Applying to dietetic internships was hands-down the most stressful experience in my life. It’s been almost a year since graduating from my internship program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and I’m hoping to help any RD2Bes on your path to scoring the internship of your dreams.
Before I begin, this blog is intended for any students applying through a partially integrated undergrad program (competing towards the end of your program for an internship spot) or the post-degree internship route. I chose to apply for a post-degree internship; I did not apply to any Master’s programs.
In 2012, I made the decision to move from Dubai, U.A.E. to study at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I chose the Acadia nutrition program for its strong academic and practical curriculum. The flexibility and variety of courses exposed me to many aspects of dietetics and broadened my scope of interest. Prior to starting the program, I was unsure of what I wanted to do after my degree, and it wasn’t until my second year that I realized my goal was to become a Registered Dietitian. I felt I had fallen behind my peers, but was determined to complete my degree on time and get into an internship program. The following is what I learned through my experience when applying for a dietetic internship/practicum.
1. Study hard and get good grades
Internship programs may state a minimum GPA requirement, however, it’s a competitive process with few positions available. Program coordinators are looking for students with high academic ability, work experience, strong references, and professional potential. Every program has their own GPA requirements, but I would suggest talking to your university’s internship coordinator or advisor to ask about the average GPA of past successful applicants.
2. Get relevant experience
Paid, nutrition-related work experience is sometimes hard to come by. There is volunteer work available, however, during the summer months I needed paid work. The answer: join a co-op program (if your university offers one).
During my second year, I attended a nutrition-focused co-operative education information session at my university, where students talked about their job experiences through the co-op program. One experience in particular, with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC) in Edmonton, Alberta intrigued me. I instantly saw how valuable it would be, and I was convinced that moving across the country and spending the summer in Alberta would be the ideal situation for me. I went home that day, applied to the co-op program, and also emailed the coordinator at ACPC to let her know I was interested in a summer position (this email was sent in September). Even if you get into a co-op program, it doesn’t guarantee you a job. You are expected to contact employers and convince them to take you on as a co-op student. So that is what I did. Persistence and genuine interest pays off, and I got the job.
For more information on the co-op experience, a fellow RD and Acadia Grad has written about how the program was her secret ingredient to securing a dietetic practicum program.
I spent the summer of 2013 in Alberta working with ACPC. I loved it so much, I returned in the summer of 2015.
3. Join clubs and do work you care about
In university, I was never a part of any nutrition or food service-related clubs. However, I joined clubs I was passionate about. I was President of my university’s Pride Organization and a full-time Resident Assistant. These two roles took up a lot of my time and I knew that between them and insane amounts of studying, I could not take on anymore.
At the end of my third year at Acadia, I was ready to quit my dream of being a Dietitian. I realized I had one nutrition-related experience on my resume and everything else was a passion project. I regretted not being an active member in nutrition groups.
My professor in my Professional Practice class asked us to write a letter to ourselves about our future plans and this is where I expressed these thoughts. A week later, she called me into her office to discuss this letter. I can confidently say, that conversation changed everything. She outlined the qualities I demonstrated through my non-nutrition work roles and the skills I gained, which were superior to just being a ‘member’ of a club. I reflected on the attributes I had developed, such as leadership, critical thinking and decision making, communication skills, organizational and time-management skills, adaptability and dependability, and many more – all essential characteristics of a Dietitian.
My recommendation is to use your free time on-and off-campus doing something you love. Ask yourself:
- Will I have fun doing activities related to the group’s description?
- Will the group help me develop skills that benefit my future career?
- Will I meet people who have similar interests?
- Will the group enrich my university experience?
- Will it help me broaden my perspective on life?
4. Be persistent and fearless
I felt confident and motivated after a push from my professor – until NONE of the co-op and non-co-op nutrition jobs I applied to responded. It was a major setback as I had no summer plans and nowhere to go.
I packed my bags and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. During my previous summer with ACPC, I learned about an innovative flaxseed oil that you could cook with. The company behind the creation, BG Health Group – Flaxseed Cooking Oil was based in Richmond, BC. I had emailed the Vice President of Operations several times before the summer outlining my interest in working with them and how I would be an asset to their organization. Every attempt failed as they were unable to accommodate me for the summer. I moved there and asked for an in-person meeting so they could meet me, see my willingness to learn, and dedication to the industry. I got the job.
P.S. Living in Vancouver was very expensive, so I worked 4 days/week with the company and 3 days/week at PetSmart.
5. Do your homework on internship programs and the application process
During my summer in Vancouver, I started researching dietetic internships and narrowing down which programs I was most interested in. I would recommend reading through the program match process and program descriptions well in advance. During my program research, I thought about a few key things:
- Why am I choosing this program and what is it about that program that draws me to it?
- Why is this particular program the best one to start my career as a dietitian?
- What can I bring to the program?
- What are my professional dreams and is this program the best place to start achieving them?
With this in mind, I planned to apply to the Acadia Post-Graduate Internship Program, and for my three Dietitians of Canada choices: Nova Scotia Health Authority in Halifax, NS, The Moncton Hospital in Moncton, NB, and my first-choice St Michael’s Hospital/Ryerson University Collaborative in Toronto, ON. The advice I received from past interns and professors was to avoid programs in Ontario which gave preference to their province’s students. If someone tells you not to apply to a particular program ‘because your chances are lower’ – don’t listen to it. Apply to the programs that you think would be a good fit. If you’re truly interested and committed, your passion will shine through in your application and interview.
I started analyzing what the program requirements were and whether I would be a good match. For St. Michael’s Hospital, a heavily clinical program, I realized not only did I have limited clinical experience, but my clinical knowledge was likely not as advanced as other applicants from other schools. Acadia’s versatile program exposed me to many aspects of dietetics, but was focused more on community and public health versus clinical.
I chose to get more experience and applied for clinical-related nutrition jobs. At the end of my summer, I moved to Cape Breton, NS to take on a 4-month co-op job as a Nutrition Assistant to a Dietitian in a long-term care facility.
P.S. I only packed summer clothes as I thought I’d return from BC to university in the fall – it was a very cold fall. I was able to complete my degree on time as I had overloaded my courses for a number of semesters. If you are unable to complete your degree on time because a work opportunity comes up, I would recommend taking it and extending your degree timeline. Know what your end goal is, map out a path to get there, and do everything you can to succeed.
6. Find mentors
During my time at Acadia and through my volunteer and work experiences, I was fortunate to find several mentors and role models. The knowledge and skills I gained under all of my mentors’ supervision gave me a tremendous boost in my application and during the internship interviews. They helped me discover my interests and harness my potential.
These incredible people will not only be your support-system and guiding light through your application process, they can also serve as references. You need three references to apply to a dietetic internship – your referees should include those who know you in a professional, student, or business capacity. References can include a previous or current employer or a supervisor of a volunteer work experience, though an academic and/or Registered Dietitian reference is preferred.
It is never too late to find a reference. In the fall before applications were due, I started working on mine and nerves kicked in as I didn’t know any RDs besides my professors (who would be considered academic references). I decided to approach my supervisor at the long-term care facility who I had known for maybe a week, and asked her if she would be a reference for my internship application. I offered her time to get to know me before agreeing and promised to prove myself.
7. Refine your application
Now that you have worked hard for several years, you have built up your GPA and your resume. It’s time to apply!
I read and re-read the application package countless times before I started putting my packages together. There are many administrative tasks and deadlines to be aware of, so get started early.
I divided my resume into the following sections: Education, outlining GPA, scholarships and awards; Work Experience, with 4 positions detailed; Volunteer Experience, with 5 positions detailed; Certifications; and two Extra-Curricular activities. Keep in mind that your resume must be no longer than 2 pages, single-spaced, in size 12 font, with one-inch margins.
I knew which programs I wanted to apply to and spent a lot of time researching them before I wrote my personal letters. In my personal letter I wrote about how my goal to pursue a career in dietetics began; how my experiences shaped me into the professional I am and what I was able to contribute in my work/volunteer roles; my short-term and long-term goals and how the specific internship program would play into this; why I chose that program, and why I would be the best candidate for their program.
I wrote a general draft for my resume and personal letter before personalizing each one to its specific program. I sent both these documents to friends, family members, and mentors. The feedback was brutal, but incredibly helpful. Try to keep editing and refining, and save all your drafts – you never know when you might want to include a previously deleted idea.
As previously mentioned, reach out to potential references well in advance, explain the application process to them and try to get the reference forms to them early, so you can receive their sealed references in time to apply.
I was scheduled for an in-person panel interview for the Acadia program first, then phone interviews with Moncton Hospital and St. Michael’s. For my phone interviews, I sent in a picture of myself that I requested the interviewers keep in front of them during my interview. This was probably strange to them, but I thought adding a face to my voice would help.
In your interview, they want you to feel as relaxed as possible, so just have fun with it! They want you to succeed, so even if you are confused about a question or don’t know how to answer further, they will help you. They usually start with an ice breaker, such as “tell us three things about you that were not mentioned in your application” – make it fun, not school stuff. There will likely be basic questions related to food service, clinical, community, and public-health. There will be typical interview questions, such as “why do you want to be a dietitian”, and “why did you choose our program”. If your university has interview practice questions I would suggest going through those. Some programs have a written component, and some do MMIs, which stands for mini mock interviews – these are a common type of interview used in the healthcare field. You will find out in advance what kind of interview you’re having, which will give you plenty of time to prepare.
9. Trust in who you are and what you have to offer
I do not really remember the questions or my answers from my interviews. I remember being honest, sharing who I was and why I wanted to be an intern in their program. A few months into my internship at St. Michael’s, I had a discussion with my coordinator regarding my strengths and weaknesses. I mentioned feeling overwhelmed and undeserving to be in a clinical-focused program. I felt my knowledge was not up to par compared to the other interns. She said something that resonated with me: you will continuously learn and build on your knowledge. It’s not about how much you know, it’s about who you are and where you want to be. My past experiences, particularly my willingness to travel to take on new roles showed qualities they appreciated. They understood my personality and goals fairly well during the interview, and felt they could help me become the Dietitian I aspired to be.
St. Michael’s Hospital Dietetic Students 2016-2017.
I hope this blog has been helpful in your path to choosing and applying to a dietetic internship/practicum. If you have any questions, or would like further guidance, feel free to connect with me and we can chat!