After a long hiatus, I’m back. And, I’m eager to share my newly acquired information about the practicum application process. Now, I’m guessing that many of you current students probably know a lot about this already (since you’ve likely been going through this process yourselves), which I think is great. In fact, I’d love it if you’d share your expertise in the comments area below, because I know I can’t cover everything (and wouldn’t know everything, even if I could cover it).
The first thing I’ll say about this, and probably the most important thing, is that you do NOT want to procrastinate. This operates on a first-come-first-served basis. Many practicum sites have only 1 or 2 placements, and will already have filled their available positions by early summer, including the very-coveted Noeticus Counseling Center. Additionally, many sites require 2-3 letters of recommendation, in addition to a resume and a cover letter. You definitely don’t want to be asking your instructors for recommendation letters while they’re grading final papers, and many instructors leave during the summer, so make sure time is on your side when doing this. Some people may actually prefer you to write a letter yourself, which they will then proofread and sign, so you may want to suggest this when asking for those letters (particularly if time is short). Additionally, ask them to give them your final letters in digital format on official letterhead, as it will make things easier in the long run.
Applying for a practicum is much like applying for a job, except that you aren’t getting paid in money. Instead, you’re getting paid in training, exposure, and perhaps most importantly, in resume fodder. A lot of Naropa’s Counseling students seem to have limited mental health-related experience (although there are also many who do), so this may be the biggest indicator of whether or not a future internship site will choose you. What that means is that you’ll be wanting to get the biggest bang for your lack-of-a-buck. Choose internship sites that will look good to future employers in your chosen area of specialty. So, for example, my chosen area of focus is Marriage and Family Therapy. So, while it might have been interesting to work at Medicine Horse, I thought it would make more sense to apply to sites like Boulder Valley Women’s Health and the Boulder ARC because reproductive decisions and addiction are both issues that could be central to family or couples counseling.
Another important thing to consider is the big ‘D’: “Diversify.” You always want a wide base of experience, so that you’ll be appealing to various employers for various reasons. Now, you can interpret that as you wish, but I choose to approach it in terms of clinical experience. Naropa gives us a lot of Rogerian-oriented counselling and mindfulness skills in our first year, but fairly limited clinical experience. So, even though doing meditation instruction with kids sounds pretty fun, I wanted to choose sites that would have me filling out intake forms, witnessing or administering clinical assessment, and giving me a better understanding of social services.
So, let’s assume that you’ve gone through the practicum site list and found a few different placements that sound pretty rad. Then what? Well, before anything else happens, I recommend doing two things. First, find the organization’s website, and read up on it. Much of the placement info on the site list isn’t as comprehensive as it could be, and you want to be able to ask relevant questions (and show that you’ve done your research) when you go to step 2.
Step 2 is calling the site. And, although it would seem logical to call the number on the practicum list, don’t do it. Seriously. It’s most likely wrong. I contacted 5 different sites right away, and all 5 of them had incorrect contact information. It would be better to find the volunteer coordinator (or equivalent) on the website, and get contact information this way. Two of my placements didn’t get back to me because my voicemail went to the completely wrong person, and I had to go back and find correct information. Once you’ve figured out who you actually need to talk to, which may involve a few transferred calls, introduce yourself briefly (being sure to mention your name and that you’re from Naropa!), and tell them some form of the following:
“Hi, my name is ________ and I’m a Counseling Psychology student at Naropa University. I know you’re probably very busy, but I’m wondering if you have a quick minute to tell me a little more about your practicum position and answer a couple of questions for me?” (Don’t say this verbatim, as it will be weird if all Naropa students seem to be reading from a script).
Why is this important? Well, I have to give credit to Casey McCarthy on this, because this is in fact an old sales trick that he taught me. People who manage other people are busy…and at nonprofits (such as most of our practicum sites), they’re often VERY busy. They don’t want to waste their time talking to people who don’t know what they want, and they certainly don’t want to waste their time talking to someone who doesn’t even value their time. Furthermore, as frustrating as it may be, Naropa students sometimes get an unfortunate reputation for being unfocused and unreliable. The best way to dispel that assumption is to show potential sites that you do not fit that stereotype. Mentioning that you’re aware of their busy schedules, asking politely for just a few minutes, and actually taking ONLY a few minutes will make a big impact.
Once you’ve gotten the information you need, including contact name(s), phone number(s), and e-mail address(es) where you should send your application, be sure to follow up. Send an e-mail right away thanking whoever you talked to for their help, and assuring them that you’ll send your application along presently. You basically want as much exposure as possible, and you want them to remember you. If they have a personality and a face to put to your name and resume, you’re already a step ahead.
The next step, obviously, is applying. Many sites will also have an online volunteer application to complete, so don’t forget this step. You will want to send a CUSTOMIZED resume and letter of interest. This is very important. Do not send the same resume to every site. If you’re applying to an organization that works with adults who have developmental disabilities, focus on your understanding of human developmental theory, or your experience with this population. If you’re hoping to work with kids, focus on any childcare experience, teaching experience, or youth mentoring you’ve done. You get the idea…play your strengths. One very effective way to do this is by using a functional resume, which will highlight your skills and expertise, instead of your chronological work history. I have personally been using a functional resume for the past year or so, and I’ve found it to be very effective.
Logically, you’ll next want to focus on your cover letter. Your cover letter should be equally customized, and additionally, personal. These people get dozens, maybe even hundreds of resumes for their volunteer positions. Making it personal will make yours stand out. Instead of starting with “I have all of these qualifications for this position blah blah blah…”, start by highlighting why this is so important to you. For example, I started my own Boulder ARC resume with “When I first learned that someone I loved was suffering from addiction, I remember feeling surprised, confused, and scared.” This immediately tells my potential site that I am both personally motivated to pursue work with addictions, and that I am already familiar with some of the ways that addiction affects people. Of course, you’ll want to highlight your experience to some extent as well, but it’s key to remember this: any applicant can be trained, but only the ones who are motivated to learn will be effective.
Once you have your completed your resume, cover letter, and (if applicable, although I recommend them anyway) letters of recommendation, you’ll want to send them (probably electronically, unless otherwise specified) to the person in charge of hiring. I usually name my resume and cover letter files something like “(MyName) – (Site Name) – Resume/Cover Letter” so that I don’t accidentally send a resume that was customized for a different site. Plus, it helps keep things organized. Thank the person again for considering you for their position, and ask if there are any next steps you should take in the application process. As a bonus, if you find out that the practicum list information is out of date, it may be helpful to include Mary Bear-Rittenmeyer’s (our current practicum coordinator) contact info so that they can send her updated information for the site list.
A final note on the practicum application process: if you’re going to need help from Mary, you have to be on top of it. She is very busy, and has limited office hours. Although her phone message says she’ll get back to you within 48 hours, I called her at one point and only heard back a week later because she’d been working from home and wasn’t checking her messages. Send e-mails and leave voicemails, and be proactive about it getting ahold of her. You’ll need a practicum placement by the time school starts, and no practicum hours worked during the summer count towards your requirement (per Mary), so if you run into problems, waiting until the last second isn’t the best choice.
Happy practicum hunting, and as always, let me know how it goes!