Getting Software Engineering Internship Interviews - What Really Matters

By Max Li | Published: October 28, 2014

There’s a common mantra that gets repeated by students looking for software engineering internships (or new grad positions). It’s that the marks in your classes don’t matter beyond passing your courses and that you should focus on side projects. While I think there is a certain amount of merit to this statement, the original context and meaning in the idea (in my opinion) has been lost.

To see this, if you look at the profiles of those who have acquired jobs at top-tier companies, one of the things that is common amongst almost all of them is that they excel in at least one area. This might be in having some really impressive side projects, but for others it might be by having extremely high marks or by performing extremely well in a programming competition like ACM. It’s often not enough to be slightly above average in each area; what tends to impress people is that you are so good at something that people can’t ignore you. While being a jack of all trades is a valuable asset, showing mastery of a skill shows dedication and passion. Moreover, it helps make your profile stand out; if for every bullet point on your résumé, someone else in the pile of applications has done it better, then you’ll be cast aside in favor of those people (for whatever characteristics the company values the most).

I believe the original statement meant for you to spend time to doing what you’re good at (at least for something relevant to the job); you should focus on really doing well at something and becoming an expert in a particular area. This could be an impressive portfolio of side projects, but doing well in school could also be another path to success. Now whether focusing on coding your own side projects or studying is more useful for actually being successful in an interview or on the job itself, is a debate for another time.