Writing the Most Interesting Internship Essays Ever*

Keyboard and coffee mug

*Or at least something you can be proud of.

By Grace A. Chen, Ph.D.

Summertime is often the beginning of the internship application process for clinical and counseling psychology doctoral students. The internship is the capstone year at the end of many years of doctoral training, so for many students it feels like everything is riding on where one gets placed for internship. I have advised hundreds of doctoral students regarding their practicum placements in a competitive practicum environment (San Francisco Bay Area) for many years, and I have also provided intensive advising for internship applications for over 40 students. Based on these experiences, I wanted to share some thoughts about the internship application – specifically, the essays – to help support graduate students during a stressful process.

The internship application includes four essays –

  1. autobiography,
  2. theoretical orientation,
  3. diversity, and
  4. research.


After years of writing academic papers and then clinical progress notes, students must switch to yet another style of writing – personal essays…but within a professional context…and in fewer than 500 words per essay. It’s a little daunting to say the least. First drafts tend to sound like a) academic papers (dry, intellectual, impersonal) or b) personal statements for graduate school applications (chronological, more about the past than the present or future in psychology). At the precipice of internship-level training though, you want to sound like an advanced graduate student who has a strong sense of your professional identity.
Additionally, many of us are raised to be humble and told to let our actions speak for us, so the idea of writing about ourselves for 2000 words may be challenging for some. (Can’t they simply read my CV and letters of recommendation?) However, to be successful in finding the right fit for internship, postdoc, and beyond, we need to embrace (and continually develop) the important professional skill of talking confidently about ourselves, especially our strengths, while being true to ourselves. A few thoughts:

1. Be yourself. Really. Many times students will ask, “what are internship sites looking for in these essays?” While there is no right answer, generally the goal is to convey your professional development with a personal tone. The internship essays are an opportunity to showcase your professional development with a balance of sharing some of your personality. For example, describe your thought process, show some vulnerability, include some humor, and/or use specific examples that illustrate your point. The goal is to hook the readers so that they want to continue the conversation in an interview. So…how do you do this?

2. Solicit feedback and revise, revise, revise! Requesting feedback from multiple people – from psychology and non-psychology folks – is an important, although possibly uncomfortable, part of the process of refining your essays. Sometimes what you intend to say is not coming across well in writing; having fresh eyes read your essay could be helpful to highlight what you need to clarify. Furthermore, it may be helpful to take a break from writing and re-writing to fit into a 500-word limit and talk through your ideas with someone. I often ask students, “what is the purpose of this paragraph – what do you really want the reader to know about you?” What they answer verbally is not always apparent in the written essay, and the light bulb goes off as they talk it out – they need to write in a more straightforward manner. The writing does not have to be complex or poetic – simple and concise are quite helpful to the reader who is reviewing 80 or 100 applications. (They will not want to re-read your run-on sentence to decipher what you are trying to say.) The students I advise end up writing multiple drafts of each essay, which can be exhausting but rewarding in the end.

Ultimately you want to be happy with your essays – namely, the goal is that the essays reflect what you want the internship sites to know about you as a person and as a professional. Therefore, try not to get too overwhelmed by others’ feedback, especially if it’s conflicting (e.g., your clinical supervisor and faculty advisor have differing opinions).

3. Be yourself. (Again?) A major worry for students is that they won’t stand out in their essays, that they aren’t unique enough. (Won’t many people write about CBT? How will the site know that I’m really into social justice and not just using buzz words?) It’s a legitimate worry to some extent – the internship selection committee has read hundreds (or thousands) of essays over the years, and your theoretical orientation will not be original. However, how you understand and implement the theoretical orientation in clinical work will reflect your personal style, perspective and experience. I’ll provide an example from early clinical training – when asked to identify their clinical strengths, most beginning clinicians have told me “establishing rapport.” The students cringe when I tell them it is the most common answer I hear. However, I then ask, “how do you build rapport?” At that point, students provide many different responses, which I find quite interesting as the elaboration helps paint a clearer picture of the student as a clinician. Thus, you do not have to come up with unique or earth-shattering ideas in each essay (whew). Nevertheless, you will be more memorable if you “finish the thought” (as I like to say) and demonstrate your point with some details or a brief example. Being genuine inevitably works out – if an internship site doesn’t interview you even though you submitted brilliant and witty essays, then it is probably not a good fit anyway.

Now back to the question of, “what are internship sites looking for?” They are looking for a good fit. One research study about the APPIC match indicated that FIT is the number one factor influencing how a site ranks applicants, and countless supervisors and advisors will say the same thing. Therefore, apply to internship sites that seem like a good fit in terms of your qualifications, experience, and training goals. Trust the process.

Adapted from the previously published article in the Summer 2017 newsletter of the Asian American Psychological Association.

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