Internship guide for students
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 don't feel 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're a graduate and 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 recent survey has found that 49% of employers would rather see relevant work experience in an application than a relevant degree. So if you're looking to get experience in a field that isn't necessarily related to your degree subject, an internship is a great place to start.
What’s on this page?
What’s an internship?
Unlike more casual work experience or volunteering that you might have carried out at school or university, interns usually have a specific job role and tasks to carry out, and these roles are typically advertised publicly with a formal application process (unlike work experience which is often organised on an ad hoc basis).
While unpaid internships do exist, recent negative media coverage of them has led to more and more internships providing a salary, or at least expenses – but more on this later!
Companies also often use internships to recruit full-time staff, essentially using them as a trial period before deciding whether to take someone on permanently. If you play your cards right, there's a chance an internship could lead to your first graduate job!
How long do internships last?
The short answer here is that it really depends on the internship. They can last between anything from a couple of weeks to a whole year, depending on what the internship is for and which company it's with.
Student internships tend to last two to three months over the summer break, whereas graduate internships are often longer. But again, this varies hugely.
Do you have to be a student to do an internship?
Although some internships might specifically be for students only, this will certainly not be the case across the board - in fact, some internships might be for graduates only, especially if there's a chance it'll lead to a full-time job. Just makes sure you check the requirements on the job description.
Some people worry there's a bit of a stigma around being a 20-something intern but this isn't the case at all. People do internships for many different reasons, at many different stages of their life, and they're certainly not reserved for students only.
The benefits of an internship
There are heaps of great benefits to dedicating some time to doing an internship.
It's true that what's expected of you can vary massively across internships, but generally we'd say that these are the main benefits that you'll walk away with:
- Hands-on experience – You'll acquire some great transferable skills that will be useful no matter where you end up after the internship
- A taste of a potential career path – Think of your internship as a no-strings opportunity to try working in an industry you think you might enjoy, without the commitment of a long-term employment contract
- Useful connections – You're guaranteed to meet lots of new people who could come in useful when you're applying for jobs in the future. You might find someone to become your mentor, and if you make a good impression you could get a shining reference out of it
- Experience for your CV – While your degree and grades are super important, employers like to see that you have practical experience in a workplace environment. Make sure you know how to really sell it on your CV by talking about specific projects you worked on and successes you achieved
- A foot in the door of a company or industry – For some competitive sectors, particularly the media and creative industries, an internship can be the gold dust you need to secure your dream job. Even if you don't get a job offer at the end of it, you'll have made yourself known in the company and the industry as a whole, meaning you're more likely to be remembered when applying for jobs in future
- 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.
I started my career with a paid summer internship that eventually led to a full-time job with the company.
An internship is a great chance to throw yourself into something new and learn from those around you – but make sure you're getting paid for your work!
Jess, Editor at Save the Student
The disadvantages of an internship
While internships are great for all the reasons listed above, they also have their downsides that you should definitely be aware of if you're thinking about applying for one.
- The work can be dull – Some companies might provide their interns with challenging responsibilities and exciting projects to work on, while others might have you making the tea and doing admin work. Make sure you find out as much as you can about the role before you start
- Salaries are usually low (or non-existent) – If an internship is unpaid it might end up costing you money to complete it (in London, this can be as much as £1,000 a month) – and even if you are getting paid, salaries tend to be lower than what you'd get as a full-time member of staff. If you're strapped for cash, you might want to carefully weigh up the pros and cons first
- You delay your entry into the workforce – Recent research found that interns end up £3,500 worse off than those who go straight into full-time work. This suggests internships don't necessarily fast-track you to a more senior role, and you could be better off trying to find a standard job instead
- Relocation can be costly – If you have to relocate for an internship, you again might want to think about whether it's worth it, especially if you'll only be moving for a short amount of time. Finding somewhere to live and paying for transport could quickly eat into any money you're getting paid.
Where can you find internships?
It can feel a bit intimidating when you first sit down to look for internships – how do you even know where to start?
Once you've highlighted which industry you'd like an internship in, it's a good idea to ask around your friends, family, tutors and careers advisers to see if they can point you towards any companies or well-known internship schemes in that area.
Social media is also a good place to scout out some opportunities – try searching relevant hashtags on Twitter, like #internshipsUK.
If you're struggling, get the phone numbers or emails of the HR department. Then 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 job sites (they normally have a section dedicated to internships). And don't forget to hit up some career fairs and recruitment agencies, too.
The best websites for internships
- Milkround – They have a whole section dedicated to internships, both in the UK and abroad
- Target Jobs – Another well-known job site which allows you to filter by internships, and companies range from major multinationals to startups
- e4s – This is the place to go if you're looking specifically for summer internships
- Student Job – Another great site that allows you to easily search for internships in individual cities across the UK
- Rate My Placement – This site allows you to search for internship vacancies, as well as read reviews from previous interns about what their experience was like
- LinkedIn – You'll often find internships listed on here. Make sure you're following any companies you're particularly interested in so you're the first to hear about any new opportunities.
Each individual sector will likely have its own websites for internships – for example, Gorkana is great for journalism and media internships, while Fashion Workie has internships in (you guessed it) fashion. Your university careers adviser should be able to direct you towards these for whatever career you're interested in.
When should you apply for internships?
The main thing that catches students out when applying for internships is the deadlines. For the most competitive internships at big-name companies, deadlines can be as early as autumn for summer internships the following year, so you'll have to be quick off the mark when term starts.
Your best bet is to start scouting out internships over the summer when you have more spare time, and make sure your CV is up to scratch. This way you can move early when opportunities start going live in the late summer and early autumn.
If you're looking for a post-graduation internship, again our advice would be to start hunting as early as possible, and keep checking all year round. Internships at smaller companies and start-ups can pop up any time, so always keep an eye out.
How to apply for internships
Annoyingly, internships can be almost as competitive as graduate jobs (we know, it's ridiculous), so it's important you pull out all the stops 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:
- Create an online profile for employers – Employers will likely look you up on Google regardless of whether you want them to or not, so steer them in the right direction by including a link on your CV to your professional LinkedIn profile or even your blog if you have one
- Perfect your CV – You might have a good CV, but is it going to blow their socks off? Use our guide to writing the perfect CV to make sure it's top notch, and don't forget to tweak it to suit the company you're applying to
- Write an amazing 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! – If you don't hear back straight away, send a quick, polite follow-up email to ensure they got what you sent them. HR departments are notoriously hectic so there's a chance your email disappeared into the ether the first time you sent it!
Advice for your first internship
Be confident and friendly
You might feel terrified and totally out of your depth (believe us, everyone does when they start a new job), but make sure you put on a brave face, and act confident and friendly.
You may also be tempted to retreat into your shell, but if you want to make a good impression, you'll need to push yourself out your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to people, don't be afraid to ask questions and contribute in meetings when appropriate.
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 write about your experience in your CV, or talk about it in a job interview.
As well as this, if you're not being paid, keeping note of your tasks will 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 as well as any payment you'll receive or expenses you'll be getting from the company for travel, lunches, etc.
On a basic level, this kind of contract will help you understand what the company's expectations are. But it 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 years after finishing your internship (again, more details on this below).
Research the company
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 are?
It's important you know as much as possible about the company 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 constructive feedback?
Often you'll find that your superiors won't offer you much in terms of feedback, so you'll have to ask for it.
Although this might seem a bit awkward at first, but it shows you are ambitious and have some humility, which is a very likeable 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, while those around you are enjoying full salaries, but 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 for 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 also cite your mentor/superior from your internship on your CV as a character reference. This looks great as it suggests you made your mark and showed enough in a short period of time that your manager is willing to vouch for you in future.
Just make sure you secure your reference before you leave, 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, it all done and dusted and you'll never see any of your 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, they'll be sure to think of you.
Are internships paid?
In some cases you will get a salary, in other cases they might just cover your expenses. And in a worst case (but still quite common) scenario, the internship might be completely unpaid.
Although negative press around unpaid internships has led them to become less common, The Sutton Trust estimate that of the 10,000 grads in internships six months after graduating, a fifth of them aren't getting paid.
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!
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.
Are unpaid internships illegal?
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 or 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 on an internship
First things first, think very carefully before you sign yourself up for an unpaid internship. Although there are options for claiming back money at a later date if you feel you're getting exploited, this can be a lot of stress and hassle, and you might be best off staying clear altogether.
However, if you if you do end up on an unpaid internship, it's important to know your rights.
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 you can't claim if you're not paid anything at all! 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 six years after your internship (five 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.