A Guide to Internships

ByJennifer DeMeritt

Updated: November 22, 2023

ByJennifer DeMeritt

Updated: November 22, 2023

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We all know the old conundrum: you can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job. Internships solve this problem by offering real-world professional experience to college students and recent grads.

Not sure where to begin? This guide gives you advice on how to land an internship that will jump-start your career.

How Internships Help Your Career

An internship:

  • Gives you a chance to develop a relationship with a company, which could lead to a full-time job
  • Introduces you to professionals who can recommend you for jobs elsewhere
  • Lets you experiment before committing to a full-time job in a field. Say you want to work in media, but don't know if a newspaper, a web publication or a PR agency would suit you. Try an internship in each and find out which is the best fit.

Find an Internship in a Specific Field


Types of Internships

Not all internships are created equal. Some come with pay, some without. And your college might offer credit for some internships but not others. Each type has its trade-offs.

Paid vs. Unpaid Internships
Paid internships are more common than they used to be. This is because recent lawsuits against major employers ruled that unpaid internships were unfair to students. Since then, criteria have been issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act, specifying (among other things) that an unpaid internship must be "for the benefit of the intern" and that the employer "derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern." In other words, the primary purpose has to be educating the intern, not providing cheap labor for the employer.

Another factor to consider is that paid internships are more likely to lead to job offers after graduation. According to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 65.4 percent of students in the class of 2014 who completed paid internships received at least one job offer, compared to 39.5 percent of students who completed unpaid internships.

That said, an unpaid internship can still be worthwhile if it offers a unique experience at a company you love.

College Credit Internships
If your college offers academic credit for internships, make sure that yours meets the qualifications and be proactive about completing any paperwork needed to get that credit on your transcript. You may also need to guide the company where you're interning through their part of the paperwork. Get a head start on this legwork before the internship begins. In order to fulfill the academic requirements for credit, you might also need to meet with a faculty advisor or write a paper about the internship experience.

If you can't get academic credit for an internship, that's not necessarily a problem. Many colleges treat internships like classes on your transcript, which requires paying tuition to participate. So if you can't get college credit, more of your precious tuition available for classes, which could be a better deal financially—and the internship will still look great on your resume.

5 Steps to Land an Internship

Groom Your Social Media Profiles

Build a personal brand by creating a consistent, professional image across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media. If don't already have a LinkedIn account, you should definitely start one. You can post your resume, letters of recommendation from faculty or former employers, news articles about your academic interests, etc. LinkedIn is also a great way to keep track of the professional contacts you'll make while looking for an internship.

Make sure that your Facebook profile also looks professional—no wild party photos or off-color humor. Blogging about your interests can also build your brand. Link the blog to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and voila! You can easily update everyone in your network about your endeavors while looking like a pro.

Find an Internship

In addition to the links provided here, your school's career office has internship listings and other resources. If you want to get a foot in the door at a company that doesn't list any internships, networking is the best way to get started. Reach out to alumni through LinkedIn or your college's career center, and ask about their career stories. These informational interviews can lead to mentorship and opportunities to volunteer or intern.

Create a Resume

The most important tool in an internship search is your resume. An effective resume doesn't list everything you've ever done, just the accomplishments that are relevant to the type of work you're seeking. If you're applying to internship opportunities in different fields, you should customize your resume for different applications rather than create a one-size-fits-all resume.

Your resume should include jobs you've held, volunteer work, student activities like writing for the campus newspaper and key classes (including special projects or presentations). If you have special skills, such as proficiency in work-related computer programs or foreign languages, list those too.

Quantify your accomplishments whenever possible. "President of the debate team" looks good on a resume, but "started a new training program that increased the debate team's win rate by 20 percent" looks even better.

Once you've narrowed down the info that will go on your resume, find the format that works best. Most university career centers have resume templates or samples that you can use as a starting point. Be sure to leave plenty of white space on the page, and use bullet points so that information can be scanned easily.

Finally, ask a trustworthy friend to proofread the resume. Even a single typo can sabotage your chances of getting hired, so take the extra time to make sure it's perfect.

Write a Cover Letter

Next comes the cover letter, which tells a story about why you're the perfect person for the job. You should write a unique cover letter for each internship you apply for. Demonstrate that you've researched the organization by explaining why you want to intern there. Is it a business with a unique approach that correlates with your skills or interests? If it's a nonprofit, does its mission resonate with your values?

In addition to establishing why you want this internship, the cover letter should demonstrate that you have what it takes to do a great job. Don't just restate the skills and experience from your resume—explain how you intend to use those skills to benefit this particular organization.

As with the resume, ask a friend to proofread the cover letter and ensure that it's error-free.

Ace the Interview

You made it this far by presenting your credentials as carefully as possible through your resume, cover letter and LinkedIn profile. Now it's time to seal the deal by presenting yourself with just as much care.

For most professional fields, invest in a good interview suit; since you'll most likely wear it more than once, it will be well worth the money. Bring a copy of your resume and be prepared to talk about any item on it in detail. Also familiarize yourself with standard interview questions—for example, what are your strengths and weaknesses? What is a challenge you've faced, and how did you deal with it?

If you're nervous about interviewing, ask a friend or a career counselor to coach you in advance. Most important, be confident (but not arrogant). Interviewing means that you're already a serious contender for the internship. All the hard work you've done is starting to pay off, so let your accomplishments shine.

Unusual Internships

  • Are you ready for some football?
    The NFL's summer internship program offers college juniors behind-the-scenes training in the business of sports.

  • Run away with the circus
    At Cirque du Soleil's summer internship program in Las Vegas, you can get hands-on experience in stagecraft and management.

  • Go wild
    Spend your summer in the great outdoors as a wilderness ranger intern at a national forest.

  • Animal collective
    Feed and care for exotic animals through the internship program at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

  • The business of fun
    UCLA trains 10 lucky summer interns in how to run a comprehensive recreation program, including outdoor adventures, aquatics, health and wellness promotion and sports clubs administration.

  • Wine all you want
    Several California wineries have internships in the business, technology and agricultural aspects of winemaking.

  • Blast off
    NASA offers internships in science, engineering, operations and other fields related to the space program.

Making the Most of an Internship


Expert Q&A: Frequently Asked Questions about Internships


Erin McLaughlin is the Assistant Director of Experiential Education at Fordham University


Profile Q&A: How I Did It


Saakshi Muralidhar is a Graduate of the BBA Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design


About Jennifer DeMeritt

Jennifer DeMeritt headshot

Jennifer DeMeritt is a journalist and content specialist based in New York City. Her experience runs the gamut from high-end magazine work (managing editor and culture reporter for Gotham) to corporate communications for The Economist Intelligence Unit.