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Etiquette When Turning Down an Internship

Tue, Feb 14, 2012

Internship Interview

Many college students see applying for internships as an excellent way to get a foot in the door (and hopefully secure a job offer down the road), gain some experience for their résumé, and make a few industry contacts for use later on. But internships are often limited and therefor highly competitive, which means you may have to apply for several before you get a nibble. However, should it happen that you are a fairly desirable candidate, you may find yourself in the unique position of being accepted for more than one internship; perhaps even several. So what should you do in this situation? You clearly can’t take them all, but you don’t want to burn any bridges in the industry just in case the internship you choose doesn’t work out for some reason (or it simply doesn’t turn into a job offer). Here are a few tips to help you turn down an internship while keeping future possibilities open.

To begin with, you want to be upfront and respond in a timely manner. Anyone who offers you an internship is doing you a favor. While you might be tempted to say that they are benefitting from the arrangement too, since they are getting free labor out of the deal, that is a rather naïve and haughty position to take, besides the fact that it’s not really true. You will almost certainly work for free, but consider for a moment that a business has to go through a lot of legal hassles in order to even offer internships. These cost money. Then they have to free up an employee to train you, which means that professional is taken away from his/her normal duties. Plus, a manager of some sort will be required to check on your progress and report to your professor. Hopefully, you’re starting to see the point here; they are doing you a favor, not the other way around (although they could get a good employee out of the deal down the road).

The point is, you need to treat this like the incredible opportunity it is, not something that you are entitled to. And on that note, you need to be expedient when it comes to choosing an internship so that you can turn down other offers and let the businesses that won’t be getting you get on with informing the next candidate. But what should you say? First, call in person. Thank them profusely for the opportunity and stress that you would definitely be interested in talking to them again upon graduation (even if you aren’t particularly interested, keep the door open). You don’t need to give excuses or muddy the water; just let them know that are unable to accept their offer at this time, but that you are interested in their company and you hope to have an opportunity with them in the future. Honesty is always the best policy, but diplomacy is equally important.

Whether you’re enrolled in a business MBA program at a top-tier school (as opposed to one of the top online MBA programs of 2012) or you happen to be pursuing a career in the performing arts, just for example, it’s always a good idea to keep the lines of communication open with prospective employers. So even if you turn down an internship, think about staying in touch with the hiring representative as a way to keep your options open.

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