What Is an Internship and How Do You Get One?

If you’re a career-minded college student, you’ve probably heard about internships. Honestly, even if you’re not “career-minded,” you’ve probably still heard about internships. But what exactly are they and how do you get one? Strap in. Here are the basics.

What Is an Internship?

An internship is a short-term work experience offered by companies and other organizations for people—usually students, but not always—to get some entry-level exposure to a particular industry or field. It is as much of a learning experience as it is work. Ideally, interns spend their time working on relevant projects, learning about the field, making industry connections, and developing both hard and soft skills. Internships sometimes even lead to full-time job offers.

Summer internships are typically 40 hours a week over 10 to 12 weeks. Fall and spring internships vary, but are almost always part time. Some are paid. Some are not. We’ll talk more about that later.

Why Are Internships Important?

As an intern, you get a chance to work side by side with accomplished industry professionals and get a pretty good idea of what an entry-level role might entail. You’ll not only gain real work experience, but also meet and learn from the pros. And you’ll start to build your own network, from your fellow interns to seasoned leaders.

One other less obvious but equally important benefit of an internship is the chance to figure out what you don’t want to do. It’s often difficult to know where to even start when it comes to job searching. Internships give you the chance to try a few things out without committing. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something you love. And if not, you’ll at least know what doesn’t work for you. When it comes to something as tricky as finding the right career, the more information you have to work with, the better.

As internships have gotten more and more common, employers expect to see them on resumes. Applicants with previous work experience are much more competitive than those who only have relevant coursework. Internships offer you the chance to not just build relevant skills and learn about the field, but to demonstrate those skills and industry acumen on the job. For most employers, even ones who are extremely adept at hiring new graduates, nothing quite makes up for real-life experience.

Companies also use internships as talent pipelines to fill their own full-time positions. For employers, internships are a lot of things: a super-extended interview, a training program, and (frequently) a smart way to hire for open roles. This means some college students can walk into their senior years with job offers in hand (and therefore have a much less stressful last year at school).

In short, internships can help you figure out what you want to do with your career and then make it easier to land your first full-time job in that industry.

Do Interns Get Paid?

How much interns get paid varies widely by industry. Tech and finance tend to pay on the higher end, while journalism, fashion, and nonprofits in any field often pay on the lower end (or not at all). According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 56.7% of graduating seniors in 2017 most recently had a paid internship or co-op experience—up from 53.7% in 2014—while 43.3% were not paid. Undergraduates who were paid in 2018 made an average of about $18.50 an hour. Graduate students got paid a fair bit more, with doctoral students making an average of $32.35 an hour.

As short-term workers, interns typically don’t receive health or other benefits that full-time employees get. But depending on the industry and size of the company, it could offer perks ranging from offering a handful of social events or vacation days to covering relocation and even housing.

That’s the paid internships. Let’s talk about the unpaid ones. A pretty uncontroversial stance is that people should be paid for their work. Luckily, the law—namely the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—agrees. Usually.

Why then, do unpaid internships exist? In theory, unpaid internships are mostly learning rather than work experiences. The Department of Labor has a seven-point test courts have used to distinguish between an employee (or paid intern) and a legally unpaid intern at for-profit companies. Basically, for an unpaid internship to be lawful, you should be benefiting more than the company. According to the FLSA’s factsheet, it’s also generally OK for the public sector and nonprofits to have unpaid interns who “[volunteer] without expectation of compensation.”

All that said, some organizations, whether for-profit or not, offer unpaid internships that, uh, get precariously close to the lines (or cross them). Some industries are notorious for not paying their interns (or paying them poorly), while also requiring internships in order to get a foot in the door for full-time entry-level jobs. Of course, that means that people who can’t afford to take unpaid internships not only miss out on those valuable learning experiences, but have more trouble breaking into the field as a whole.

If you’re interested in an industry where unpaid internships are common, but spending a summer or semester working for free isn’t an option, don’t give up! Check with your university’s career office as well as relevant academic departments, institutes, and centers on campus—they may have grants and other programs you can apply for to help you support yourself while getting the work experience you need.

You can also look outside of your school for funding to support internship experiences. The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, for example, gives awards of up to $5,000 for undergraduates of “limited financial means” who are looking to study or intern abroad. Other organizations run very specific programs, like the Association for Women in Sports Media, which matches female college students with paid internships and gives participants an additional $1,000 scholarship.

It might take some digging to find one that’s the right fit for you, but it’s worth looking for a program on campus or off that can help fund the work experience you’re looking for.

3 Ways to Find an Internship

Now that you know what an internship is, you might be wondering how you go about finding one. Here are three ways to find internship opportunities.

1. Use Campus Resources

If you’re a student, go to your campus career center and figure out how to attend career fairs and take part in on-campus recruiting. There may also be job boards for students at your university. These employers are specifically looking for students from your school! Make the most of that university connection and take advantage of how convenient it is to have employers come to you.

2. Go Online

As you probably guessed, there are tons of resources online too, including, of course, The Muse, which features both job and internship postings along with company profiles to help you learn about organizations and their culture.

Searching online can be really overwhelming, so it’s best to go in with an idea of what you’re looking for, such as “product management internship” or “editorial internship.” It’s counterintuitive, but the more you narrow your search, the more manageable it’ll be. You can always stay open to other opportunities as the process unfolds, but start with a clear goal.

3. Look at Your Favorite Organizations

Everyone has a couple of dream companies. If you’re not sure exactly what kind of internship you want to pursue, another direction you can go is to check out the company first. Go directly to your target company’s website and see what kind of internship programs and opportunities it offers. If you find one that might be a good fit, apply! After all, a major benefit of an internship is helping you figure out what you want to do post-graduation.

4 Tips for Getting an Internship

If this all sounds good, the last step is, well, getting the internship. Here’s how.

1. Start Looking Early

Figure out when your industry recruits. In general, the larger the company is, the earlier in the fall they probably start the process for the following summer’s intern class. If your school has a fall career fair, that’s a great place to begin your search.

Smaller companies have a harder time projecting headcount and therefore tend to hire closer to when they need someone to start. That could mean applications due anytime between January and March for a summer internship, so make sure you check on timelines in the fall, even if you’re targeting smaller organizations.

If you’re looking for a fall or spring internship, aim to start your search at least a full semester before your target start date.

2. Get Your Resume and Cover Letter in Shape

Follow these five steps to write a resume for an internship and read up on how to write a cover letter for an internship. (There are examples at the end of each article!) You might not feel like you have very much experience to write about, but as long as you keep an open mind about what “experience” encompasses—like course assignments, hackathons, volunteer projects, or other extracurricular activities—you’ll likely be able to put together a compelling application.

3. Prepare for Those Interviews

It can be tempting to wing it, especially since interview invites can often make them sound like casual chats. Don’t fall for it. Review common internship interview questions and practice answering them aloud. You don’t have to memorize your responses, but definitely practice them.

Make sure you do some research about the company—what it does, what it’s currently working on, and what its culture is like. If you want to be extra prepared, dig a little deeper to see what their interview practices are like and what questions they ask (if you have a contact at the organization, reach out!). Lastly, if possible, try to learn more about your specific interviewers on the company website, LinkedIn, or other professional pages. Use all of your research to come up with relevant questions to ask at the end of your interview.

4. Use Your Network

If you’re a student, reach out to professors, alumni, and your career center. Let people know what kind of internship you’re looking for. They can’t help unless they know what you’re after. I don’t mean go and ask an alum you’ve never met before to hand you an internship. Instead, tell them what you’re interested in and ask for their advice on how to achieve it.

To be even more targeted with your networking, create a list of companies you’re interested in and start finding people to reach out to via LinkedIn or your school’s alumni database. Apply online as well to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines, but keep meeting with people and conducting informational interviews to get advice about your search. You may even find yourself in an impromptu interview and land the internship of your dreams.

Networking is often a more labor intensive approach, but it also tends to result in a better fit than just applying randomly. Even if it doesn’t directly pay off in your internship search, one day you’ll be glad you started developing your network early in your career.