How to Design Your Dream Internship

A woman points to a destination on a globe.

It’s no secret that when you begin your career search, internship experience will help you stand out from the competition. But how do you secure a paid internship with an organization you love? That is the million-dollar question.

According to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the most important resume element that employers look for when hiring a recent graduate is their internship experiences. And while formal internships are a great place to look, creating your own dream internship may allow you to customize an opportunity and gain the specific skills and experience you're looking for.

Pitch an idea to an employer

If you find yourself in a position where you have to pitch an internship idea to a potential employer, try this:

  • Start by creating a list of dream organizations. When you are pitching, keep in mind that employers often come back to past interns when hiring for full-time roles. That is an important reason to be selective in developing your target list. Pick organizations that are working on projects of interest and that are using strategies that excite you. Narrow down your list to one or two top choices.
  • Set up a call with a program manager in that department. Call the main number and ask for the manager of that program. Introduce yourself and be sure to highlight top skills and experiences that they would value. Let them know you are interested in setting up a longer call to discuss any project needs that you may be able to address and be sure to email them a copy of your resume in advance of the next call so they can see your skills and experiences.
  • Identify areas where they could use more help. Do additional research before the call to learn about the status of the project, recent successes, challenges, and potential direction. You may be able to find information on the organization’s website, in their annual report, and on their social media pages. Create a list of questions to learn more about the project and to pinpoint areas where the organization could use your help. Finally, tell the employer how you would like to contribute and ask if they might consider bringing you on as an intern.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about funding/pay. If the organization shows interest, they may ask you what your expectations are regarding pay. If you'd like for them to pay you directly, have an estimated calculation prepared in advance. For example, if you would work 40 hours per week x 10 weeks at $10 per hour, you might ask for $4000. However, if you have already found potential funding via your university or a grant, be sure to have those details handy as well.

Apply for internship funding with your university

Some application deadlines are quite early, so try to start your funding research during the fall semester. An easy place to start is by googling “internship funding + [YOUR COLLEGE].”

Visit your college career services and financial aid offices online to research what funding sources may be available, and set up meetings with both offices for advice and tips on any other departments that may have additional sources of funding.

Most employers love the idea of a “free” intern (one that comes with their own funding), so if this is the path you choose, it should give you tremendous leverage.

Pro Tip: Don't apply for funding until you have a solid internship opportunity on the table with a potential employer.

Research individual scholarships, fellowships, and grants

In addition to exploring the possibility of internship funding through your school, you can apply for funding via scholarships and fellowships. Scholarships and fellowships are typically awarded to students for high academic marks and are often geared toward students that match the funding source’s unique focus area (such as a particular professional focus area or a certain geographic area).

As an example, there are green scholarships for students interested in pursuing a career in the environmental field or working to implement green projects on campus. Other scholarships may be offered to support students from a particular city or state.

Pro Tip: Foundation Grants to Individuals Online is a subscription-based service that allows you to access a database of over 10,000 foundations that provide scholarships, fellowships, grants, and a wide range of financial support.

Consider an internship in a "critical-need language" country

If you are considering an international internship, try searching for a paid opportunity first.

For students who are U.S. citizens, there are numerous federal awards programs offering funding for international internships in countries where critical-need languages (foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity) are spoken. See links below for a list of countries that are considered critical-need language countries.

Paid internships abroad are rare and competitive, so if you try this route and don't land funding, not to worry! Internship Abroad Scholarships is a great online resource to find other sources of funding.

Be sure to also reach out to any international institutes, study abroad program offices, or language departments on your campus for more info on funding international internships.

If you need to supplement your internship with additional funding, you may want to try a crowd-funding program like Fund My Travel to cover salary and expenses.

Consider a part-time internship

If you have a dream internship in mind and all of the above methods and strategies are exhausted, consider pursuing this internship on a part-time basis alongside another part-time, paid gig.

You may be able find a part-time paid job through work-study financial aid if you are eligible. Work-study is a type of financial aid that allows an eligible student to gain access to a database of part-time paid jobs on or near campus. Check with your financial aid office and google “work study + [YOUR COLLEGE]” to see a listing of work-study jobs.

For out-of-state internships, look for paid part-time jobs in the area where you would like to do your internship. You may also consider asking your employer for a stipend to help offset costs for room and board.

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About the Author | Lisa Yee-Litzenberg is a certified career coach and President of Green Career Advisor, helping individuals find their career niche and secure their dream jobs in the environmental and social-impact sectors. Prior to her current role, Lisa led the environmental career services at the University of Michigan for 10 years and spent 12 years working for the National Wildlife Federation.

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