Internships are a form of experiential learning that integrates student academic learnings with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships can be a useful way to explore work in a specific industry or role without a long-term commitment. If you’re a student still deciding on the right career path, these exploratory roles can be helpful for discovering the type of work that excites you.
Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths. Participation in at least one internship has become a common part of the college experience. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2017 Student Survey Report, since 2013, each graduating class has had at least 60% of students participate in an internship or co-op during their time at college.
Once you’ve decided that you want to participate in an internship, the next step is to determine what type of internship to apply for and when. In this article, we sat with Julie Brewer, Career Specialist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication Career Center to discuss considerations to make when you’ve decided to apply for an internship, application tips and common timelines to keep in mind.
When to apply for internships
Timing is important to keep in mind depending on the size of the company. Larger companies with more competitive programs tend to have earlier application dates. For less-structured programs, or small companies and startups, internship opportunities are likely to come up throughout the spring semester and even during the first few weeks of summer break. Standard internship programs can have a duration of 10-15 weeks in the Fall and Spring and 10-12 weeks in the Summer semester.
Here are some common timelines to take into consideration when applying for internships:
Fall internship application timeline
Recruiting period for competitive internships: March-August
Recruiting period for many employers: July-August
Internship duration: September-Early December
Average length and hours: 10-15 weeks or the duration of the Fall semester; 10-20 hours/wk part-time
Spring internship application timeline
Recruiting period for competitive internships: August-November
Recruiting period for many employers: November-January
Internship duration: Mid-January-May
Average length and hours: 10-15 weeks or the duration of the Spring semester; 10-20 hours/wk part-time
Summer internship application timeline
Recruiting period for competitive internships: September-December
Recruiting period for many employers: February-April
Internship duration: June-August
Average length and hours: 10-12 weeks; 20 hours for PT, 40 hours for FT
Choosing an internship
There are many personal and academic factors that might affect what type of internship you apply for and when you should start applying. As a best practice, start your internship exploration at least three to six months prior to your anticipated start date including time for research, applying, interviewing and reviewing offers. Application dates, required materials and deadlines to apply for academic credit can vary by industry and college, so be sure to familiarize yourself with your university or targeted industry standards.
Here are some considerations to make before you begin to apply for internship opportunities:
Large vs. small companies
For some students, deciding on where to apply for internships can be a difficult decision. Internship experiences at a large company versus a small company or start-up can vary widely. Brewer says,
“Interning at a large company is a very different experience than one at a startup. At a large company, you’ll get more guidance but you’ll be working on a smaller sliver of the pie in a much more focused area. At a start-up, you might get a larger overview and work on more areas of the business. You might have more measurable results because what might seem like smaller efforts can make large impacts at a small company.”
Paid vs. unpaid internships
Internships can be paid or unpaid depending on the company. Compensation may also vary based on industry, location or level of experience. Typically, there’s more competition for paid internships and they often have earlier application deadlines than those that are unpaid.
There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue or accept an unpaid internship including your financial responsibilities, required hours per week and the value of the experience. The primary goal of participating in an internship is to gain practical experience in your field of study or potential career path. While an unpaid internship may not provide monetary value, the experience can be equally as meaningful to your career development as a paid internship.
When evaluating whether or not to apply for an unpaid internship, Brewer encourages students to think back to their original intention for interning. “Keep in mind that this is an investment in your career, so having internship experience, even if it’s unpaid, can help you negotiate a higher salary when you are looking for full-time employment.”
If you’re presented with a quality unpaid internship opportunity but you also have financial obligations to meet, you might explore the possibility of taking on school, a paid job and the internship. While balancing those responsibilities could be challenging, it might be a worthwhile tradeoff. To evaluate whether there is merit in accepting an unpaid internship, consider speaking with former interns to gain insight into how valuable they found the experience to be. You should also consult with a career or academic advisor at your institution if you need help deciding on the best course of action.
Whether your internship is paid or unpaid, take full advantage of the experience and knowledge the opportunity provides. The true value of an internship is in the experience you gain by working on industry projects, learning new skills and impacting business. Future employers will be interested in how you’ve grown as a professional, not if you were paid for the work.
Internships for academic credit
Many colleges and universities offer academic credit for participating in internships and some programs may even require internship completion for graduation. Talk to your academic advisor about deadlines and internship criteria needed to meet your school’s requirements before you start applying. For example, some institutions may require the company to provide direct and daily supervision and guidance, regular access to the supervisor, assign meaningful projects with learning components and provide the resources needed to complete the internship responsibilities.
Many universities have relaxed their in-office or in-field requirements as a result of the coronavirus. Check with your college or university to see how requirements have changed due to the impact of COVID-19 before applying.
How to apply for an internship
To find internship opportunities, visit company websites, job boards like Indeed.com or your college or university’s career services website. Here are several additional tips for securing your next internship offer.
What to include on your resume when you have little to no experience
When you’re entering the job market for the first time and creating a resume with no work experience, you should focus on other experiences that helped you develop a professional skill set, share your greatest strengths and highlight your education.
If you’re applying to your first internship, here are a few examples of experiences you may want to include on your first resume:
- Any jobs you’ve held
- Extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports
- Academic organizations
- Leadership experience
- Volunteer work
When considering previous experience to include on a resume, Brewer likes to remind students, "It doesn’t have to be a formal internship to include on your resume. You can build a website for a friend who is starting a business or manage social media for an organization that you’re volunteering with. That experience can be just as relevant as a formal internship.”
It's important to highlight the relevant skills you’ve developed in each role—especially those included in the internship posting. In addition, list any achievements you’re proud of, such as improvements you made over time or specific goals you’ve reached.
For example, if you were applying for a marketing internship position, you might include volunteer experience on your resume like this:
Sandyville Community Library
- Record and track loans to library members
- Reshelve return books to their proper locations
- Assist guests and staff in finding useful resources for their work
- Maintain social media accounts including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
- Earned and maintained a five-star review average on the library’s Facebook page
Read more: How To Create a Resume for an Internship
Use an application tracker to stay organized
Consider applying for multiple internship opportunities to increase your chances of securing an offer, just as you would for regular job applications. To stay organized, Brewer recommends creating an application tracker in a spreadsheet that contains detailed information about the opportunities and status of each. Recommended details to track for each opportunity include:
- Name of the internship opportunity
- Whether the opportunity is paid or unpaid
- Checklist of materials needed for the application (resume, cover letter, letters of recommendation, etc.)
- Deadlines (when application materials are due)
- Name and contact information of the hiring manager and other connections you have at the company
Weighing an offer
Once you’ve received an offer, you may wonder how accepting might impact your career long-term. Brewer reminds students that internships are your time to try out a role or industry without a huge commitment. If you have multiple offers and don’t know which to choose, Brewer recommends asking yourself these three questions:
- Which opportunity is going to provide me with a new experience I don’t already have?
- Which opportunity will help me fill a skill gap to prepare for graduation?
- Who would I like working with?
Brewer says, “You’re going to be spending a lot of time with the people, so consider which company or team feels more aligned with your work style. Some students will want to do the same type of internship over and over, but now is the time to try something new.”
If you’ve been extended an offer but need additional time to decide, communicate your request to the recruiter or the hiring manager as soon as possible. An additional week is a reasonable extension to request but if you need longer, be aware that the company may have internal deadlines to have interns selected so it could impact your eligibility.
Here’s a sample email if you need to request additional time to weigh an offer:
Dear Hiring Manager,
Thank you for the offer for the human resource intern position. I’m excited about the opportunity to spend the summer working closely with your team and learning more about the industry. I would like to request additional time to review the details before I make a decision. Would it be possible to submit an answer by the end of the week?
If the employer needs a decision right away, or the deliberation period has ended and an employer needs an answer, ask them if there is any way they can provide one to two more days to decide. If they cannot give you more time, consider whether the company is worth accepting the offer for, if you haven’t heard back from other opportunities.