The Ultimate Guide to Internships

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by Staff Writers
Published on July 27, 2021 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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The Ultimate Guide to Internships

The Ultimate Guide to Internships

While internship opportunities have dramatically decreased due to COVID-19, internship opportunities have expanded over the past decade. As the academic and professional landscape returns to a more recognizable form, internship opportunities continue to play a critical role in preparing students for careers.

Internships provide the opportunity to apply learned knowledge in a professional environment while helping students grow their network. The following guide explores these valuable opportunities, including the critical attributes of an internship application. Read on to find answers to your internship questions.

What Is an Internship?

Internships provide students with the opportunity to gain experience in a professional environment. Internships also help learners determine if a particular career path is a good fit.

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 within the walls of a traditional classroom.

What Are the Benefits of an Internship?

Whether you pursue paid or unpaid internships, these experiences bolster your resume/CV to help you obtain a position that pays well and is relevant to your degree. The following sections highlight five major internship benefits.

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

2. Test Out a Career Path

Students often pursue multiple internships throughout their college careers and after graduation to explore different industries. You can effectively test out a career and assess if it aligns with your personal interests, professional goals, and financial needs.

You also can gain an intimate perspective on working with colleagues on a set schedule under the guidance of managers. These daily realities may help you assess your motivations and recalibrate your expectations.

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

3. Develop and Refine Skills

Whether students pursue a career in journalism or engineering, internships often provide a relatively low-risk opportunity to apply, develop, and refine industry-specific skills. Programs supply degree-seekers with theoretical knowledge. Still, the chance to apply and practice learned information clarifies career expectations before entering the workforce.

In addition to honing industry-specific skills, internships also give students a chance to practice the soft skills essential to a collaborative professional environment.

4. 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, interns develop personal and professional bonds that can provide support when conducting job searches and seeking career advancement.

Internships are educational opportunities. You work with experienced practitioners to learn job responsibilities. By asking the right questions, you can gain strategies for career entry. You may even gain a personal mentor who acts as a resume contact and industry resource.

Regardless of field, successful college interns build a network of contacts that they can tap into for information. Interns who work with a company's clients can foster external relationships that lead to other internships or job opportunities.

5. Secure a Job

In addition to providing professional training, internships act as a career pipeline for organizations and industries. For many industries, 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 materialize.

What to Consider When Searching for an Internship

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 that span multiple years. During co-ops, you attend class and work with the partner company simultaneously.

The following sections cover additional elements you should factor into your internship search.

Internship Goals

To make positive professional impressions and maximize the benefits of an internship, you should establish goals far in advance. First-time interns might see the experience as a way to gain an understanding of their own work style. Students who have already completed multiple internships might see this opportunity as a way to develop a specific skill or decide between two career tracks.

Regardless of your motivations and objectives, make sure that your internship goals are ambitious but also under your control. An effective goal should also be measurable. Employers value candidates who possess demonstrable skills and achievements.

Additionally, you should strive to gain confidence in your ability to work with colleagues, communicate with supervisors, and complete designated tasks.

Ideally, an internship experience benefits both you and your employer. By aligning your goals with an organization's objectives, you ensure your work contributes to the company's success. By making yourself valuable, you enhance the likelihood of getting professional references, career guidance, and job offers.

Degree and Career Paths

When searching for the right internships, students must consider their degree alongside accompanying career options. Just as one degree may lead to several career paths, other academic tracks are far more specific in career outcomes. Either way, an internship offers both academic and career benefits.

A journalism major 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.

Time Commitment

In addition to setting concrete goals, you must consider the time commitment of an internship. Ultimately, an internship should complement your education. 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 obtain college credits for an internship, students usually complete at least 150 hours of work during the term.

Internships that span the summer months usually 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 global perspective and explore career options in other countries.


Whether paid or unpaid, for-credit or non-credit, internships should benefit learners in significant ways. Though some companies take advantage of college students, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) maintains regulatory protections.

Interns who work in the for-profit/private sector and fulfill responsibilities that match a paid employee's job description legally qualify for the federal minimum hourly wage. The DOL also establishes six standards for unpaid internships, including discernable educational and professional results for the student.

As a prospective intern, you should carefully consider your financial situation. Unpaid internships can result in skill development, networking and mentorship opportunities, and job offers. Nevertheless, they may pose a serious fiscal burden and detract from school and work obligations.

In general, you are better off engaging in unpaid internships during the school year on a part-time basis so you can still take full advantage of your college's resources.

College Credit

Students who complete internships as part of their college curriculum automatically receive 3-12 credits. Program-facilitated internships offer structured training that aligns with degree outcomes and university standards. As part of their intern responsibilities, students provide weekly reflections and routinely check in with the site supervisor and their faculty mentor.

Learners who pursue internships outside of their programs can receive elective or independent study credits if they coordinate with their departments beforehand. To gain approval for this type of program, you must demonstrate that the internship provides academic and professional growth in ways that support program outcomes. You must also enlist the official support of a professor or university administrator.

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 and supervisors through email, phone calls, and conferencing applications like Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype.

Remote internships allow you to gain professional experience and develop career-relevant skills without leaving your community. This means you won't need to pay for accommodations or travel as with an in-person internship.

Remote experiences often involve flexible schedules that allow you to keep up with other responsibilities. Furthermore, you can cultivate integrative, multimedia communication skills that employers greatly value in a globalized economy.

How to Find an Internship

You should begin your search early and use every resource to find the perfect internship. Seek the support of friends, peers, mentors, and family. Colleges and universities provide ample resources, including counseling services and career fairs. Websites are another major source for internships, particularly remote positions and international opportunities.

The following sections explore these internship search tools 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 experience meets university standards for skill development and employee safety. These internships are also more likely to provide credits.

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. 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

Local companies and businesses often offer internships that provide hidden benefits. Considering their proximity, local options can save students significant money by offsetting travel and housing costs. Additionally, local organizations can make it easier to cultivate professional relationships.

Search Online Job Sites

Online job sites are also a great resource when searching for internship opportunities. Online sites allow students to narrow their search scope based on the field, location, and type of internship. Check out the list below for some websites that can help students locate great internship opportunities.

How to Get an Internship

As with any other job, acquiring an internship requires you to plan and navigate the application process carefully. The following sections offer information on how and when to apply. 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 remain competitive, so apply early to a variety of positions. Submitting a well-crafted application before the deadline offers potential employers a positive first impression. Additionally, use these strategies:

Strengthen Your Resume

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

: A resume's format, font, and content should appear professional. : The individuals responsible for hiring interns know if they receive a generic stock resume. : A resume is not the place for modesty, so proudly showcase accomplishments and activities. : The most competitive internships receive countless applications. Underscore personal attributes and activities that highlight individual characteristics. : Professors, alumni, and professionals in the field have been through this process before and can help along the way.

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 provide a long list of extracurricular and volunteer experiences.

: Create a unique cover letter for each application. A stock cover letter provides a terrible first impression. : Recognize the general aesthetic and atmosphere of a potential employer and reflect that in each cover letter. : The best cover letter highlights unique attributes, skills, and experiences that separate you from the rest of the field. : Highlight attributes and skills while clearly stating why and how a particular opportunity benefits both parties. : Revisions are a necessary step for any cover letter. Grammatical and spelling errors are unacceptable.

Build and Attach a Portfolio (as Appropriate)

In addition to a well-crafted cover letter and resume, a portfolio offers an additional avenue for applicants to distinguish themselves from the competition. A portfolio provides a window into a prospective intern's skills, aptitudes, and interests. Fields like art, writing, and journalism all typically require a portfolio. We offer some portfolio tips below:

: Digital portfolios demonstrate an applicant's seriousness about the internships and provides easy access to prior work. : A portfolio allows applicants to spotlight their best work. Employers understand that subpar work is part of the learning process. : These allow applicants to highlight themselves as an individual rather than just another applicant. : Applicants can explain their dedication to a particular field, profession, or industry. : While often included in a resume, highlighting significant awards and honors is another way applicants can rise to the top.

Prepare for an Interview

An interview is often the final step in securing an internship, and the best applicants prepare extensively. During an interview, applicants must display professionalism while subtly showing a deep knowledge of the position, organization, and mission. Additionally, interviewees should demonstrate an up-to-date understanding of their industry.

: Applicants brimming with professionalism and anticipation rarely arrive at interviews late. : Demonstrating knowledge about an organization, its history, and services shows the level of care and dedication expected of interns. : Through attire and communication, carrying yourself as a professional. : Interviewers almost always leave time at the end of an interview for questions. Prepare them in advance and ask unscripted questions throughout when appropriate. : Nothing cuts through pre-interview nerves better than practice. Adequate preparation gives you the best chance at success.

How to Succeed as an Intern

While internships should predominantly benefit students, the experience must also provide value for employers.

Before the internship begins in earnest, you should take advantage of the transition period to become familiar with company policy and culture. Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions. There is friendly competition in all work settings, but supervisors, personnel, and other interns typically welcome inquiries and offer guidance where they can.

Be Professional

Treat your internships as actual jobs with expectations for professional conduct and personal behavior. Dress appropriately and show up on time. During work hours, maintain a friendly, professional demeanor. Greet co-workers and engage in conversation, but avoid gossip and office politics.

In the age of social media, where individuals face backlash and lose jobs, you must cultivate a businesslike online presence. Clean up your Facebook and Twitter profiles and update your LinkedIn information. Being professional also means staying off your phone while on the job.

Fulfill Your Responsibilities and Go Beyond

In return for valuable training and professional experiences, companies expect interns to perform menial tasks. Successful interns handle grunt work with enthusiasm. By demonstrating that they can successfully complete the most basic duties, interns gain access to more important responsibilities.

To cultivate work relationships, you should go out of your way to assist colleagues. Ask your supervisor to schedule regular meetings to clarify expectations and confirm deadlines. Volunteer for additional work within reason, but complete assignments correctly and on time.

Lastly, the best interns ask for feedback from superiors and colleagues. Receive any criticism with grace and apply the lessons in future assignments.

Soak Up Knowledge

Internships are learning experiences that allow students to soak up as much knowledge and as many practical skills as they can.

You should not shy away from asking specific and appropriate questions of your colleagues and supervisors. They may not always provide helpful answers, but at the very least, the act of asking signals to the company's leaders that you want to grow and succeed.

Effective interns cultivate skills and knowledge beyond their immediate role. They keep updated on industry trends by exploring online platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit. Students can also learn about pertinent issues in their field by reading professional magazines and research journals.

Socialize and Network

In addition to engaging in formal introductions, you should socialize as appropriate with your colleagues to build camaraderie. Work friendships can help you succeed in your internship and build the groundwork for career entry and advancement later on.

You can forge work friendships by completing your own tasks and assisting others with their duties. At the same time, co-workers will view you as helpful, hardworking, and trustworthy.

Try to attend every social and networking event your organization facilitates. Pursue mentorships, which often grow out of the working relationships between interns and their colleagues/supervisors. Focus your attention on the individuals who take a concerted interest in your success. Ask potential mentors out for coffee or lunch.

Frequently Asked Questions About Internships

What is a good internship?

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?

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?

This depends on what "no experience" means. Experience working in the field may not be required, but internships 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?

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 experience.

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