Photograph by Alex Turton—Getty Images/Moment RM

More employers now expect interns to come equipped with the same skills they look for in entry-level hires.

By Anne Fisher
May 28, 2015

Dear Annie: I’m starting my junior year of college in the fall, majoring in business, and I finally just heard from the fourth company where I applied for a summer internship. They, like the other three, turned me down. When I asked why, I was told I lack the skills they are looking for. Now I’m confused, because I thought the whole point of an internship was to learn skills you don’t already have. I have two older sisters who got internships without any skills at all.

So I’ll be spending the summer (again) working in my family’s hardware store, which is okay, but I don’t think it’s helping my resume. What can I do to increase my chances of getting an internship next year? — Bummed in Birmingham

Dear Bummed: Unfortunately for you, snagging an internship has become a lot tougher than it was when your allegedly skill-free siblings got them. One reason, says Matt Sigelman, CEO of workforce data analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, is that “more companies are using internships as an important recruiting pipeline, and they’re a lot less willing to invest in training. At the same time, more students have caught on to the fact that the right internship can be a path to a full-time job.”

Sigelman points to a recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showing that 52% of summer interns now get hired after graduation, and up to half of those employees are still with the same company five years later.

Studying business, oddly, works against you. About 18% of college students are business majors, according to Burning Glass data, but only 8% of internships call for them. “So it’s intensely competitive,” Sigelman notes. “You have to work a lot harder to convince an employer that you can make a real contribution.”

In practical terms, that means bringing with you the kinds of skills that, until recently, interns weren’t expected to have. A recent Burning Glass study, based on more than 215,000 online U.S. internship postings, pinpoints what skills those are. The biggest demand is for communications, marketing, and social media interns, with 31,326 postings—most of which called for hands-on knowledge of social media strategy, event planning experience, market research savvy, or a combination of the three.

The most sought-after internships are in IT. The catch, the report notes, is that they “offer experience, but usually not training. Technology interns need to know programming languages like SQL and Java before they’ll even be considered.” Some tech internships now have such advanced skills requirements that they’re “increasingly open to grad students only.”

Given all that, you’re smart to be planning now for next year. By Sigelman’s lights, that will take some thought about what direction to take after graduation. “Think about what you really want to do, and work backwards from there,” he says. “The key is to be really focused.”

Let’s say, for instance, that you decide to go into marketing. “A lot of marketing now has to do with understanding how to interpret huge amounts of customer data,” he says. “So this summer, see if you can sign up for a course in data analytics at a local community college, and sign up for a statistics course or two when you go back to school in the fall.” Look for courses that include projects you can mention on a resume as evidence you know how to apply what you’re learning.

You can also take a close look at postings online, for both internships and entry-level jobs, in any field you’re considering, and start pursuing the skills they mention. General business knowledge, including some of what you’ve probably learned working in the hardware store, is great, but “the more specific, hands-on knowledge you can acquire in a particular area, the more marketable you’ll be,” says Sigelman. “Luckily, you have time before you start applying for internships again next February.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’re an intern, what skills helped you get this gig? If you’ve hired summer interns this year, did you require a higher level of skills than in the past? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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