Tuesday, December 7, 2021

College Student Internships: The Complete 101 Guide

Discover how to get the top college internships to pump your CV with experience.

Applying for college internships should be part of a college student’s to-do list. Why? Because an internship opens the door to the working world where you can develop your expertise and skills enough to score you an actual job after college. 

Don’t know where to look? Don’t know when to start? Don’t know what to do? Not for long! Here’s everything you need to know about college student internships!

What Is a College Student Internship?  

A college internship is a chance for you to put your new college knowledge and skills to the test in your field of study. You’ll work at a business, gain entry-level skills, and have a chance to learn if your chosen career path is the right one for you. Interns mainly occupy supporting roles, such as helping out on projects or assisting executives.

group-of-young-college-interns-laughing-around-table-with-laptops
A college internship lets you practice real skills for the future. Photo: viewapart/Freepik

An internship typically lasts one academic term (three to four months) but can go longer or shorter depending on the employer. You can expect to spend around 10 hours per week on a part-time internship, while full-time programs are generally 40 hours per week. 💪🏻

Why College Internships Are Important

As hard a pill this is to swallow, the job market is competitive and having a good degree is often no longer enough to score you a job. But completing one or multiple internships will give you a substantial advantage because it makes you more marketable. 

You gain professional experience and develop necessary skills while you do the work in an internship. You can also grow your network and make connections when you meet co-workers, bosses, and clients.

Plus, during your college internship, you can decide if a job or an industry is worth pursuing after you graduate because internships expose you to the realities of a real career. Does the position align with your own goals and interests? If not, you have time to shift things around and find a path that’ll check all the boxes. ✅  

How to Find an Internship in College

If you’re hoping to land the perfect internship, you’ll want to maximize all the resources available to improve your search. 

So how can you find the best college internship opportunities? Here are some ideas!

Talk to Your College’s Career Center

Your first stop should be your college’s career center. Here, you can pick and choose from a vast database of potential internships with credible companies and organizations that your college has already vetted.

Tip: Don’t forget to head over to your department’s office to see if they have a more specific list or industry contacts too.

Get in Touch With Local Companies

Choosing internship programs from big, well-known companies may seem like the obvious choice — but a college internship at a local business can also bring a lot to the table. 

photo-of-four-young-interns-pointing-at-screen
A local internship often lets you work directly with movers and shakers within the company. Photo: viewapart/Freepik

While bigger businesses may have larger and more developed internship programs, a local internship often puts you closer to a businesses’ core — letting you flex your skills and build a great portfolio or resume. Small-scale start-ups or firms also make it easier to connect with your co-workers and supervisors.

Tip: College students can also save a substantial amount of money from reduced transportation and housing costs when interning at local companies.

Search Online Job Boards

Widen your search with job sites like Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, or Internships.com. These platforms contain millions of listings where you have a great chance of finding your ideal internship. All you need to do is to filter your results based on location, industry, company ratings, company size, and type of internship. 

If you have a company or a specific industry in mind but aren’t into the current options, create a job alert to inform you of future listings — you never know when your dream opportunity might pop up!

Ask Around Your Family, Friends, and Other Students

In some cases, taking a personal approach when finding an internship can do wonders. Your inner circles at home and in college can offer up information about potential leads and what certain companies can offer. You can even reach out to professors since they’ll likely have valuable contacts within specific industries.

More importantly, family members, friends, and college seniors who’ve already had the internship experience can give practical insights into what you can expect as an intern. Plus, you can get some insider scoops on the companies they’ve worked for to gauge if these businesses are good choices. 

Make Use of Your College’s Career Fair

If you feel that your list of potential college internship opportunities is still too thin, you can take advantage of your college’s next career fair. 

A career fair is your chance to meet and interact with companies looking to hire interns. Do your best to research participating companies in advance and prepare a short speech introducing you and what you can bring to the table to make your interaction more memorable.

Make sure to impress them with your personality and know-how but at the same time, ask questions about the internship program.

How to Successfully Get an Internship in College

Looking for internships is just the first step. Once you’re sure about the options you want to pursue, get ready to put some work into the application process.

If you’re not sure what to do with your resume, your interviews, and everything else in between, here are some tips to help you score a great internship program.

Female candidate smiling during a job interview
Nailing your internship interview is just the first step. Photo: Mangostar/Shutterstock

Carefully Consider Your Ideal Internship

Knowing what type of internship you want makes it easier to search for options and makes the experience more rewarding. It also means you’re more likely to complete the internship, get the desired experience, and make the right connections for later in your career.

Of course, it’s not easy to know what you want in an internship right off the bat. But here are some questions that can lead you closer to an answer:

  • Do you want to go for a paid or unpaid internship? Will food or travel allowances be a good alternative if you don’t have a salary? 
  • Would you prefer a summer program or something more full-time?
  • What responsibilities would you handle during your stay? Does it reflect what you want to do after college?

If you’re still at a crossroads after all this, call for help and seek assistance from your college’s career counselors.

Check Application Deadlines Carefully

You can bet your bottom dollar that other students have missed their application deadlines because they either forgot about it or confused it with other dates. It may be a common mistake but it’s a costly one. Luckily, that won’t happen to you — right? 😉

To play it safe, create a calendar to track when you’re supposed to send your applications. Take it to the next level by setting alerts earlier than the actual deadline to double-check you’ve ticked all the boxes.

Update Your Resume

Resumes are commonly the first (and at times only) point of contact that prospective employers have with applicants. The document provides basic information, such as your name, education, relevant skills, experience, and notable achievements.

Here are some top tips to remember when constructing your resume:

  • Keep it short, simple, and easy to read
  • Emphasize skills and responsibilities relating to the job postings (consider getting yourself a work-study job to spice up your resume)
  • Include only relevant information (key wins, accomplishments, awards, and extracurriculars) and draw attention to the most important information first
  • Use active language and quantify your impact (numbers and key metrics)
  • Try the STAR format (situation, task, action, and result) when talking about your work experience
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Start Looking as Soon as Opportunities Arise

It’s best to look for prospective employers as soon as possible to maximize the benefits you can receive. So, start to reach out to companies as early as six months to a year before the start date as a general rule. 

Submitting a well-crafted application in advance offers an excellent first impression to employers. But don’t submit it too early — yours might get lost in a pile (or declined) if the company isn’t accepting interns yet. If they’re not, mark a date in your calendar for when you’ll reattempt.

young-college-intern-talks-to-colleage
Getting your dream internship is often about planning in advance. Photo: seventyfour/Freepik

If you’re expecting to earn college credit through your internship, make sure to check with your college about their deadlines for having internships approved. Meanwhile, students interested in spring internships can contact employers before they leave for spring break.

Apply for Multiple Internships

Increase the chances of landing a position by applying to multiple internships in different industries. Generally, submitting applications to at least 10 companies is a good goal but don’t be shy to go for more. You can ease off the search once you start being invited to interviews.

Remember, these programs are highly competitive so expect that there are many college students working hard to get the same role you desire. It’s best to have a thick stack of plan Bs just in case.   

Treat Each Application Individually

While we do encourage casting a wide net when applying for college internships, try to create targeted resumes and cover letters for each internship instead of sending out the same version again and again. You can review sample templates to give you an idea of what to include, then just fill it up with skills, achievements, and experience relevant to the position.

You can also politely ask a professor or faculty member from your college to help you review your applications to check if everything is in order before you submit — they may be able to offer some final wisdom or advice. 🤓

Consider Preparing a Portfolio

If you’re pursuing creative positions in fields such as advertising, journalism, or web development, compiling your best work in a portfolio is a good move since it shows concrete proof of your skills. 

You can create a PDF or use free platforms like Wix or Canva to present notable projects and samples. But before you hit send, your portfolio should highlight projects that resemble what you want to do in the future and describe the impact your work has had.

Prepare and Practice Before Your Interview

It’s game day. We know that interviews can be a source of dread for many applicants but employers must have already seen something in you to invite you to an interview. Now is the chance to prove it!

Before your interview, you have to know basic information about the company and the industry. Familiarize yourself with their products, services, and history. You can even try and pitch some ideas or solutions for the company based on your research

young-interns-laughing-at-desk
Prepare for your internship interview like you would a final exam. Photo: viewapart/Freepik

Now, in terms of answering interview questions, it’s best to be as specific as possible with your replies. Avoid vague statements that don’t give them much to go on. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time to answer complex questions (such as “why should we choose you?” or “how do you respond to criticism or stress?”) as this signals your seriousness and desire to engage with the interviewer.

Other pointers include:

  • Be early (whether online or onsite)
  • Wear appropriate clothing
  • Remember to ask your own questions

How to Be a Top College Intern

As an intern, you’re hired to bring value to the company you’ll be working for and this can lead to a job offer if you’ve performed to their satisfaction. So, how can you succeed as a college intern? 

Dress to Impress

Getting dressed for your internship is all about furthering the good impression you’ve built during the application process. This means that you have to wear something that establishes a professional image but is tailored to the company’s image and vibe.

Working for extremely formal companies means that you’ll probably have to invest in suits and blazers. For startups and small-scale firms, business casual such as collared shirts, sweaters, blouses, pencil skirts, and dress slacks are a good choice. 

Treat It Like a Real Job

Temporary, yes. Usually unpaid, yes. But, if you treat internships as actual jobs, you can have a more fulfilling experience by the end of the program. Going all out as an intern gives you a chance to make mistakes and rake in some personal achievements — and will give your resume the boost it needs to score a great job after college.

Now, what are you expected to do while at work? 

  • Show up on time. No one likes tardy colleagues 😤
  • Be efficient and productive. Do your best when you’re given your tasks for the day
  • Remain polite yet personable. Strike up a conversation with co-workers during your break to connect with them
  • Ask questions and observe. This is your chance to develop your skillset!
  • Finally, try your best to avoid office gossip and politics. Nothing good can come out of that — we promise

Tick Off All Your Tasks…

There’s no question about it: your overall performance as an intern depends on how you handle your responsibilities. It’s common for interns to be saddled with grunt work but finishing these tasks with enthusiasm while maintaining a high quality of work will surely impress your bosses. 

Actively participate in routine activities such as team meetings and department plannings. There should be plenty of things for you to do, especially when you’ve settled into your role, so be prepared. But just in case you run into some tricky challenges (like using your office copier or a state-of-the-art productivity software), ask questions!

…And Then Go Above and Beyond

Nothing left on your to-do list, and you still have a couple of hours left in your day? Make sure to let your supervisor know so they can think about giving you additional responsibilities (within reason, of course). If not, you could try assisting co-workers with their tasks, even if it’s slightly out of your element. This can be an excellent way for you to learn things you wouldn’t normally encounter as an intern!

a young man in a suit and tie smiling as he walks in an alley
It’s time to seize the opportunity and apply to college student internships that will give you the advantage after college. Photo: Taylor Grote/Unsplash

Another option to use your downtime is to brainstorm possible projects or company solutions and present them to your supervisor. Who knows where your ideas will take you? It pays to make yourself always available as it helps employers see you in a positive light, and it might even score you an awesome job reference for the future. ✨

Make Connections With Everyone You Meet

Getting to know and getting along with your co-workers or fellow interns can improve your work environment as it builds teamwork and comradery among the team. They can help ease you into your job and vouch for your performance when a permanent job offer is on the table.

Helping them with their tasks while you’re free is one way of starting friendships. You should also say yes to social invitations for company dinners, karaoke nights, and team-building activities. This could be the perfect time to seek out a mentor — someone who’s there to guide you and is invested in seeing you grow. If you find this person, take them out for coffee or lunch!

Learn as Much as You Can

Be a sponge! 🧽 A college internship program is mainly a learning experience so soak up everything you can. Welcome the assignments that are far from your expertise as they help create new skills and make it a habit to ask specific and appropriate questions to the team.

Also, don’t shy away from asking specific and appropriate questions. It can help you learn more about the company and the industry, plus the act of asking signals your drive to learn and succeed. Get extra brownie points by keeping up to date on relevant issues related to your field.

Keep Track of What You Achieve for the Future

As your internship progresses, list all the projects you’ve worked on and relevant milestones you’ve collected so you can add them to your resume later on. If you plan to include some examples in your portfolio, ask for permission first since this information might be confidential.

Reflect on the experience and identify what you liked and disliked about the entire internship. It’s important to do your best to leave with a better understanding of your potential career path.


Becoming an intern affords you a quick but important glimpse of what life could be like after college. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience where you can judge for yourself if your current path can lead to a fun, fulfilling career. Best of luck!

Frequently Asked Questions About College Internships

College internships are temporary work experiences offered by an employer to expose students to the realities of a professional career in a particular industry. 

Internships are often used to help determine if a certain industry or job position is a good option for the student to take in the future. It also provides an avenue for them to build professional connections with colleagues and supervisors that can hopefully turn into job offers.

There are plenty of resources available to help you search for the perfect internship program. You can use your college’s career center cut-off advantage of an upcoming career fair. You could also search for listings on popular job sites like Indeed or LinkedIn or, if you have a specific company in mind, visit their official website and check for their career pages. 

Don’t forget to ask close family members, friends, coursemates, and professors for recommendations (or even advice) on possible options.

Post-graduation internships do exist, but they’re limited. It’s best to research companies with programs designed for college graduates to reduce the risk of being ineligible in certain applications.

Completing more than one college internship before being serious with your job search is possible — but the availability of your options will depend on your chosen industry. 

The presence of these programs in your resume can make you a competitive candidate and the more they are, the better. However, make sure that you excel and can give 100 percent in each internship you join. Your goal is to impress employers with your performance and receiving a bad review can be detrimental to finding a job.

You definitely can! But if you’re hoping to gain college credit for that, check with your college to see if it’ll fit their intended cut-off. Plus, they might even have some partnerships abroad you can choose from.

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