For high school students, an internship can be a transformative experience. This is likely their first foray into a professional environment and a real-life scenario.

There are diverse opportunities in a variety of industries which students can pursue. In addition to providing experience in a work environment, internships look good on a résumé. For students with multiple internship experiences, these provide valuable insights, including a peek at a possible future career and help narrowing down both their major at university and what type of work environment suits them best. This is certainly also true for co-op programs offered at some US universities and most Canadian universities in almost every field imaginable.

Internships come in all shapes and sizes, some with more responsibilities and some with less. They range from two weeks to several months; keep in mind that the learning opportunities will be more limited with internships that are less than two weeks in length. One internship might be heavily supervised while another might have a student working independently on a project. Entry-level internships might entail repetitive tasks. Some internships offer pay while others are unpaid. Given a choice, students are well-advised to choose an internship in a field that genuinely interests them rather than making the decision solely based on pay. Sometimes, that unpaid internship can turn out to be a much more valuable experience than the paid one. In either case, internships are of value in that they provide practical and transferable skills and can sometimes be a foot in the door in an organization–potentially leading to a full-time job upon graduation from university.

At the high school level, internships are not easy to come by.  Students who manage to obtain internship positions usually do so through parental or family contacts and sometimes even work in the company where their mom, dad, or a close family member is employed. Whether the student is programming all day, designing an app for a start-up company, creating short animated videos for a non-profit, or building architectural models, the responsibilities can vary a great deal. However, that first internship, showcasing the fact that they held a 9-5 job for several weeks of the summer, could lead to bigger and better opportunities in future summers. For students applying to direct-entry programs such as medicine in the UK or engineering programs, having relevant work experience can give them an advantage as well as some substance to draw upon for the personal statement and essays they will have to write, increasing their chances of admission to their target program. High school seniors graduating early next May can try to procure a local summer internship to build up a strong résumé, laying the foundations for the following summer when they will be looking for something more serious or a job offering financial compensation.

Sometimes students who are creative and entrepreneurial come up with an idea and approach a company, offering their services either for no pay or at a reduced fee. For example, one of our students reached out to a small start-up business and offered to design their first website for them. Often, young people, having grown up with social media, can use this tool to set up a marketing strategy for a new company with a small operating budget, helping them connect with more customers through Facebook and Instagram. Students must not underestimate their skills and talents and should see what opportunities they can create for themselves. The first step to doing this is to put together a presentable résumé. To make things easier, students can pick a free ready-made résumé template, easily accessible through Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. A simple one-page résumé is ideal for a high school student. Over time, as they add their postsecondary education as well as more activities and skills, including work experiences, the résumé will expand.

Over the years, we have had students engage in a variety of internships, including working at a science museum or aquarium. One student, interested in studying medicine, worked three summers (during high school and university summers) at a laboratory, testing the urine of racehorses for performance-enhancing drugs. Another student interned at an engineering consulting company and was told to come back and look them up after graduation. He did exactly that and has been employed there since. One student who was interested in business took on an internship at a financial firm, entering data in an Excel sheet all day while his close friend worked in a commercial real estate firm doing some marketing for them. We have had students who have been able to job shadow in doctor’s offices, dental clinics, and architectural firms. For one, her internship in an architectural firm confirmed the fact that she wanted to go into architecture and for another, it did exactly the opposite; he realized this was not his true calling and he would not enjoy sitting at a desk drafting all day. He was happy that he came to this conclusion before applying to university. One student saw an Instagram ad for an internship at Lululemon’s parent company, applied, and got the position. The next year, another one of our students applied for the same intern position even before it was advertised and had success. For some students, an unpaid internship one summer may lead to a paid internship the following summer at the same firm, given that the employer sees the student has potential and is adding value to their organization. For others, the fact that they have a strong reference letter from a paid or unpaid internship can impress the next employer evaluating their résumé.

Without a doubt, internships have many benefits for students, allowing them to interact with adults (sometimes even gaining a mentor), learn on the job, refine their skills, establish trust, gain leadership, grow in confidence, and network. These are only a few key points about how youth can benefit from paid and unpaid internships in both the short term and the long term. Clearly, the pros outweigh the cons here and putting in the effort to find an internship by tapping into all their contacts will be a worthwhile endeavor for both high school and university students. In the end, internships might make more sense to young people if we remind them that everyone started somewhere!

By Bibi Malek, EdM, IECA (Canada)

Bibi Malek, Select College Admissions, Ltd., can be reached at [email protected]