High school internships let you explore interests, learn new things, get on-the-job-training and develop skills that will boost your college applications and help you be successful.
An internship allows a student to demonstrate an interest in something specific and “that makes them a much better candidate for college,” said career advisor Allison Cheston of Career Connector.
Internships can also help develop a network for college letters of recommendation and reflect your interest in specific areas, such as pre-med programs and medical school. While it might be easier to find internships in major cities, such as Washington, D.C., Chicago or Boston, there are opportunities everywhere. There are even high school internships abroad.
Cheston admits that finding an internship for high school students is a challenge but the rewards outweigh the effort, she said. She suggests high school students begin to explore internship options by the age of 15. There are summer and gap-year intern programs as well as year-round opportunities for those still in high school.
She and other career experts offered advice on how students can become what she calls the "smart and lucky few" who land internships in high school.
1. What are companies looking for in a high school intern?
Businesses, nonprofits and organizations are seeking self-starters and students who have superb communication skills, Cheston said. Employers and supervisors don’t expect high school students to know it all but want them to at least have basic communication skills.
"We are in a new day and age of social media and often young adults aren't great at peer-to-peer communication, and in fairness, it's something that takes practice," Cheston said. "Even with my own children, I would let them make their own doctors appointments or call a business to inquire about one thing or another. Those are adult skills that can help in a professional environment."
In general, companies hiring high school interns look for students who are motivated, mature, quick learners, able to problem solve and want to learn and grow from their internship experience, said Adriane Thorpe, director of sales and marketing at Summer Discovery. The company offers national and international summer programs and internships for middle school and high school students.
However, even high school internships may require a specific skill set or experience based on the nature of the role, Thorpe said. "That's why students should take elective classes and get involved in clubs and organizations at their school that are related to their interests."
2. How can high school students find an internship?
Spread the word!
One of the best ways to find a high school internship opportunity is to be vocal about wanting one, said Cheston. Tell everyone you can think of that you are looking to gain experience in a particular field. Take advantage of business groups, like chambers of commerce, to find companies that offer high school internships. Ask family and friends to spread the word among their neighbors and colleagues. Check with local nonprofits to see if there’s a problem you could help solve, such as building a mailing list or using social media to market programs.
Check out structured high school summer internship programs. Programs offer experience in medicine, politics and other fields. Some government agencies offer internships, including the U.S. Department of State. There are also intern programs for specific ethnic groups.
Ask the guidance counselor.
Check in with the career and guidance counselors to see if there are programs or internship opportunities set up through your high school. "There is almost always someone on staff that deals with internships and it's typically the person who handles service aspects and opportunities," Cheston said. "Go in and ask to meet with that person, ask a lot of questions and put yourself out there. At the end of the day it can't hurt to ask."
Use social media like a professional.
Cheston advises setting up a profile on LinkedIn, the online network that connects hundreds of millions of members. By uploading your resume, and highlighting your fields of interest and current experience, you can affiliate yourself with opportunities, as well as build your personal brand, tailor your profile to their goals, and explore career paths.
"The more connections you have the better your results will be when you are searching for something specific," Cheston said. "I'm always really impressed when a high school student has a LinkedIn profile."
3. What areas are hot for high school internships now?
Coding and other computer skills.
Coding and software jobs are in high demand right now, Cheston said. How to learn? Computer and engineering summer camps are offered across the country. "Companies literally can't find qualified candidates right now and they are looking for a great number of people who are linear in their thinking and their approach," Cheston said. "That kind of experience is huge and there are really bottomless opportunities in the coding and design area."
Jobs that center around chronic care and physical therapy are ideal career choices in today's day and age, Cheston said.
"People are living longer, healthier lives and it's about maintaining the body you have," Cheston said. "For kids to work in those areas is very popular and they can take that experience and decide if they want to major in medicine in college."
Robert Shindell, a learning, training, and development expert with InternBridge, a company that surveys over 25,000 students annually to capture internship and recruiting trends, thinks teens should explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields while they are in high school. You can take a course in school, online or find a STEM summer program.
Whether it's an engineering summer internship or a job at the local aquarium, Shindell said the experience can be invaluable for their future career.
"STEM is really where the availability of jobs are right now and students are making major choices for their career based on that fact alone," Shindell said. "Nursing, medical, accounting or the sciences are always going to be the kind of experiences that will put them at a huge advantage - as a high school student, or an undergraduate."
4. Should you try to get paid for a high school internship?
While you might think any internship is better than none at all, both Cheston and Shindell think a paid high school internship is better than one that only gives course credit, both for the company that's offering the opportunity and the student.
"Companies that can afford to pay interns and choose not to do so is a complete racket and they are trying to thwart the law," Cheston said. "They know students are willing to do whatever they can to land an internship – and they should pay them for their efforts."
A survey conducted by InternBridge found that only 1 out of 4 students who completed an unpaid internship had a positive experience while almost all of the paid interns did, Shindell said. The reason, he said, is that both the employer and the student finds value in the work.
"It's kind of a no-brainer because the company that is paying its interns is sinking resources and investing in them and wants to provide a robust experience," Shindell said. "Those that are unpaid are often stuck with to-do lists and menial tasks. We have found that paid internships are always the way to go.”
That said, there are some great unpaid or teen volunteer opportunities. Just make sure that you and the employer or nonprofit organization set clear boundaries and that you understand each other’s commitment. And remember, not being paid is not an excuse on your part to act unprofessionally or to not follow through on tasks. You want to make a good impression and build a network that could eventually lead to a paid internship, employment or a great college recommendation.
5. How should you apply for a high school internship?
Applying for an internship is just like applying for a job. Make sure your high school resume is in good shape. You should write a cover letter explaining why you are interested in the internship and how you hope to use the experience you gain. Make sure someone proofreads your letter and your resume before you send it!
If you are asked to come in for a job interview, dress appropriately for the job and dust off your best professional manners! Make a list of questions before you go so you can look prepared and that you are truly interested in the job. You can practice the interview with a mentor or friend. Write a thank-you letter after the interview, even if you don’t get the job. You never know who might turn out to be a good contact!