Today is my last day as an intern. Perhaps it’s a strange time to write this advice, but I can’t help thinking about what I wished someone had told me six months (or even a year) ago, that would’ve helped me get to where I am now with a little less blood, sweat and stress.

Whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student, a recent graduate or just looking for a career change, an internship may be the best option to get your foot in the door and begin your new career. But (surprise, surprise) you’re not the only one looking. Recent headlines involving internships have drawn our attention to the plight of the unpaid intern, but the reality is that a major reason many of these positions remain unpaid is the massive number of people willing to do these jobs. Europe alone has 4.5 million interns each year, 59% of whom are unpaid. In this increasingly competitive market, it’s necessary to find a way to distinguish yourself. Here are three keys that will make you stand out and win the internship you’ve been dreaming of:

1. Be focused

If you don’t know what you want, you’ll never be able to explain it to a potential employer. It is crucial, before you apply, to give yourself direction. Don’t think of this as a lifetime commitment to a career path, but DO define what it is you want right now. You may end up realizing down the line that today’s decision isn’t leading you where you really want to go – but in making a decision, in saying it aloud and acting on it – your true preferences will begin to reveal themselves.

In this competitive environment, you can’t afford to think in terms of a “job market”. It doesn’t exist. No one is going to “offer” you that internship. You need to claim it. Many people finish school and think the best option is to just send in applications everywhere. But some of the best advice I got while looking for internships was that if you apply everywhere, you really end up not applying anywhere. You are far better off investing a lot of time creating two or three really good applications than 20 mediocre ones.

A simple exercise to focus your efforts is to record your preferences across five categories. First, which sector would you like to work in? Public or private? Second, which industry most excites you? Perhaps you are fascinated by what’s going on in finance these days, or maybe you want to have an impact in the environment or energy industries. Think about geography. Is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to work or live for a short time? This will immediately help shape your decisions. Fourth, consider your personal life. Do you have a partner or family that you need to be near or coordinate with? Finally, is there a specific company or organization that intrigues you? An internship can be the best way to see if you’d really like to work for them. Write down your responses to each of these questions every four weeks. Your preferences may change over time, based on your experiences and values, but as you define what you want in the moment, you’ll begin to hone in on your real interests.

2. Do your research

Once you have an idea of the sector or industry you would like to work in, spend the time to truly understand that market landscape. Identify who is doing what in the field. As you begin narrowing down potential organizations, look at who their competitors are and how the organizations are different. This will not only save you time in filling out applications by ensuring you’re only applying to organizations in which you’re truly interested, but it will also impress potential employers by showing you understand the environment in which they work.

3. Connect, connect

It is completely understandable if you reached this third key and rolled your eyes. Admittedly, this is the kind of advice that could be included in any job-related list, and likely doesn’t seem terribly insightful – especially if you’ve seen through my transparent attempt to avoid using the dirty word “networking”. But bear with me. This is a key, not because it must be done (although that’s true too), but because it must be done correctly.

First and foremost, don’t come on too strong. Take time to build the relationship. Professionals want to share their expertise, but just as a pushy salesperson can turn you off from making a purchase in a store, so too can an over-zealous networking attempt ruin an opportunity to secure the internship you want. Avoid that negative reaction by reaching out for a simple “informational coffee”. This doesn’t mean you need to hide your intentions entirely. A very effective middle path is to explain that you are studying in a certain field and, as you will be looking for an internship in the near future, you hoped to touch base to try to get a better understanding of the organizational landscape. This approach will enable you to create a low-pressure meeting atmosphere, while letting them know that you are in the market for an internship.

Once at the meeting, ask informed and open-ended questions that allow them to see your personality and your knowledge of the field. People like to talk about themselves and their work, so use the “two-thirds/one-third rule”. If you get the other person to speak two-thirds of the time (at least for the early part of the conversation), you’re doing well.

Anyone who has ever done a lot of networking will tell you that it can often be an awkward and occasionally uncomfortable experience. It is like many things, in that it gets easier the more you do it. Be relentless. Even the most gregarious people find it difficult to invite a random stranger for a coffee, but remember that you don’t get what you don’t ask for: ask for the meetings (even if you have to do it over the phone or Skype). An internship might be what you need to get your foot in the door, but networking is how you get them to come to the door in the first place.

Author: Ian Cronin, Intern, Media Relations, World Economic Forum

Image: Student Bryson Negri, 17, looks over his resume as he waits for an interview during work readiness training at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, California April 14, 2012. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon.