What is an internship and how does it work?

College students already have a lot on their plates—and breaking into a career industry without relevant experience can be a challenge. But getting an internship can help bridge the gap between academia and a professional position.

An internship provides an opportunity to learn about a specific field without committing to a full-time position. And by narrowing down different types of jobs and industries they may be interested in, interns can be better equipped to apply for a long-term position.

Key takeaways

  • An internship is a temporary arrangement that allows participants to gain practical work experience.
  • Interns are typically college students or recent graduates.
  • Internships can be paid or unpaid depending on the agreement, and some positions offer college credit in exchange for work.
  • There are different types of internships available that vary by duration, industry type and job responsibility.

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What is an internship?

An internship is a short-term working arrangement that gives individuals experience relevant to their studies or career interests. It’s typically geared toward college students but can include other professionals. Interns may work at a business, nonprofit organization or other work environment.

How internships work

Internships differ from traditional occupations largely based on pay, duration and the type of work. Interns’ duties can vary depending on the program, but most of the work is typically entry level and hands-on. For example, interns might perform data entry, do research, create presentations and participate in company meetings.

Through an internship, an employer offers work experience to interns. But internships have benefits for employers, too. While the interns gain career insight and experience, employers gain a temporary worker who can bring a fresh perspective to the company. Employers may also use an internship program as a way to recruit new talent.

Are internships paid?

An internship can be paid or unpaid, and some programs may offer academic credit upon completion of the term. Unpaid internships can classify the participant as a “trainee,” while interns categorized as “employees” must be paid at least minimum wage. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average intern salary is $19.54 per hour.

How long do internships last?

Depending on the type of internship, the program might last one day, one semester or even one year or more.

Types of internships

There are different types of internships that vary by responsibilities, duration, industry and employer.

  • Summer internship: As its name suggests, a summer internship takes place between the spring and fall semesters, typically lasting two or three months. Being able to focus on the internship, without balancing a full school load, is one selling point of a summer arrangement.
  • Semester internship: A semester internship is a program that runs during the academic calendar. Interns will typically have to work while balancing a school load for the duration of a semester. There are also internships—called one-year internships—that consist of two semesters. In this case, the first semester might be an unpaid introductory period, while the second semester might be paid and include more responsibilities and targeted experience for interns.
  • Externship: An externship is a brief program that gives interns a short but targeted introduction to the day-to-day operations of a company. Externships typically last between one day and a few weeks. This is a good option for candidates who are interested in multiple fields and want to narrow down their choices based on real-world experience by participating in multiple externships.
  • College internship: This type of internship takes place directly at a college or university. Typically, students pursuing careers in the health care, research and science fields participate in these programs. A college internship may also be reserved for students within the school who are pursuing master’s or doctorate degrees.
  • Returnship: A returnship is a less common program for experienced professionals looking to gain a path back into the workforce. These individuals may have a gap in their resume and need to brush up on their skills before applying for a permanent position. Returnships could also be an option for professionals who want experience before transitioning between careers.
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Steps to secure an internship

Think of applying for internships as you would a full-time job—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It can take a few tries to get a position, but doing some preliminary work could increase your chances. Try using these steps to land the internship you’ve had your eye on.

1. Narrow down your options

When looking for an internship program, consider your previous experience, the college courses you’ve enjoyed most and the skills you would like to gain. Then you can search for companies that align with your experience. Taking a targeted approach—rather than applying for a large number of programs that may not be a good fit—can help you land the right internship for your career.

2. Look in the right places

There are many different places you can look to find an internship program. An online job board can provide a wide variety of positions that you can narrow down based on location, job type, company rating and date posted. If you have a specific company in mind, check out their career page to see if there are any internships available. If not, you can try contacting them directly to learn about future opportunities.

If you’re a student, check with your college’s career center to find opportunities available within your network. You could spend time on LinkedIn updating your profile and tapping into your network. You can also ask classmates, friends, family members, professors and previous employers for referrals.

3. Write a resume and cover letter

Once you’ve found several internship programs you’re interested in, it’s time to update or write your resume and cover letter. You may not have professional experience yet, so it helps to include any volunteer initiatives or extracurricular activities you’ve participated in. You should also note any skills you have outside of your work experience, like technical knowledge, coding skills or fluency in other languages.

Think of your cover letter as an elevator pitch—it’s a quick summary detailing why you would be a good fit for the position. This is your chance to personalize your application for each company you’re applying to. A customized cover letter shows the interviewer you’ve researched the company and helps relate your specific skill set to the position.

4. Ask for letters of recommendation

Certain internship programs require one or more letters of recommendation in addition to the resume and cover letter. You’ll want to brainstorm some individuals you’ve worked with, such as professors or previous managers. Try to choose people who can speak to your skills and work ethic.

Reach out to these contacts personally, if possible, then send a follow-up formal letter request. And since letters take time to write, consider making your request politely and well in advance.

5. Research the company

In Step 1, you narrowed your options. But if you get a call back for a position you applied for, it helps to go a step further. Research the company by reading through their website, learning more about their work and visiting their social media pages to keep up with current events.

You can also read up on some common interview questions to be prepared for what the interviewer may ask. Be sure to have a list of questions ready about the position and the company to show your interest in the role. Some college career centers offer mock interviews to brush up on your skills before the big day.

6. Plan for interview day 

Before the day of the interview, consider setting your alarm early and mapping out the route so you’ll be on time. You can also get a good night’s rest and eat a healthy meal before the interview.

As you’re getting dressed, try to pick out the right interview outfit based on the company’s dress code. A general guideline is to dress one level above the typical attire worn at the job. For example, if the employees are wearing casual outfits, you could opt for business casual attire for the day of the interview. But depending on the company, it might be better to wear a business professional outfit.

7. Follow up with the interviewer

Once the interview is complete, it’s important to send a follow-up note to the interviewer. A thank-you note can set you apart from other candidates and show that you are taking the role seriously. Remember to address everyone you spoke to and send the letter within one business day of the interview.

It’s good practice to thank the interviewer for their time and include a quick recap of the interview. Jot down a few things you enjoyed about the experience and why you think you would be a good fit for the position.

What are the benefits of an internship?

While internships aren’t always necessary to secure a full-time position, there are a few benefits associated with pursuing this type of program.

  • Gain new skills and experiences. By taking on various responsibilities at a company, you can learn new skills and gain insight into real-world scenarios that you may encounter in a full-time position.
  • Narrow down potential career paths. A good internship program can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and understand what you enjoy in a job. This insight might help when you start narrowing down industries and roles you’re interested in for a long-term career.
  • Bolster your resume. In a competitive job market, building your resume is key to standing out among other candidates. You can also refer to the soft skills and hard skills you gained by including these in a section of your resume. 
  • Find networking opportunities. Many internships offer the chance to build relationships with co-workers and managers. In some cases, the company you intern with may even set you on a pathway to a full-time job offer.

Internships in a nutshell

An internship program is a good stepping stone to prepare students for the professional working world. You can use the skills and insight gained from this experience to help you get a job and lay a strong foundation to build on as you advance your career.

You can also prepare for life after graduation by checking out these financial tips for new college graduates.

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