The Ultimate Guide to Internships

Internships help prepare students for successful careers. Learn how to find an internship and the factors you should consider in your search.

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by Staff Writers

Published on July 27, 2021 · Updated on March 28, 2022

Reviewed by Lauren Albano, M.Ed.

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The Ultimate Guide to Internships


Internship programs have expanded over the past decade.

In addition to helping employers find talent, internships play a critical role in preparing students for careers. These opportunities allow you to apply learned knowledge in a professional environment while helping you grow your network.

This guide explores the value of internships, how they work, and how to get one.

What Is an Internship?

Internships give students the opportunity to earn academic credit and gain experience in a professional environment. Internships also help learners determine whether a particular career path is a good fit for them.

Additionally, internships help students make professional connections that can materialize into job offers. Even if an internship does not translate into a job offer, students still gain professional training they would not get in a traditional classroom.

What Are the Benefits of an Internship?

Whether you pursue a paid or unpaid internship, these experiences bolster your resume and cover letter to help you land a position that pays well and is relevant to your degree.

Here are some of the major internship benefits.

  • You'll Gain Industry Experience

    The most obvious benefit to an internship is gaining industry experience. You might occupy an administrative position and handle routine office duties or help company leadership plan events and develop special projects.

    If your degree is in the social sciences, an internship is a great way to develop research competencies. You can work with experienced scientists in the field or in a lab to gather test samples, analyze data, and prepare reports.

  • You Can Test Out a Career Path

    Students often pursue internships during college and shortly after graduating to explore different industries. You can effectively test out a career and see whether it aligns with your personal interests, professional goals, and financial needs.

    Internship experiences can fuel your desire to work in a field, perhaps for a specific organization. They can also demonstrate that a career has unanticipated long-term responsibilities and drawbacks.

  • You'll Develop and Refine Critical Skills

    Whether students pursue a career in journalism or engineering, internships often provide a relatively low-risk opportunity to develop, apply, and refine industry-specific skills. Programs supply degree-seekers with theoretical knowledge.

    The chance to apply and practice learned information helps clarify career expectations before entering the workforce. In addition to honing industry-specific skills, internships give students the chance to practice the soft skills essential to a collaborative professional environment.

  • You Can Expand Your Professional Network

    Companies often coordinate interns in groups, allowing interns to collaborate with their peers and develop teamwork and leadership skills.

    By going through day-to-day training with a group, you can develop personal and professional bonds that can provide support when searching for jobs.

    You may even gain a personal mentor who can serve as a resume contact and industry resource. Regardless of field, successful college interns build a network of contacts they can tap into for information.

  • You May Secure a Job

    In addition to providing professional training, internships act as a career pipeline for organizations and industries. For many fields, an internship is an extended job interview. If an intern establishes a strong reputation while building a network of advocates within the organization, a job offer could be on the table.

What Are the Different Types of Internships?

Before you apply for internships, define the type of experience you want. There are multiple internship structures, including paid and unpaid positions, as well as semester-based and summer programs, with some providing college credit.

Hands-on training programs that are required for degree completion are often called practica. Short professional experiences centered on job shadowing are known as externships.

Finally, you may engage in cooperative educational experiences, or co-ops, which typically span multiple years. During co-ops, you attend class while simultaneously working with the partner company.

What to Consider When Searching for an Internship

Once you figure out the type of internship you want, you can start thinking about other important factors that influence the quality of an internship program. Here are some of the biggest factors to consider during your internship search.

1. Internship Goals

To maximize the benefits of an internship, you should establish goals far in advance. First-time interns might see the experience as a way to learn about their own work style. Students who've already completed multiple internships might see this opportunity as a way to decide between two career tracks.

Regardless of your motivations and objectives, you should strive to gain confidence in your ability to work with colleagues, communicate with supervisors, and complete designated tasks. By making yourself valuable, you enhance the likelihood of securing professional references, career guidance, and job offers.

2. Degree and Career Paths

When searching for the right internships, students must consider both their degree and accompanying career options. Just as one degree may lead to several career paths, other academic tracks are far more narrow in career outcomes.

Either way, an internship offers both academic and career benefits. A journalism major, for example, might see an internship opportunity at a prominent newspaper as the ultimate opportunity — but these positions are particularly competitive.

Recognizing the marketability of skills in journalism-adjacent careers can help broaden internship opportunities while simultaneously expanding career options.

3. Time Commitment

You must consider the time commitment of an internship. If a position hinders your ability to succeed in school or maintain personal responsibilities, then it may not yield positive results.

In general, semester-based internships require a part-time commitment of no more than 20 hours per week. To earn college credits for an internship, students must usually complete at least 150 hours of work during the term.

Internships that span the summer months generally require a full-time work schedule. These opportunities are more likely to offer monetary compensation. You can also pursue summer internships abroad to gain a more global perspective.

4. Compensation

Whether paid or unpaid, internships should benefit learners in significant ways. Though some companies may try to exploit or take advantage of interns, the U.S. Department of Labor maintains regulatory protections, including standards for unpaid internships.

Interns who work in the private sector and fulfill responsibilities that match a paid employee's job description legally qualify for the federal minimum hourly wage. Interns who do not qualify as "employees" under the Fair Labor Standards Act should consider their financial situation.

Unpaid internships can lead to skills development, networking opportunities, and job offers. Nevertheless, they may pose a serious financial burden and detract from school and work obligations.

5. College Credit

Students who complete internships as part of their programs typically receive college credit. Program-facilitated internships offer structured training that closely aligns with degree outcomes and university standards.

As part of their intern responsibilities, students provide weekly reflections and routinely check in with their supervisor and faculty mentor. Learners who pursue internships outside their programs can usually receive credit if they coordinate with their departments beforehand.

To gain approval for this type of program, you must enlist the official support of a professor or an advisor and demonstrate that the internship supports program outcomes.

6. Local vs. Remote

Local and in-person training experiences are the standard for most interns. However, with the expansion of collaborative software and telecommunication platforms, remote internships are growing in popularity.

Remote interns work through a company's virtual platform and connect with colleagues through email, phone calls, and conferencing apps like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet. This means you won't need to pay for accommodations or travel as you would with an in-person internship.

Remote experiences also often involve flexible schedules that allow you to keep up with other responsibilities.

How to Find an Internship

You should begin your search early and use every resource to help you find the perfect internship. The following sections describe a variety of internship search strategies in greater detail.

Use Your College's Career Center

Most colleges and universities operate a career center that provides job counseling, application tips, and resources for internship seekers.

By finding an internship through your school's career center, you can ensure the experience meets university standards for skills development and employee safety. These internships are also more likely to earn you academic credit.

Leverage Your Network

Talk to friends and family members with similar career interests for potential internship leads. Former employers, mentors, and coaches can also provide valuable advice since they know you on a professional level and can vouch for your character and work ethic.

Additionally, university faculty and departmental administrators often possess in-depth knowledge of the field you want to work in and can provide guidance and connections.

Contact Local Companies or Businesses

Many local companies and businesses offer internships with hidden benefits. Considering their proximity, local options can save students significant money by offsetting travel and housing costs. They can also make it easier to cultivate professional relationships within your community.

Use Job Search Sites

Job search sites are a great resource for finding internship opportunities. These sites allow you to narrow your scope based on criteria such as industry or field, location, and type of internship.

How to Get an Internship

As with any other job, getting an internship requires you to plan and navigate the application process carefully. Read on to learn about strengthening your resume, cover letters, and professional portfolio by highlighting transferable skills and relevant accomplishments.

Apply Early and Widely

Internship opportunities can be highly competitive, so apply early to a variety of positions. Submitting a well-crafted application before the deadline offers potential employers a positive first impression.

Be sure to use the following strategies:

  • Start Early: Begin the internship search early, even a year before the start date.
  • Find People Who've Done Internships: Reach out to instructors and students with internship experience — they can help you navigate the process.
  • Ask About Opportunities: It's OK (and encouraged!) to directly ask organizations about any internship opportunities before you submit an application.
  • Review and Revise Each Application: Just because you submit an early application doesn't mean it should be less polished. Take time to edit and proofread.
  • Ask for Help: Professors can help you craft a successful internship application that appeals to certain organizations.

Strengthen Your Resume

Building an effective resume takes time and planning. Here are a few tips to make your resume as strong as possible:

  • Make It Professional: Resumes should use a simple font face and regular font size while looking clean and organized.
  • Tailor the Resume to the Internship: The individuals responsible for hiring interns know if they've received a generic stock resume — make sure you include specific details that will appeal to the company you want to intern at.
  • Champion Yourself: A resume is not the place for modesty. Don't hesitate to showcase your biggest accomplishments and most impressive activities.
  • Be Unique: The most competitive internships receive countless applications. Underscore personal attributes and activities that highlight individual characteristics.
  • Ask for Help: Professors, professionals in the field, and even your college's career center can help you out if you run into any roadblocks, have questions, or simply need a second pair of eyes.

Write a Unique Cover Letter

The cover letter for an internship offers applicants a chance to shine, highlighting the personal, professional, and academic attributes that make them a valuable intern and potential future employee. The best applicants typically excel academically and boast an impressive list of extracurricular and volunteer experiences.

  • Make It Unique: Create a unique cover letter for each application. A stock cover letter provides a terrible first impression.
  • Know Your Audience: Recognize the general aesthetic and atmosphere of a potential employer and reflect that in each cover letter you write.
  • Catch Their Eye: The best cover letter highlights unique attributes, skills, and experiences that separate you from other candidates.
  • Be Confident: Highlight attributes and skills while clearly stating why and how a particular opportunity benefits both parties.
  • Revise: Revisions are a necessary step for any cover letter. Grammatical and spelling errors can reflect poorly on you.

Build and Attach a Portfolio (if Needed)

Besides a well-crafted cover letter and resume, a portfolio offers an additional avenue for applicants to distinguish themselves from the competition.

Think of a portfolio as providing a window into your skills, aptitudes, and interests. Fields like art, writing, and journalism all typically require a portfolio. We offer some portfolio tips below.

  • Have a Digital Portfolio: Digital portfolios demonstrate an applicant's seriousness about the internships they're applying for and provide easy access to prior work.
  • Highlight Your Best Work: A portfolio allows applicants to spotlight their best work.
  • Include a Bio: These allow applicants to highlight themselves as individuals with certain goals, skills, and interests.
  • Include a Philosophy Statement: Applicants can explain their dedication to a particular field, profession, or industry.
  • Awards and Honors: While often included in a resume, highlighting major awards and honors is another way applicants can rise to the top of the application pile.

Prepare for an Interview

An interview is often the final step in securing an internship. The best applicants will prepare extensively for this stage.

During an interview, you must display both professionalism and a deep knowledge of the position, organization, and mission. Additionally, interviewees should demonstrate an up-to-date understanding of their industry.

  • Arrive on Time: Applicants brimming with professionalism and anticipation rarely arrive at interviews late.
  • Do Your Research: Demonstrating knowledge about an organization, its history, and its services shows the level of care and dedication expected of interns.
  • Be Professional: Wear business-appropriate attire and communicate clearly and politely.
  • Ask Questions: Interviewers usually leave time at the end of an interview for questions. Prepare a few in advance so you don't come across uninterested in the role.
  • Rehearse: Nothing cuts through pre-interview nerves better than practice. Adequate prep can give you the best chance at success.

Frequently Asked Questions About Internships

What is a good internship? true

A good internship fits the needs of the applicant. Students should take time to distill their internship needs and wants while communicating with professors, classmates, and career counselors to find the right fit.

How can I increase my chance of getting an internship? true

Students should give themselves ample time to craft resumes and cover letters that demonstrate professionalism and excitement for the role. Participation in volunteer work and student organizations also goes a long way in boosting a resume and enhancing the chances of securing an internship.

How can I get an internship with no experience? false

This depends on what "no experience" means. Experience working in the field may not be required, but internship managers expect to read resumes that show engagement and involvement. Start planning for your application as early as possible.

What skills are needed for an internship? false

This depends on the specific field, but most positions require some technical proficiency. As internships typically take place later in the college experience, companies assume some level of competency. Nevertheless, internships are part of the learning process, and students should expect to gain valuable skills on the job.

Feature Image: Feature Image: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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