to graduate in 2025 and has completed four internships thus far. Chin wants a career in finance, and sees internships as invaluable for breaking into the industry.
"The network that you get from internships. I don't think you can put a number to that because when you work together with these full-timers. You see from the inside how things work, and how people work, and most importantly, you can build rapport," Chin told Insider.
The universities, too, also support the idea that students need to gain some work experience before they graduate.
Students do have the option of doing internships in lieu of coursework, said Eddie Phua, an associate director with the National University of Singapore Business School's career services office.
"At NUS Business School, students have the option to take up either a 16- or 24-week credit-bearing internship. That is equivalent to two or three course credits, which will not delay their graduation," Phua said.
According to Phua, of the 2,000 students who completed internships in the last academic year, 35% were doing semester-long internships.
Chin told Insider that he's one such college student who's opted to substitute coursework with a longer internship. Chin says he thinks that having done a longer internship — as opposed to someone who's just tried a job out for "two or three months" — will set him up for success.
The internship battle royale is relentless
Xinrui Gao, a computer science major at the Nanyang Technological University, has completed six internships and is graduating in December. The aspiring software engineer believes that the competition for internships isn't easing up — it's getting fiercer.
"Right now for some of my juniors, I see that before they come to university, they actually pursue one or even two internships even before school starts," Gao said.
Adrian Teh, who is currently pursuing undergraduate degrees in law and business at the Singapore Management University, told Insider that he thinks social media platforms like LinkedIn are fueling the arms race.
"People are benchmarking themselves against one another and I think it's made a lot worse through LinkedIn," said Teh, who has done internships with private equity firms. "Everybody sort of has access to what everybody else is doing, and whenever people start new roles, they'll announce on LinkedIn."
"I'm guilty of the same crime. People do benchmark themselves against one another, and it does definitely create this culture of, 'I need to do more because everybody else is doing more.'" he added.
Some young workers Insider spoke to believe it's nearly impossible to opt out of the internship rat race given the high stakes involved.
Megan Wong, a marketing professional who graduated in 2021, told Insider that one could lose out in the job market if one did fewer internships.
"I would say that even with one or two internships, if you're a more laid-back person, yes you can get a job. But just be prepared that the job might not be as good, in the sense that it could be a smaller company, it could be a startup. It may not be as glamorous in terms of the work," Wong said.
"That impacts your bargaining power moving forward when you move to your second, or third job and so on because you have already started a bit behind your peers," Wong added.
Doing varied internships is just a rite of passage for most, career counselors and professors say
Sim Cher Young, who heads the career services office at the Singapore Management University, told Insider that students know that internships are critical to securing a job.
"It's become a rite of passage. It becomes something that they know it's a means to their end," Sim said. "That means if they want to secure a good job in a big-name organization, they need to put that proof of experience in their resume. Hence their internships, they need to do a lot."
Others believe that completing multiple internships is a good way to experiment with different industries.
"A lot of the Gen Z-ers, who are students now, they may not really know what they want. Many of them are using internships as a sampling to see whether or not they like the industry and to find out a bit more," said Adrian Choo, CEO and founder of Career Agility International, a career strategy consultancy.
In fact, multiple internships could be necessary even if one already knows what industry they want to enter. This is especially so for complex industries like banking, Ted Teo, an adjunct assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, told Insider.
"It would be helpful to a student if he or she can have at least two internships in a bank to get a broader spectrum of what it's like working in the industry," said Teo, who teaches modules on banking at the university.
Stacking internships is important, but there are also other ways to prove you're a good worker, career counselors say
College students around the world have been just as obsessed with clocking in internships, particularly those with prestigious companies like Goldman Sachs.
Intense competition for a summer internship with the elite hedge fund Citadel has resulted in a 1% acceptance rate for applicants. That means it's harder to get an internship at Citadel than it is to make it into Harvard, whose latest acceptance rate was 3.41%.
And it's not just about being hard to get, some companies pay these interns very well. For instance, summer internships at hedge fund D.E. Shaw pay between $9,000 to $20,000 a month.
That is not to say that internships are the be-all and end-all when it comes to securing jobs.
Singapore Management University's Sim told Insider that students with fewer internships on their record shouldn't be counted out.
"There are students that are very bright and they only did one internship, but they have shown that during their free time, they make hay while the sun shines," Sim said. "They couldn't get an internship, they did some other thing."
"So we are able to help them to couch their answers during interviews, to convince the employers that just because they are short of internships doesn't mean that they can't find work," he continued.
In fact, internships aren't the only way to make inroads into one's dream industry. Career Agility International's Choo told Insider that there are other ways to stand out amongst other job-seekers.
"If you want to go into a technology firm, then maybe it pays for the student to do a lot of coding projects, to be involved very heavily in coding, or to raise his coding skills to the point where he's really really good so that he can attract the attention of the Googles or Facebooks of the world," said Choo.
"The way to get an advantage is in university, build your expertise so that you can hit the market running," he added.
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