What to Look for in an Internship

Internships are work-based learning opportunities. Learn what to look for in an internship and how it can prepare you for the workforce.

portrait of Lauren Mack
by Lauren Mack

Published on May 23, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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What to Look for in an Internship
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Internships provide practical work experience and insight into a career field. About 75% of college students do an internship before graduation.

Interns perform various tasks and often play an important role in the office, directly contributing to workflows, projects, and outcomes. Internships are primarily offered to college students, but high school students may also participate in summer internships.

An internship's primary purpose is to provide students with work experience. However, some companies view internship programs as opportunities to assess interns' abilities and readiness to join the company post-graduation.

About 70% of employers offered their interns full-time positions after they graduated in 2018, according to the 2019 Internship and Co-op Survey Report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Types of Internships

Internship

Internships are task- and project-based work experience opportunities. Internships can have various durations. The most common is a semester internship that aligns with a college's semester system or the seasons: fall, winter, spring, and summer. The average length of an internship is 18.3 weeks, according to the National Survey of College Internships 2021 Report. Internships may be paid, unpaid, or offer academic credit. Salaries can vary from a stipend to hourly pay to weekly pay comparable to an entry-level position.

Co-operative Educational Program

Co-ops are programs that provide multiple, full-time work experience sessions in a position related to what the student is studying. Typically, co-ops involve alternating periods of students taking classes full time and then participating in the co-op full time. Often paid, co-op programs provide a year or more of career-related experience.

Externship

Externships are similar to apprenticeships. Externs shadow professionals and learn directly from them. Externships can be as short as a few days and as long as a few weeks. Externships are often unpaid.

Post-Graduate Internship

While most internship programs are typically open to current students only, many companies offer post-graduate internships. These internships are typically for students who have just graduated or are within six months of graduation.

Fellowship

Some companies use the terms internship and fellowship interchangeably. Fellowships are often for more advanced students who have completed several internships before, are in graduate school, or have graduated from undergraduate school and seek experience before applying to graduate school. Fellowships are almost always paid opportunities.

Apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are structured training programs offered by companies in which an apprentice learns a trade or set of skills directly from an experienced worker or mentor. Apprenticeships are often paid and can last 1-3 years.

How Do You Get an Internship?

  1. Determine your goals. Consult school counselors and professors to discuss your career goals and interests.
  2. Network. Build a strong network to get leads on internship opportunities and gain insight into companies.
  3. Research internship opportunities. Consult school counselors, professors, internship and career websites, school bulletin boards, company websites, social media sites like LinkedIn, and career newsletters to find internships. Follow hashtags like #interns on Twitter and set up job alerts on LinkedIn. Sometimes, you may have to reach out to a company to ask for an internship.
  4. Make a list. Keep track of internship application requirements, deadlines, and contacts.
  5. Create a resume. Write your resume. Then, proofread it. And have others like classmates and someone at your college career center review it.
  6. Prepare an online portfolio. If required, gather examples of your work that demonstrate your skills, experience, and qualifications. The portfolio may include writing, artwork, and coding.
  7. Write cover letters. When writing a cover letter for an internship, state your passion for the internship, your understanding of the role, how you will contribute, and what you hope to gain from the internship.
  8. Make a list of references. Ask professors and former supervisors to serve as your references. Gather their contact information for internship applications.
  9. Complete applications. The process for how to apply for an internship may vary depending on the field, but an application is always required.
  10. Prepare for internship interviews. Research the company, practice answering interview questions, and prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewer. Whether the interview is in person or virtual, dress professionally and prepare so you can nail the interview.
  11. Send thank-you note. After the interview, follow up with a short thank-you note. Then, check in about two weeks later if you have not heard back. No matter the outcome, stay connected with the employer through periodic emails and LinkedIn.
  12. Prepare for the internship. Prepare for the internship the same way you prepare for a new job. Speak to current and former interns, and build up the skills you will need for the internship.

Key Qualities of a Good Internship

Experience

Internships expose students to different career sectors, jobs, and career paths. Internships are a chance to try a job before making a long-term commitment to a career in a particular industry. Internships also introduce interns to a professional workplace environment.

Training and Education

Internships are a way to learn outside the classroom. In addition to getting an introduction to the field, internships offer opportunities to gain knowledge, learn about an industry and its trends, and gain valuable skills.

Skills

Not only do many interns learn technical skills, internships also offer training in soft skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and conflict management.

Mentorship

An internship is often a great venue for finding inspirational colleagues who may be the perfect mentor for you. Finding a mentor — someone you admire who has the time to meet, answer your career questions, and provide feedback as you face challenges and progress — is not easy. There are many benefits to having a mentor. Mentors can help you stay on track with your goals and talk through challenges you are facing.

Networking

Networking in college is an important part of career development. Interns meet a wide variety of people at all levels. From other interns to your manager to employees companywide, seek out a wide range of people. Invite people for coffee, arrange for a quick informational interview, and have lunch with other interns to make connections. These connections are often critical when job hunting in the short and long term. Build your network now so they're in place when you need them.

Employment

Make the most of your internship, which could turn into an offer for a full-time job. College students who have interned tend to receive more job offers than those who don't, according to NACE.

Benefits of an Internship

Internships have short-term and long-term benefits.

The short-term benefits vary and may include money or college credit. For paid internships, the average hourly wage was $20.82 for 2020-2021 bachelor's-level interns, according to NACE's 2022 Internship and Co-op Survey Report. Other perks may include free lunch, lecture series, paid holidays, social group activities, networking opportunities, free or discounted merchandise, and mentorship.

Interns who excel in their roles, may land a job post-internship or post-graduation. Students who complete paid internships are more likely to get a job offer and a higher salary than those who complete unpaid internships and students who didn't do internships, according to NACE.

Other long-term benefits include career development, career opportunities, and career advancement. Internships also help lay the foundation for a social and professional network, which is invaluable during a decadeslong career.

Frequently Asked Questions About Internships

true Is an intern a job position?

Not exactly. A job is a paid position, and not all internships are paid. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, not all interns are employees and entitled to wages. Some interns are compensated, either through money or academic credit.

Unlike most employees who have jobs, interns are engaged in short-term work, typically with a fixed end date. Interns are given tasks similar to company employees, and interns are viewed as valuable team members at most companies.

No matter the arrangement, interns should treat the internship as if it were a job by acting and dressing professionally, completing assignments on time, and actively collaborating with their colleagues. When putting an internship on your resume, treat the internship as work experience.

true What qualifies you for an internship?

Qualifications vary from industry to industry and company to company, but, typically, applicants must be college students. There are some high school internship programs and post-graduate internships as well. In addition, interns may have to be in their junior year of college or have prior internship experience to be eligible for some internships.

Some internship programs can be very competitive, so meeting or exceeding the qualifications in the internship description may help.

Writing an effective resume and compelling cover letter will strengthen an internship application. Interns with prior experience may have an advantage at some companies while applicants with language, leadership, or technical skills may also have an advantage.

true How can I get an internship with no experience?

To get an internship with no experience, highlight the skills and qualities you do have rather than those you don't have.

Draw attention to the classes you are taking and any subject-matter expertise you may have. Mention any on-campus and off-campus involvement in clubs and organizations, including volunteering, as these activities often have highly transferable skills. If you don't belong to any school groups, start identifying ways to get involved.

If you have worked before, even in an unrelated industry, mention that on your resume. Part-time and summer jobs often demonstrate skills like time management, organization, and communication, and they also convey your work ethic.

Highlight your skills. They often get students hired for internships.

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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