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A Guide to Internships

Advertising & Editorial DisclosureLast Updated: 11/23/2022
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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

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  • Where to Apply
  • Agriculture, Food and Biotechnology
    Agriculture, food and biotechnology internships
  • Biotech internships
  • Arts and Media
    Book publishing internships, listed by the Association of American Publishers
  • Paid summer internships at museums and cultural institutions.
  • Internships in film, television, video and digital media production
  • Fashion internships with listings ranging from couture to action sports, design to public relations
  • Internships in film, television, sports and music
  • Media internships, listed on the largest job board for media professionals in the US
  • Environment and Natural Resources
    Internships with the National Park Service
  • Internships and related resources in environmental sciences
  • Conservation internships
  • Health
    Internship program connects undergraduate students and recent graduates to health employers and graduate schools in health professions
  • Nonprofit and Social Work
    Internships and jobs in the nonprofit sector
  • Political, Legal and Criminal Justice
    Volunteer legal internships with the US Department of Justice and US Attorneys' offices around the country
  • Internships with the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Criminal justice and law enforcement internships
  • Federal government internships
  • Social Sciences
    Links to institutions that offer internships for aspiring anthropologists
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
    STEM-specific internships, fellowships and mentoring
  • Engineering internships
  • Geology internships
  • Chemistry internships listed by the American Chemical Society
  • Paid aerospace internships in disciplines such as engineering, physics, and computer science
  • American Mathematical Society listing of internship opportunities for undergraduates
  • General Internship Search Engines
    Lists internships in dozens of professions
  • Provides internship listings and advice
  • Internship listings and advice on how to prepare for and succeed at an internship
  • Job listing aggregator that includes internships in a variety of professions
  • Connect students with mentors and internships through social media tools such as Twitter; provides career advice on its blog, The Savvy Intern
  • Internship listings, career articles, information about job fairs, connections with local employers, and other resources for college students.

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

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    Look sharp

    There's an old saying that you should dress for the job you want to have, not the one you already have. So leave your artfully torn jeans on campus and meet the standards of your workplace. If the dress code is formal, follow suit with a jacket and button-down shirt. Even in a more causal office, avoid jeans and T-shirts. If you don't have a big budget for work clothes, you can still make sure that everything you wear is neat, clean and tasteful.

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    Don't be a prima donna

    Your internship might involve some administrative work, which can be pretty boring. But guess what? So do most jobs. Put in your best effort on every project. This will earn the trust of your supervisor, which will increase the likelihood that she'll give you juicier, more interesting work. It will also ensure a good referral when the internship is over.

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    Offer to help

    Are you ready to take on a bigger challenge? Ask your supervisor how else you can contribute. Even better, suggest something yourself. Have you noticed that a manager needs assistance with a certain report? Do you think your social media savvy could attract more Twitter followers to the company's feed? Offer to pitch in.

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    Schedule a midterm evaluation

    Ask for a quick meeting with your supervisor halfway through your internship. This is an excellent way to get feedback on your performance. If you're told there are things you can improve, you have the rest of the internship to polish them. And if you're already doing a great job, this is the perfect time to remind your supervisor of just how awesome you are. This is especially important if the company sometimes hires its interns. Making sure that your supervisor knows your goals will improve your chances of nailing a job offer.

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    Build your network

    This is one of the prime reasons for taking an internship, so don't be shy. Make a point of talking to your supervisor about more than your work assignments. Have you been reading up on trends in the industry? Let him know. If you're handing a finished project to someone other than your supervisor, introduce yourself and leave your contact information. Without being a pest, ask questions to show that you're eager to contribute and serious about moving ahead in the field. As you get to know people, add them to your LinkedIn network, so you can stay in contact after the internship is over.

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    Ask for a letter of recommendation

    Before the internship is over, ask your supervisor to write a letter of recommendation that you can use for future job searches. If there are one or two other people who've worked closely with you and are sure to say positive things, ask them too. They can post their praise as a recommendation on your LinkedIn profile so any potential employer can see them.

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    Prepare for unpaid opportunities

    While you may not be looking for unpaid internships, you may find that your dream one only pays in experience. Take a look at your monthly budget and spending to start financially preparing to take an unpaid internship leap if the opportunity presents itself. In addition to budgeting your spending, you should look at some common cost-saving measures with your monthly bills such as applying student or good driver discounts to your car insurance policy or shopping around for a lower auto insurance premium; refinancing your auto loan to decrease the payment; and look into transferring your current credit card to one with a lower or zero interest, student card, or cash back.

Expert Q&A: Frequently Asked Questions about Internships

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

What makes a good internship?

Erin McLaughlin:

A good internship gives the student the opportunity to take on a variety of responsibilities, learn from those on staff and receive mentorship in their field or industry.

What are the most common qualities a company is looking for in an intern?

Erin McLaughlin:

It really depends on the field, but employers frequently ask for solid communication, an eagerness to learn new skills and the ability to apply transferrable skills learned in the classroom and through leadership experiences.

Is it worthwhile to do an unpaid internship?

Erin McLaughlin:

It's important to evaluate why you are taking the internship when considering an unpaid internship. If it is a dream company that you hope to work for full-time and unpaid internships are the only way to get exposure to the company, then it can be worthwhile. Students should also be aware of any labor laws governing internships (for-profit and non-profit have different rules) so that they protect themselves.

I always advise students to utilize their school's alumni network (the easiest way to get access is through linkedin.com/alumni) and reach out to alumni in their field for informational interviews. From informational interviews you can volunteer or job shadow, and this can be a useful career exploration tool. Doing this allows you to network and get insights on careers without having to devote 20 hours a week of unpaid time to an internship.

Are there any warning signs a student should look for when deciding whether to take an internship?

Erin McLaughlin:

As mentioned before, make sure you are aware of labor laws governing internships. If you are receiving credit and the duties of the role seem uncomfortable (running personal errands for a boss, for example) or verge on illegal, let your school know; they can assist you in navigating tricky situations. An internship should be giving you hands-on experience in the field you are studying or want to pursue so make sure your role reflects that.

How can a student turn an internship into a paid position at the same company?

Erin McLaughlin:

Once you are in your internship role it is important to communicate to your manager about your future career goals. If they don't know what you're looking for, they can't help you! By requesting a mid-semester check in/evaluation you can highlight the work you have done so far and indicate that you want to explore the possibility of holding a full-time role at the company. If nothing is available immediately it is a good idea to maintain strong relationships with your supervisor: Connect with them on LinkedIn, ask if they will serve as a positive recommendation for other positions you may apply to, and keep them updated on your search.

What's the best way for a student to write about an internship on his/her resume?

Erin McLaughlin:

Always consult with your school's career services office. Any past experience that you have (internship, volunteer, research or leadership role) should be tailored to what you want to do in your next position, and career counselors are experts in highlighting the transferable skills and ensuring you are focusing on the areas that will get you your next role.

Profile Q&A: How I Did It

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

What internships did you complete while in college?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

I had about two internships each year as an undergrad. Freshman year I worked for a fashion showroom in LA (when I was at USC) and later as a creative intern for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in India. Sophomore year I served as a business intern for an interior design firm and then as a creative intern for the branding agency Lloyd & Co. Junior year I was a product development intern for a startup called Harry's, and during that summer I worked for Gannett as a product manager to build an app catered to millennials.

How did you make your internships count?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

Companies are infamous for making interns do administrative work rather than work related to their interests. I think that doing administrative work is part of the experience. However, if I ever felt like I wasn't learning I would request more challenging work. I would often ask myself, "After leaving this internship, is there an experience or project that I could talk about in my next interview?"

Which of your internships was most rewarding and why?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

My internship with Harry's was the most rewarding because of how much responsibility I was given. They were a smaller company with a lot of work to do—there weren't any limitations on an intern's participation.

Did you encounter any surprises?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

The best surprise was how closely I worked with senior-level people. It's easy to view yourself as "just an intern" but I was always pleasantly surprised by how integrated you can be as an intern.

Do you have any advice for interns?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

Try out different industries rather than sticking to one. The best way to figure out what you want to do, is to know what you don't want to do. It is also okay to be unsure about the process because that's the point. Interning is a great way to discover what interests you outside of a classroom, and it's the perfect time to explore.

Did your internship help you get a paying job?

Saakshi Muralidhar:

My biggest struggle throughout undergrad was figuring out how to match my education to a job title. Strategic Design & Management is a great major but is not as widely known as something like finance. The last two internships helped solve that problem because I was able to apply my education to my internship. They also gave me tangible products to talk about in job interviews.

About the Author


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.