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So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management, human resources and marketing textbook to include at least one case study about the quirky airline that became a wild success story. But ask yourself this: how much do I really know about the company I want to spend my summer working for? I think there is a huge advantage to understanding the history of the company and the intricacies of how it operates. There have been dozens of magazine articles and several excellent books written on this topic. I would highly recommend that any potential intern get their hands on as much as they can read. Among my favorites are:

Magazine Articles
Realize: Summer internships are ridiculously competitive. Almost all college students take time off from school in the summer, and almost all of them are looking for something valuable to fill their time. If the numbers that my friends in Dallas tell me are correct, then Southwest will receive several thousand applications for about 75 internship positions. The truth is that I did my internship during the winter/spring semester of 2008 - a sort of "off season" as far as internships go. If you're applying in the summer, it will be competitive, so anything less than your best effort probably won't be enough.

Stand Out: A resume only goes so far. Most of the emails I receive from potential interns ask which careers skills they should highlight on their resumes. My response is typically that it won't matter if they neglect to stand out in other important ways. It's no secret that Southwest hires for attitude and trains for skill. And remember, these are internships, so it makes sense that the company would recruit individuals who are likely to be loyal and willing to stick around for the long-haul. My best advice is to use the application to highlight creative abilities and to do something to really stand out from the crowd. The last thing you want to be is one of thousands of dull black-and-white resumes. Back when I applied, all the applications had to be sent in the mail, which gave me the opportunity to send in some pretty fun stuff (and which, fortunately, the recruiter and hiring managers loved). Now that the applications are online, doing stuff like that won't be so easy, so you'll have to really try to think way outside the box.

Interview Essentials: It's about who you are. Congrats, you got a coveted call-back and you'll be flying to Dallas for an interview. What should you expect? I had three interviews before I was eventually hired as an intern: two group interviews and one interview with a recruiter and several hiring managers. I applied for an internship in the marketing department, but I was never asked a single question about marketing, advertising or sales. The questions were focused on me: what I'd done in the past, how I'd handled myself in certain situations, and why I really wanted to be a Southwest Intern.

Prepare: Living in Dallas can be a culture shock. I think the hardest part of the internship for me was the fact that I'd never lived in the south, didn't know a single person in the entire state of Texas, and had to arrange to pick up and move cross-country on about a month's notice. Southwest's headquarters is right next to Love Field Airport, which makes sense, given the nature of the business; but it can also be a difficult place to get to if (like me) you don't have your own car. When I was an intern, we were on our own to find housing and interns were scattered all over Dallas - some lived with relatives, others were out in far-flung suburbs. The good news is that you will make so many friends that you probably won't ever have to worry about finding something to do on the weekends.

Lastly, keep in mind that Southwest greatly values the opinion of its employees. If you're flying to Dallas for an interview, you'll encounter dozens of them... ticketing agents, gate agents, flight attendants, pilots, etc. Each of those people is a potentially valuable opportunity for you. The interview doesn't have to be limited to the hour session in a small room at the People Department in Dallas, after all.


Jonathan A said…
Hey Rob, thanks for this super-informative blog post because it pretty much answered all of my questions about the SWA internship (I'm applying for Spring 2012). I was wondering, though, what specifically was the housing and transportation situation like. Did you or most of the other interns get roommates and rent out a place for the duration of the internship? And, I also won't have a car where I to get the internship. Did you and/or the other interns carpool? Or did you all take the bus/train to work everyday?

Thanks a million!
Rob Pitingolo said…
Frankly, housing and transportation were by far the most difficult parts of the internship. Earning $10 / hour certainly limited my options.

I had a six-month lease with another intern at an apartment about 3 miles from SWA HQ. At the time, the DART Green Line was still under construction, and I did not have a car, so I had to bum rides with co-workers every morning and every afternoon. That said, I think my experience would be vastly different if I did the internship today. Now, you can live virtually anywhere along the Green Line and get to SWA HQ with minimal headaches.

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