In normal times, Shannon Otto, a senior at the University of Georgia, would likely have no trouble finding a job in journalism.

She has worked as an intern for VH1, the “Rachael Ray Show” and New York public relations firm Lou Hammond & Associates. She also has three years of experience working for her school paper, The Red and Black, where she is now an editor.

As a creature of the news, Otto knew she was facing a difficult job search. But she thought that with her extensive experience, a decent entry-level position would come her way.

But she and many other college seniors have been forced to try for internships in addition to permanent jobs. “At first, I wanted a job and didn’t even think about an internship,” Otto says. “I never realized I would have to go back to being an intern, but now I’ve kind of accepted it. A good internship can lead to something permanent.”

Application explosion

As a result of the tribulations of job seekers like Otto, companies and organizations offering internships have seen a substantial increase in applications.

“We had a pretty significant spike in the total number of applicants — up 40 percent from last year,” says Michael Drueen, director of human resources at the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI, one of the nation’s most prestigious economic and political think tanks.

AEI, based in Washington, D.C., has received 900 applications for about 45 unpaid summer internships, making a position there more exclusive than getting into Harvard.

AEI tilts a bit right of center, and at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a renowned Washington, D.C., think tank that skews to the left, the story is the same. “We’ve probably seen about twice as many applications as last year,” says center spokesman Alan Barber.

The chances of landing an internship there are even more daunting. Three paid interns will be selected from a total of 350 to 400 applicants. Even people with doctorate degrees are applying, Barber says.

At AEI, Drueen is seeing a significant increase in interest from applicants with a hard-core math-economic background. In the past, those students thumbed their noses at AEI’s volunteer internships. “A good number of them were getting drawn off by Wall Street with the promise of a large paycheck,” he says.

But now Wall Street often doesn’t have a paycheck to offer, so an unpaid internship at AEI suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

Replacements for permanent jobs

Some employers are offering internships instead of permanent jobs, says Rebecca Sparrow, director of career services at Cornell University. In the past, internships were often given to juniors. Employers thought of these internships as a two- to three-month job interview with the idea of a full-time position one year out.

“But now we are seeing an increase in employers offering internships to seniors that really are short-term positions,” Sparrow says. “Rather than increasing the head count, you can have short-term positions (internships) open to seniors. Then everyone hopes the economy rights itself, and you can bring the people on board as full-time hires.”

Another trend is that fewer internships are paid. “I’ve seen so few paid that it’s unbelievable,” Otto says.

Of course, not everyone can afford an unpaid internship. “We encourage students that if they can’t find anything but unpaid internships, maybe get an internship on a part-time basis and pair that with a position that makes money, say, waiting tables,” Sparrow says.

Make your own internship

Burt Nadler, career center director at the University of Rochester, says that sometimes you can create an internship for yourself at an organization that doesn’t formally offer one by proposing a specific project you can perform.

“We’ve seen an influx of volunteers who can commit to a project rather than the time frame of an internship,” says Pat Rehkamp, head of the internship program at the Better Government Association, which investigates corruption in government.

Going the extra mile in a temporary position can lead to a full-time job. “I had a kid who had a part-time position with us at 20 hours a week,” Rehkamp says. “He didn’t have any other commitments, so he came in extra to do volunteer and overtime work at no pay.”

This fellow quickly was offered a permanent job with a different organization. “He just had an attitude that he’d do anything,” Rehkamp says. “I bet that’s why he got the job.”

Be aware that some volunteer internships require that you receive course credit to avoid running afoul of minimum wage labor laws. University of Rochester’s career center guides graduates on how to register at community colleges to enable them to accept these internships.

Nadler even recommends that students pursue internship programs with fees if they can afford it. “These investments will definitely pay off when hiring swings in a positive direction,” he says.

Among the programs he recommends are:

Six more tips

Here are six more ideas for seniors as they hunt for internships:

  1. Make sure your cover letter and resume are in tiptop shape. “The bar is definitely higher now,” says Rachel Brown, director of Temple University’s career center. “A typo on your cover letter and resume means you will no longer get a second look.”
  2. Personalize each cover letter to the extent that you can. “We can smell a generic cover letter from a mile away,” says Drueen. You may also want to tweak your resume a bit according to the nature of each internship you seek.
  3. Do thorough research about the organization you are contacting and demonstrate some of your knowledge in the cover letter. “We definitely gravitate to students who have a good understanding and appreciation of our organization,” Drueen says. “That means doing a little extra work.”
  4. Network, network, network. “Talk to as many people as possible,” Brown says. “That’s the same advice we’ve given students for years, but it’s even more important now.”
  5. Follow up any contact with the organization by sending a thank-you note. And try to gauge how hard you can push for the position once you already have applied. Some organizations like to be left virtually alone. But at the Better Government Association, “the ones that constantly bug me are the ones that I bring on because I can tell that they want it,” Rehkamp says. “I don’t get annoyed. It keeps them in my head.”
  6. If your job/internship search extends into the summer, consider taking extra courses in the subject matter related to your search. “One or two courses will nurture marketable skills and project focus and commitment to internship employers,” Nadler says.