Internships are often the first-time many students experience the professional world. Entering this period of career exploration can be incredibly exciting, but the path to get there can be daunting—especially when viewed through naive eyes. The internship process may be your first time putting together a resume. Translating your interests into real opportunities may not be intuitive and learning how to operate in the workplace can feel a little like decoding a new and unfamiliar language.
But, remember, that discomfort and nervousness is normal. And the internship search doesn’t have to be intimidating. To help, we’re going to break down everything from networking to interviewing, and get you set up for success. There’s an abundance of challenging and exciting internships out there, you just need the right tools and resources to sort through them.
Why It’s Important to Get Internships
No matter where you’re at in school, internships provide meaningful opportunities for growth. They offer you the chance to take everything that you’re learning in school and apply it to the real world. And, as you’ll learn, the professional world allows you to explore your passions. Whether you’re interested in writing or programming, you’ll have the chance to practice your skills and get feedback from your coworkers.
Some schools—like XQ’s Summit Shasta and Washington Leadership Academy— include internships as part of their curriculum. This approach to learning helps students network while they’re still in high school, explore different career paths, and get hands-on experience. Plus, some internships are paid or can lead to full-time jobs.
If you’re interested in a particular career field like journalism or business, for instance, this is your chance to get on the ground with people who actually do it for a living. Before committing to a profession, it’s good to get a sense of whether it truly fits with your personality, goals, and skillset. Partnerships between high school students and employers are also proven to strengthen essential bonds and improve the community as a whole.
High school is a crucial time to strengthen your professional work experiences. Internships show future employers that you have the ability to thrive in the workplace and add tangible evidence of skills to resumes and college applications. The people that you meet will be equally important; from fellow interns to supervisors, internships surround you with coworkers who share an interest in your field and can help connect you with other projects related to it.
What Internship Opportunities Are There for High School Students?
Plenty! There is a wide misconception that internships are a college or graduate experience, but this simply isn’t true. In fact, more and more high school students are beginning to realize the importance of internships. And there’s an ever-increasing number of employers beginning to hire them. According to The Society for Human Resource Management:
- Half of responding employers reported they are either currently accepting applications from high school students for internships or plan to this year
- 90% of employers agreed that high school internship programs can help students get into better colleges
- 92% of high school students hoped to get new skills out of an internship, while 81% wanted work experience and 72% were interested in networking
Opportunities are available in any field that you can imagine. I’m a junior in college, and I’ve participated in four internships to date. Each one has taught me something new and exciting, from how to publicize a nonprofit to the logistics of summer camp operations.
In high school, my friends came to school each day with stories from the bakeries, community centers, and theatre production companies where they interned. And local and national organizations are constantly on the lookout for fresh perspectives that teenagers like you can provide.
While many of these internships are unpaid, some of them have financial compensation. Paid internships are less common for high school students, but be sure to apply anyway. I was once hesitant to consider a paid internship because of its competitiveness and only applied because a close friend encouraged me to do so. To my surprise, I landed the job! Be bold, and don’t sell yourself short when it comes to the internship search.
Even when an internship is unpaid, it can serve as a way to get your foot in the door and can lead to a career down the road. Many interns are offered full-time positions after graduating from high school or college, so some extra work now can be lucrative in the long run. In fact, in a survey of over 300 employers, 45% said that high school internships will “very likely” or “completely likely” turn into a full-time job at their company.
It’s important to note that not only is there a wide range of options out there but that these options really do lead to meaningful work. The movie stereotype of an intern who takes coffee orders all day isn’t always true; there are interns your age who are at the forefront of innovation and making stunning progress. Take Wolf Cukier for example, the 17-year-old NASA intern who discovered a planet seven times larger than the Earth.
For those more inclined to keep their feet firmly on the ground, interns also make an impact by working with organizations focused on social justice issues that impact our communities and our loved ones. Kenneth Coleman, a fellow Emerson Collective intern, described his internship experience:
“An internship with the Emerson Collective is incredibly helpful. It’s allowed us to create a dialogue with leading figures across multiple disciplines who really push us to engage critically with issues impacting nearly every aspect of life across the globe. It has also allowed for skill development like working with data, conducting research, creating content, public speaking, networking, phone banking, and so many other projects that developed highly-transferable skills for my future career path.”
How Can I Find Internships?
Searching for an internship is the perfect opportunity to practice your networking skills. Networking occurs when you cultivate relationships with people who share your professional interests, in the hopes that you can draw on each other’s experiences and knowledge. The good news is that your network is probably already much larger than you think. Here are just a few examples of people who may be able to connect you to internship openings:
- Family members
- Friends and classmates
Your high school guidance counselor or college and career center are excellent sources to turn to for community-based advice, too. They can give you specialized feedback based on your goals and from the experiences of past students. Remember, the more people who know that you’re searching for an internship, the better your chances of finding one. So be sure to cast a wide net.
Showing your enthusiasm also proves useful when uncovering internships. Don’t be afraid to research the organizations that you’re interested in and reach out to them directly (yes, even if there aren’t any positions listed on their website). Just make sure to polish up your professional email skills first. At the very least, it serves as an opportunity to learn a little more about the industry, get referred to other groups, and practice your communication skills. The company may even applaud your initiative and find a space for you to work with them.
As you probably know, the internet is a great resource to find internships. We’ve listed some websites to serve as starting points below:
Places to Begin the Internship Search
Besides its job search function, LinkedIn is useful for expanding your professional connections. You can upload a profile highlighting your skills, connect with coworkers and recruiters, and read posts related to your areas of interest.
Glassdoor is a site that hosts anonymous employee reviews about company culture, salaries, and possible interview questions. It can be central in determining whether or not a potential employer aligns with your goals and values.
Indeed combines elements of the previous two resources by allowing you to upload a resume, search for jobs, and read company reviews. It also lets you sort positions by a wide variety of criteria.
Also referred to as Internships.com, this site is unique in that it specifically focuses on internship listings, which you can sort by experience level and compensation. Staff and student articles provide additional advice for all stages of the application process.
Idealist lists jobs, internships, and even volunteer opportunities available in the nonprofit sector. This site can serve as a starting point for students interested in working in industries that create positive change.
Listings are posted all the time, so be sure to regularly check your sources for up-to-date information. When searching, it always pays to keep your timeline in mind, as many places begin hiring months in advance.
Summer internships, for example, are often posted around November and have deadlines in the early winter, even if the start date is in May or June. Beginning the search early will give you a leg up on the competition and prevent a last-minute rush to get your materials turned in on time.
Organization will be essential here. Trying to juggle internship listings, applications, and deadlines can get confusing, so create a virtual spreadsheet or calendar to keep on time. Many businesses expect employees to have basic familiarity with technology anyway, so it never hurts to brush up on your digital proficiency.
How to Ace the Application Process
Once you find the perfect internship opportunity to tackle, it’s time to get ready for the second stage of the process: applying.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to leave an impression on employers, but what this looks like varies according to every person. My strengths will not be the same as your strengths and vice versa. When considering each of the following components, be mindful about highlighting your own qualities, dreams, and motivations. Here’s how:
- Put Your Skills on Paper
- Write a Cover Letter
- Create a Digital Presence
- Reach out for References
- Prepare for Interviews
Put Your Skills on Paper
Almost every application will ask you to attach a resume, a document which summarizes your prior background and skills. Generally, you want to keep it brief; try to keep your resume no longer than one page (recruiters spend an average of six seconds on every resume). Be sure to include:
- Contact information
- Previous employment
- Awards or certifications
- Volunteer experiences
Write a Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be considered hand-in-hand along with your resume. Whereas the resume is a succinct list of your abilities, the cover letter is a supplement which allows your personal voice to shine. When given the option you should always include it. It is a one-page letter detailing your interest in an organization and the contributions you would like to make, so elaborate on why this internship in particular excites you. It’s helpful to also tell a compelling story that keeps the recruiter engaged.
After writing your resume and cover letter, put them aside for a few days and then review them with fresh eyes. Running them through an online grammar or spell checker helps to catch mistakes, but also be sure to show them to people you trust. They’ll be able to suggest structural edits and remind you of skills that you might have forgotten to highlight. As you gain more and more experience, keep updating your resume and cover letter, too
Create a Digital Presence
There are two aspects of your digital presence: the professional and the personal. As expected, the first has to do with the information that is posted for the benefit of your professional network. This can include your LinkedIn or Indeed profile, and after listing your resume accomplishments on these sites, there are a few other things to keep in mind.
Use a professional headshot when creating your professional profiles. And you don’t have to get it professionally shot; a well-lit cellphone photo should do the trick. Be sure you’re wearing appropriate work attire and crop the photo from the shoulders up.
As you’re browsing through feeds, be on the lookout for chances to craft your personal narrative. Networking websites allow you to post about the experiences you’ve been involved in, so take time to write about why your work is important or what it’s taught you. Pay attention to your colleagues’ posts as well, and congratulate them on their accomplishments.
While your personal profile doesn’t have to be as carefully curated, employers can and do search for this information, so follow some common sense rules on social media:
- Avoid posting hateful content or promoting illegal activity on your private page
- Avoid gossiping about your boss or coworkers online
- Post with integrity
- Remember that what you say online reflects your real-life values
Reach Out for References
References can make or break a potential internship, so select people who know you well and will be able to vouch for your strengths. This can include:
- A teacher who can vouch for your work ethic
- Your school counselor
- Your manager or boss
- Leaders of an organization with which you’ve volunteered
While your friends and family will have wonderful things to say about you, refrain from listing them as references, since these are meant to be people who can speak about you in a professional capacity. At the same time, resist the temptation to list somebody who has impressive credentials but doesn’t really know that much about you. After all, this is your chance to showcase how you conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis.
Some applications will only ask you to provide the phone numbers and email addresses of your contacts; just be sure to verify that your references are okay with being listed ahead of time.
Letters of recommendation take a much longer time to procure, especially during college application season. Plan ahead and give at least a month’s notice in advance. Providing your recommenders with your resume and a brief run-down of your career hopes will help them tailor a letter which fits with your application. Employers will also occasionally request a copy of your high school transcript, which you can obtain from your school. If you’ve had gaps in your enrollment or a sharp decrease in grades due to family issues, mental health problems, or any other hardships, the guidance office, college center, or career center at your school can provide a note offering context.
Prepare for Interviews
The key thing to keep in mind when tackling an interview is that the other person is human, too. There’s no need to be nervous; just be yourself and showcase what you can contribute to an internship. Besides being a chance for an employer to learn about you, this is a time for you to get a glimpse into how their business operates. Learn about the company ahead of time, and don’t hesitate to ask questions about job expectations or the work environment.
From a practical standpoint, make sure to arrive well before the interview is scheduled to start. This will give you time to prepare and serves as a safeguard against traffic jams, bad weather, and any other unforeseen obstacles.
Bring a copy of your resume for the interviewer to refer back to throughout the interview. You’ll want to dress professionally; what that means could vary according to where you apply, but when in doubt, err on the side of caution and go more conseravative with your look. If your interview is conducted virtually or over the phone, you should still dress professionally, and take extra caution to speak clearly and be in an area with good reception.
Before the interview, review common interview questions and practice answering them. Responses don’t have to be scripted, but have a solid idea of what could be asked and the experiences you want to elaborate on. Frequently-asked questions include:
- What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- Why are you interested in working here?
- What would you contribute to our company?
- Can you describe a difficult situation and explain how you overcame it?
- How do you manage time effectively?
- Can you tell me about a leadership experience or a time when you were part of a team?
Before You Go…
Finding an internship is just the beginning of the journey that lies ahead of you, so enjoy it. Even as you explore your interests, be open to straying off the path and following opportunities you never knew existed. Changing your trajectory is a sign of discovery, and your growing experiences and voice are what will bring us into a brighter tomorrow. As youth activist Alliyah Logan said:
“In a post-COVID-19 world, the world should have a renewed emphasis on collaboration, empathy, and support…We will have the chance to start investing time and effort into our communities—a chance to uplift the voices of the most marginalized.”
Pursue the internships that inspire you, and where these do not exist, innovate them. Now is your time to develop as a person, as a professional, and as a change maker for the generations to come.
Resources for Further Learning