The ultimate guide to internships
Thinking about applying for an internship to get some experience under your belt? Make sure you know the facts (and your rights!) before you get started.
There are loads of reasons why an internship can be a great opportunity to explore as a student or graduate: maybe you're not feeling quite ready for the workplace yet, you're unsure about which career path to take, or you just feel your CV could do with a bit of extra oomph.
If you didn’t quite get the degree grade you were aiming for, an internship is also a surefire way to stand out from the crowd, and will potentially make you even more employable than some students who graduated with a higher grade than you did.
A couple of years ago, a report revealed that almost half of employers said they wouldn’t consider candidates who didn’t have work experience, regardless of their uni qualifications.
Great to know all those years of sloggin' it and getting yourself into mountains of student debt was totally worth it, eh?
What’s on this page?
Credit: Karen Eliot
First thing's first – what actually is an internship and how is it any different from, say, work experience or doing voluntary work?
Well, the easiest way to explain what an internship is is that it's generally somewhere in the middle between work experience and an apprenticeship – depending on how the company you're interning for choose to structure your time with them (and whether or not you're being paid, of course. More on that later!).
Interning can be more akin to work experience if it involves a lot of shadowing other members of staff, having the opportunity to ask lots of questions and learn about the company and industry (without producing work).
However, nowadays internships are likely to be more similar to an apprenticeship of sorts, as you’re normally trained within a particular department, are contributing to the company by producing work, and are getting paid (at least a little).
There are heaps of great benefits to dedicating some time to doing an internship.
It's true that opportunities can vary massively in terms of what's expected of you, but generally we'd say that these are the main benefits that you'll walk away with.
- Invaluable hands-on experience – You'll acquire some great transferable skills that will be of use no matter where you end up once the internship is completed.
- Dip your toe in the water – Think of your internship as a no-strings opportunity to try working in an industry you think you might enjoy, without the long-term commitment of a full-time employment contract.
- Make useful connections– Even if you find that the company, or even the role or industry entirely, isn't right for you, the fact that you've stuck it through and worked to the best of your ability means you're likely to make a few good connections regardless. And who knows where they could lead to in future!
- Great experience for your CV – Whether your internship turns out to be a bit uninspiring or it's the best thing you've ever done, it will always look dynamite on your CV. Employers love to see graduates take the initiative to do an internship, so it will work in your favour regardless.
- Get a foot in the door of a good company – Maybe you've had a great experience working for this particular company, but you decide the particular department or role isn't what you want to be pursuing. Make a good impression and you could find yourself top of the list of candidates for a vacancy in a different department!
- Build your workplace confidence – Use your time in the office to familiarise yourself with the ways of the workplace and try to treat it like a real job. This will do wonders for your confidence when you do step into the working world! Have a read of our guide on how to act in your first job for some top tips.
Credit: Pleuntje – Flickr
The best time to start looking for internships is either during the summer break or between graduation and landing your first job, as this is when you'll have the most free time available (and early summer is when a lot of new internship opportunities start popping up).
However, as this will be the same time that every student and their granny will also be on the hunt, competition can be tough. Looks like you'll just have to make your application that extra bit better, eh? 🙂
Your first port of call we would suggest should be asking around to see what's on offer. Get in touch with any friends or friends of friends you may have who work in industries that you're interested in, or at companies you'd like to work for. If a current employee puts a good word in for you or hands over your application on your behalf, this will put you at a massive advantage.
Another option would be to have a look on social media. Check out pages of companies you're interested in, search on twitter for internship opportunities and even put feelers out on facebook in case someone you know is on the hunt for a young, bright and enthusiastic whippersnapper like yourself!
You could also try some straight-up cold calling or emailing tactics. Get the phone numbers or emails of the HR department and simply reach out with a personable, friendly message mentioning why you're so interested in that company specifically and asking if there are any internship opportunities available.
Otherwise, you'll be able to find plenty of opportunities just by searching online, or via job sites (they normally have a section dedicated to internships). And don't forget to hit up some career fairs and recruitment agencies, too.
If you're interested to know what it's like to intern at a particular company, see if they have any reviews from previous candidates on Rate Your Placement – and don't forget to leave your own review once you're finished yours too!
Annoyingly, nowadays internships can be almost as competitive as graduate jobs (we know, it's ridiculous), so it's important you pull out all the stop at the application stage.
Once you've managed to find yourself a great interning opportunity you'd like to apply for, we'd recommend you do all of the following 4 steps!
- Create an online profile for employers: A lot of the time, potential employers will use your CV as a pivot to look up whatever extra dirt they can dig on you online. Therefore, steer them in the direction you'd like them to go by including a link to your professional LinkedIn profile or even your blog if you have one. Otherwise, they might end up looking through all your Instagram selfies instead!
- Perfect your CV: You might have a good CV, but is it great? Use our guide to writing the perfect CV to make sure it's top notch, and don't forget to cater it to suit the company you're applying for
- Write a bangin' covering letter: Cover letters can often be the tough bit, but they're also the most important part! Use our guide to writing a great cover letter to make sure yours is up to scratch.
- Make sure you follow up!: Ok, so this stage can be abandoned if you hear back from them the first time round, obvz. However, if you don't hear back straight away, it's important you send a quick, polite follow-up email to ensure they got what you sent them. HR departments are nutoriously hectic so there's a chance your email disappears into the ether the first time you send it!
Be confident and friendly
The great thing about this opportunity being an internship rather than a graduate job is that there's less pressure to perform from the word go, meaning you're less likely to look like a rabbit in headlights on your first day!
Use the experience as a way to build your confidence by observing everything around you and soaking in the working environment.
Remember that being both friendly and confident in turn encourages those around you to have confidence in you to do a good job.
Keep a daily note of what you do
It's likely that you'll be learning a lot in a short space of time during your internship, so keeping note of the tasks you do and what you learn will come in handy when you eventually land your first job.
As well as this, keeping note of your tasks will also be useful if you ever decide to claim some money from the company at a later date (more on that below).
Ask for a contract
Similarly, it's definitely in your own interest to ask for a brief/ informal contract clarifying your hours, what your role will entail and any payment you'll receive or expenses you'll be getting from the company for travel, lunches, etc.
Contracts like this will come in handy when you start writing job applications or updating your CV, and will also help you fight your corner for payment if the company offers you less than the National Minimum Wage.
If your responsibilities are similar to those carried out by paid employees, you can claim for reimbursement up to six after finishing your internship (again, more details on this later).
Show an interest and do some prior research
Let's be honest – what's the point in choosing to work for next to nothing (or in some cases, literally nada) at a company if you don't even know anything about who they really are?
It's important you know as much as possible about the company even well before you start, as your interest will show through during the application process and will increase your chances of bagging the opportunity.
Once you do make it into the office, asking productive questions and showing you have a bit of knowledge about the company will impress those around you.
Ask for feedback
As with any learning situation, how will you ever build and improve on your abilities without constant, constructive feedback?
Often you'll find that your superiors won't offer you much in terms of feedback – you will have to ask for it.
Although this might seem a bit awkward, it shows you are ambitious and have some humility, which is a very likable characteristic in a colleague as well as an employee.
Take the role seriously
Just because this isn't quite your big-shot graduate job, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be giving it everything you've got and more.
Of course it can be hard to stay motivated if you know you're working hard but being paid next to nothing whilst those around you are enjoying full salaries, your time will come!
Think of this as a short sacrificial period that will ultimately earn you more when you do land full-time employment – and for all you know, the people working with you probably did an internship once upon a time, too!
Our three golden rules are: never show up late, be respectful of everyone around you, and give every day your best shot!
Ask for a reference
Nabbing a reference from your internship is crucial, as it shows future employers that your time spent there was substantial enough you to make an impression at the company (otherwise, it's unlikely they'd take the time to write you one).
Another great idea is to ask if you can site your mentor/ superior from your internship on your CV as a character reference, too. This looks great as it suggests you made your mark in a short period of time and gave enough away that it was possible to get a feel of the kind of worker (and person!) you are.
Just make sure you secure your reference before you finish up, otherwise it'll be near impossible to squeeze it out of them once you're not in the building to remind them.
Don’t lose touch
Whatever you do, don't be of the mind that once you walk out the door on your last day of interning, that's it all done and dusted and you'll never see any of your new co-workers again.
Make the effort to connect with them on LinkedIn and even get in touch when you hear of any updates about the company. That way, if any new opportunities arise (salaried, this time!) they'll be sure to think of you.
Even just a few years ago, unpaid internships were quite the norm – in 2013, The Sutton Trust estimated that of the 300,000 internships taking place in the UK that year, around half of them were unpaid.
However, in a relatively short time, unpaid internships have (thankfully!) become less commonplace, as companies have received extremely bad press for expecting young people to work for free. And rightly so!
Here at Save the Student, we’re strongly against unpaid internships, as they force out competition from those young people who can't afford to work for free. This puts a substantial percentage of the population on an unequal footing at the start of their career, which doesn't do much for social mobility in the workplace, does it!
If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you're able to support yourself through an unpaid internship, it's crucial that you still make sure you assess the situation carefully and know what your rights are.
What the law says
The law on internships is not widely understood, but essentially it all depends of your status as an intern: That is, whether you qualify as a ‘worker’ or not.
The distinctions between your status as a worker or otherwise can be hazy, making the law difficult to enforce. However, there are two clear indications that you should legally be receiving the National Minimum Wage (or the Living Wage if you're over 25).
- If you’re promised a contract for future work once the internship period is over, you are an employee and therefore are entitled to the National Minimum/ Living Wage.
- If you’re working day is made up of tasks that would otherwise be carried out by a paid employee, then you should be receiving Minimum/Living wage.
UNLESS your situation is one of the below…
You don’t have to be paid if:
- You’re interning as part of your uni course
- You’re on school work experience (normally under 16 years of age, meaning you don’t qualify for min wage)
- If you’re volunteering for a charity or cause – this shouldn’t come with any obligations and you should set your own hours and arrangements around your other commitments
- If the role you’ve taken is akin to work experience or shadowing – where you are there to observe and learn about what’s going on rather than provide work/ a service.
If you're not getting paid for interning, technically you shouldn't be given fixed working hours and can be a lot more flexible with when you show up (if this is something the company are unhappy with, the simple solution is for them to pay up!).
Paid internships will normally require more input and responsibility and as a result can be a bit more intense. Therefore, it's important that you don't let any employer take liberties.
What to do if you think you're being exploited
If you feel you're in a situation where you're being exploited financially during your internship, make sure you speak up!
If you’re being paid less than the Minimum Wage but more than expenses (lunch, travel, etc.) then you’re in a particularly convenient position to legally claim back more cash for the work you’ve done.
This might sounds strange since you'd think a company who pays less than minimum wage is doing a better job than a company who only pays expenses. However, in practice they're admitting that they do think you should be paid for the work you're doing, and the law says this should be no less than the National Minimum Wage.
That's not to say that if you're not paid anything at all you can't claim too! However, the less-than-minimum-wage/more-than-expenses situation is a particularly convenient one to be in from a legal point of view.
You can claim up to 6 years after your internship (5 years in Scotland) – call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline for (anonymous!) advice on 0800 917 2368.
If you have an internship story to share, we want to hear it! Get in touch with us directly or drop us a comment below.