For college students and fresh graduates, fall means more than pumpkin-spiced everything and tailgating at football games: it’s internship application season!

Despite polls showing few recent college graduates are considering federal government jobs, interest in internships remains generally steady and strong, according to university career services officials.

“If you counted the U.S. government as one employer, it would be our top employer for the class of 2021,” said Susan Campbell, director of Georgetown University’s career education center, in an email to Federal Times.

Still, the federal government has a competitive disadvantage compared to other sectors when it comes to hiring fresh graduates. Just 4% of new hires are drawn from federal programs employing current students and recent graduates.

That’s where internships can come in to create a direct pipeline to employment.

“An internship, a fellowship — having that experience and exposure prior to signing up for a full-time, permanent position, is invaluable,” said Jennifer Danover, a senior adviser for talent at the U.S. Department of State. “You’ll learn so much about what you like, and what you don’t like.”

Federal Times asked university advisers who work with students who have an interest in federal work about what they look for in an internship, what challenges they face in the process and what feedback they have.

We’ve compiled their insights here, along with some tips and resources to jump start your search if you’re interested in a federal internship or fellowship.

‘Cadillac experience’

If you’ve spent any time Googling federal internships, you’ve probably come across the Pathways Program, which includes the President Management Fellows, the Internship Program and the Recent Graduates Program.

Pathways is what American University’s Brian Rowe likes to call the “Cadillac experience” for students. It’s a quality program that he said can improve students’ chances of attaining a regular government position after they graduate.

Here’s how each program breaks down:

The President Management Fellows is for recent graduates with an advanced degree, such as a master’s, Ph.D. or J.D. It is administered by the White House’s Office of Personnel Management, but fellows may work with one of many partnering agencies on a two-year, full-time paid detail with benefits.

The Internship Program is for current university students and is also run by each hiring agency. The program can be part- or full-time for up to one year for an initial period. Many of these positions open in September for employment the following summer. Agencies, including the State Department and the Federal Reserve, often post individual listings on USA Jobs and their individual career website pages.

Interns appointed under any of a Pathways programs are paid employees of an agency, whereas interns who participate in volunteer internship programs or third-party internship programs may not be paid.

Finally, the Recent Graduates Program is a one-year training program also administered by each agency available to young professionals or those who received their degree within two years, or veterans within six years after degree completion.

Finding the right fit

Students can also look into internships with federal contractors that provide goods or services in an industry they’re curious about, counselors said.

Bryan Kempton, who works for the University of Maryland’s career services department, encourages students to direct their interest beyond the biggest agencies or the ones that are obviously connected to their major (think the Department of Energy for students interested in environmental policy).

Opportunities go well beyond bureaucratic or clerical work, which can be a misconception for students.

“It’s not like there’s one job in government,” said AU’s Rowe. “If you’re a veterinarian, you can find a government job. If you’re a mathematician, a chemist, program manager, or event planner, there are all these opportunities within the service.”

More agencies have also turned the corner on compensating interns, although there are still plenty of “volunteer” opportunities listed online, so pay attention to the listings.

In recent years, agencies have rolled out new programs and expanded paid opportunities for existing positions. In June, the Biden administration announced its White House Internship Program will be paid for the first time. And the Department of State recently announced the paid Colin Powell Leadership Program opening for applications on Oct. 3.

Lynn Halton, from the University of Michigan’s career center, also recommended Go Government, the Partnership for Public Service and LinkedIn.

And don’t overlook alumni, Halton said. Former students now working in government are often willing to set up casual, informational interviews with prospective interns.

Your career counselor can help make introductions.

These chats, whether virtual or in person, can give students get an authentic sense of workplace culture, mission and what it’s like to live and work in the Capitol.

For students who live outside the Washington D.C. metro, Kempton said it’s important to take advantage of breaks between semesters and visit the Capitol, especially before they commit to a program.

“Being sure that you know what it’s like to be here is critical,” he said, adding that students who can afford to travel or get a scholarship to attend a career fair in-person or meet with a hiring manager or alum should do so.

What are the internship program deadlines?

September through November are peak times for internship programs to start and stop accepting applications, so be sure to look up your specific program’s deadlines.

Some programs also keep applications open into and through the spring.

The President Management Fellows Program extended its application window to noon ET on Sept. 30 due to the impact of Hurricane Fiona on Puerto Rico and applicants that may be impacted as a result.

On Oct. 3, a few Department of State programs open for applicants, including the new William D. Clarke Sr. Diplomatic Security Fellowship Program, which is geared toward students who want to pursue a master’s degree and a career as a diplomatic security service special agent in the Foreign Service. Fellows then commit to five years of work with the State Department if accepted to the program.

The Department of State is accepting applications for the Foreign Affairs Information Technology Fellowship Program through February 3, 2023.

The Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program, which places students in Department of Navy laboratories, is also currently accepting applications.

Career advisers encouraged students to look on individual agency websites for more information and USA Jobs for open listings.

This report from the Congressional Research Service also lists several agency-specific resources and programs for students and new graduates.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.