Why getting an internship at the Cato Institute is so difficult

If you’ve thought about a career in policy analysis, you’re probably heard of the Cato Institute. If you’re serious about a career in policy analysis, you may even have applied to their internship program.
In addition to being perhaps the most well-known libertarian think tank in the U.S., the Cato Institute also runs an extremely rigorous internship program. It’s also extremely competitive. The summer term is more difficult to get into than Harvard, to give you an idea.
I myself was rejected twice before finally being accepted for a Cato internship in the summer of 2014. And while I undoubtedly had more knowledge and a better application in 2014 than when I first applied, what made the biggest difference wasn’t my application, but ISFLC.
The annual International Students For Liberty Conference, held in February in D.C., is a huge gathering of students and libertarian organizations. When I first attended, I was just excited to be there, absorbing all the inspiring talks and encountering many organizations and ideas for the first time.
Going to ISFLC in 2014, though, I had a mission: meet the person who ran Cato’s internship program and make a good impression.
My application was already in. I would be competing with hundreds of other qualified applicants, but ISFLC provided me a unique opportunity to make my application shine: putting a face to a name.

How ISFLC helped me get a Cato internship

I dressed professionally, like the attire expected of Cato interns. I went to the Cato Institute table, asked around for the internship coordinator, and was eventually introduced.
I didn’t talk his ear off, treat it like an interview, or try to convince him about the merits of accepting me as an intern. Instead, I simply expressed my admiration for Cato’s work, mentioned that I’d submitted my application for an internship, and that I looked forward to hearing back and possibly working with him that summer. Then I politely excused myself and let him get back to the conference.
I did a lot of signalling in that brief conversation. I signaled that I’m a professional, through the way I dressed and behaved. I signaled that I’m respectful of his time, by meeting him briefly and getting straight to the point. And I signaled my passion for the ideas of freedom by attending the conference in the first place.
I wouldn’t have had that opportunity, and very well may not have been accepted for an internship, were it not for ISFLC. So if you’re trying to get an internship at the Cato Institute or any of the other amazing organization who attend the conference, I encourage you to attend and try to make a good impression.

More tips for getting into Cato’s internship program

If you’re interested in getting a Cato internship in particular, Cato’s internship coordinator was kind enough to offer these additional tips:

    • Apply in the spring or fall. The overall application pool is smaller, so your chances are better.
    • Focus your application on a particular role. Don’t say you want to be a Defense and Foreign Policy intern, and then say that the policy that you’re most interested in changing is the Affordable Care Act. That might be a laudable goal, but it’s not helping you make the best case you can for why you ought to be a Defense and Foreign Policy Intern.
    • Internships are not just for students. Many Cato interns have already graduated, and many even hold graduate degrees.
    • You don’t need to agree with all Cato positions, but you should be a good fit for the department with which you want to work. While your stance on the Drug War isn’t especially important to being a good Defense and Foreign Policy intern, you should be familiar with the general outlook and philosophy of our foreign policy scholars, and be comfortable working with that.
    • Remember that Cato has internships in non-policy areas. Cato offers internships in Media Relations and External Affairs in addition to policy-related research internships.
    • Don’t be discouraged if you get rejected. Lots of good interns didn’t make it the first time that they applied.