Internships: The Ultimate Guide

Considering interning? Whether you’re still a student or have flown the university nest, a placement in industry could be the perfect step onto your career ladder!

Generally speaking, students and graduates that take up an internship are more likely to be recruited, especially when it comes to roles with high competition.

An internship or placement in industry could be the perfect way to start climbing up your chosen career ladder, but what exactly do they involve and why should (or shouldn’t) you consider them?

Stick with me through this guide as we reveal the world of the intern!

An introduction to internships

Erm… so what exactly is an internship?

An internship is a temporary role, that can last anything between one week and a year. They are really a kind of apprenticeship whereby you will learn your ‘trade’ or skills whilst working in a job role under the supervision of an experienced employee or manager.

Internships exist in pretty much every industry, and are also sometimes called work or industrial placements.

Whether it’s right or wrong, you’ll probably come across unpaid internships (but you should at least expect expenses to be paid), but increasingly there are more paid internships becoming available partly due to recent pressure from the media. See below for more on pay.

Who are they for?

Importance of internshipsUniversity students are increasingly attracted to completing short-term internships during the summer holidays, but even after you’ve graduated, the opportunity is still available and can lead to bigger and better things than taking a job in a career that you don’t want.

In a recent survey, we found that 4-in-10 students and recent grads feel it necessary to take an internship to enter their chosen industry (see chart).

Anyone can apply to an internship but first make sure that you’re comfortable it’s the right choice for you and check the requirements.

The 5 unrivaled benefits

BenefitsBefore embarking on the quest to find a decent internship, you need to consider whether this option is the best choice for you, right now.

There is of course a time commitment involved, and you may be foregoing an opportunity of a paid position.

To help you decide, here are a couple of key benefits of taking on a work placement:

Get useful experience

The addition of industry specific, first-hand experience to your CV is something that will really help you to stand out when it comes to applying for permanent positions a few months down the line.

It shows enthusiasm and initiative too, and you’ll benefit from picking up some new skills during the course of your placement that you just cannot be taught in the lecture theatre.

If you’ve never worked in your chosen field before, it’ll also give you an insight into what it’s really like. You might have enjoyed the theory while you were at university, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the real thing! It’s a good way to find out before you make a long-term commitment.

Find out, “Is this really for me?”

An important question, and one which an internship can answer for you. Because of the nature of an internship, there are no long term contracts involved and they are therefore pretty flexible.

Internships give you a valuable chance early in your working life to decide if this career path is really something you’d be happy doing, for perhaps the rest of your life!

Lots of fresh-out-of-uni graduates are a bit lost as to what they want to do (see our survey), and that’s of course completely normal! But it really is worth figuring it out at this stage by getting a taste for the daily life of an employee in the role you think you’d like to take on.

Gain contacts

iphone contactsYou’ll meet lots of people who work in your field, with all kinds of past experience that you can learn from. And you never know when those contacts could come in handy.

They may know about upcoming positions in the industry, or they might be able to provide you with some handy tips.

Socially, you may end up making a few new friends with similar interests to you.

Build confidence

Straight out of education, your experiences of the working world may be fairly limited.

An internship is a chance to really hone your skills and boost your confidence, without the greater immediate pressure of a more permanent job.

Get a foot in the door

smashed door

or a foot through the door?

If you impress your employer, they might well decide to offer you a longer term more permanent role. You should never count on this, but in fact it is more likely that they will than not.


Because they offer internships for a reason, and that’s not just to give inexperienced young adults a leg up! Internships give the company a chance to test candidates out on a trial without much cost or commitment.

Even if you aren’t on a paid internship, the company will (hopefully) have invested a good deal of time and energy in training you up. Your employer probably won’t want that benefit being passed on to a competitor in the same industry if they can help it.

So when your internship comes to an end, and you have preformed well, you could be onto a permanent role. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Where to look for internships

where to look for internshipsInternships, placements, work shadowing and apprenticeships come in every shape and size that you could imagine. They are each tailored to the capabilities and needs of the employer at any particular time.

You could land a competitive internship with a blue chip company or help out for a few weeks at a local small business.

So with that, there are lots of rocks and stones to be turned over! Here are a few of the best places to look for opportunities:

Cold calling

Pick up the phone! Make a list of the companies that you’d love to work for and call the manager or HR department. Explain that you’re interested in an internship with their company, and ask if you can send across a copy of your CV.

Even if they don’t have opportunities at the moment, they’re more likely to remember you in the future if they’ve spoken to you and by taking action you’ve already shown a great amount of initiative!

In fact, the very activity of calling up a stranger and making a proposal is a key skill any company will get turned on by!

It does take some guts to do this, and it’s not for everyone, but it is a sure fire method that can really pay off. This applies for general job hunting too so it’s good practice.

Online resources

keyboard typingAs well as the websites of companies that you might want to work for, look out for websites that collate all of the latest internship opportunities and news in your area.

Bigger cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham are of course likely to have far more opportunities,  but that doesn’t mean that finding something elsewhere is impossible.

Get into the habit of spending an hour each day searching the Internet, or use our own including our internship search engine. If you have a specific niche you’re targeting (and you should!), you’ll come across blogs and websites dedicated to helping you find an internship or other opportunity in that sector.

twitter bird iconAnother excellent and relatively new kind of tool for finding internships is Twitter! Follow key players in your industry, keep your eyes open for announcements or give them a cheeky tweet. If your a little impatient try Twitter advanced search and use keywords such as “accountancy +internship”.

Whilst you’re there, remember to follow us on @savethegraduate too!

Career fairs

university careers fair

Even if it’s a general career fair hosted by your university, rather than one specialising in internships, don’t miss a valuable opportunity to network.

Many companies are cutting back on permanent recruits right now, so if you mention that you’d be interested in temporary work, it might open up a few closed doors.

Take your CV with you and be prepared to give a 60 second pitch or overview of your skills, experience and career ambitions.

Read more on careers fairs here.

Recruitment agencies

Many recruitment agencies specialise in temporary positions, and it’s their job to do the searching for you. So get on their books! Be proactive and make sure you keep in touch, rather than just handing over your CV and hoping for the best.

A good specialist in graduate internships (and longer term jobs too) is the Graduate Recruitment Bureau.

For more tips on finding job opportunities, see our guide 8 ways to find hidden jobs.

How to apply for an internship

Applying for an internship is not too dissimilar from applying for a job but different companies may have their own protocol when it comes to internships, but as a general rule you can expect to be asked to do the following:

Submit your CV

cvIf you’re actively looking for positions, you should have a great CV anyway (after using our advice of course). Don’t think that just because it’s a temporary role, you should  give any less care and attention to its content.

You may still be up against some stiff competition, so make sure that it’s tailored to the position and highlights the skills and experience that will be most important.

Attach a covering letter

Your covering letter should explain why you’re interested in the internship and why you believe you’d be such a great fit for the company in question.

It should make employers want to read more about you in your CV, and ask leading questions in an interview, so it’s just as vital that you get this right.

Just be careful to keep it succinct and no more than one page of A4!

Unsure how to write a cover letter? Take a look through our how to guide.

Following up

It could be a few weeks before you hear anything back, so try to be patient. But always follow up! It is a fantastic way to show that you really care about the role, and you never know, you may have just slipped their mind.

Make a phone call or type up an email explaining that you applied for the placement and wondered if they might have any further questions that they’d like to ask you.

If it turns out that you weren’t the best match for the company on this occasion, don’t be afraid to ask for some brief feedback to increase your chances when applying for an internship or job next time round.

Tips for getting the most out of your internship

Make sure the work will be worthwhile

green tickNow you can’t expect to be running the company, but you should be exposed to meaningful work that will help you to build your skills.

Most companies will provide decent roles for their interns, but there’s always a few that will put you in the photocopying room for the duration of your placement!

Before agreeing to the role, find out as much as you can about it. Ask questions around what you can expect to be doing on a day-to-day basis.

Work hard!

You’re only there for a limited time and will have a lot to prove, so pull out all the stops to impress your employer. If you’re hoping to be invited to take a more permanent role, this is the most important thing that you can do.

Ask questions

You’re there to learn, so make the most of it! Find out as much as you can. Being inquisitive = knowledge = power! Mwahaha.

You might find it useful to keep a diary of everything that you’ve experienced over the course of the internship.

Take the initiative

Set yourself goals and targets for your time in the position and do your best to reach them.

If you have any new ideas for the company then don’t be afraid to bring them up. Showing that you can add value to the organisation or save them money in any way will speak for itself.

Seek feedback

If you’re working for an established company that offers internships regularly, they’ll probably already have a feedback process in place such as an exit interview. If not, make sure that you ask for an evaluation of how they feel you’ve performed.

You’ll gain some valuable insights into your skills and expertise, and you might be able to identify some areas that need working on.

Ask for a reference or letter of recommendation

As the end of your internship is approaching, ask your line manager to provide you with a reference or letter of recommendation. It’ll be very useful to bulk up your portfolio and will add another string to your bow when it comes to looking for your next job.

And, it might just remind them how good it has been to have you working there, boosting your chances of being asked to stay!

Write a letter of thanks

smiley faceWhen your internship is finished, send a short letter (maybe even a bottle of wine!) thanking your employer for the opportunity.

Ending on such a positive note will give them good reason to recommend you to future employers and they’re more likely to remember you when they are looking for staff in the future.

Unpaid vs paid internships

moneyShould I be getting paid?

This is an important and common question, but unfortunately there’s no definitive answer.

Legally it’s a bit murky as the government states that if someone is “working” for a company then they have to be paid national minimum wage. However, employers can take on “volunteers” who are under no obligation to work.

Some placement opportunities will be paid, and others won’t, so the rule of thumb is really not to expect much more than expenses.

It’s not necessarily an indicator of how good the internship will be, so use your common sense to establish whether it’ll genuinely be useful in helping you to progress you career.

Be smart and weigh up the value of taking on an internship against other opportunities. Thinking beyond pay in the short-term can lead to serious competitive advantages in the longer term, so in that sense low or unpaid work can be seen as an investment in yourself.

Well, that is just so long as you can afford to live in the meantime. You need to think practically about your situation. A month of unpaid work might be manageable, but can you really afford to work for a year without a wage?

What do others in your position feel?

In one of our recent surveys we asked students and recent graduates whether they would consider an unpaid internship. Here is the result:

Graduates take unpaid internships

You can find out more, and view all the results of our “Life after university” survey here.

Our view

The truth is that employers know that graduates are now desperate for internship placements and some can be seen as taking advantage. They are aware that they can offer a “volunteer” opportunity and only pay expenses and the graduate will most likely act as a “worker” in order to impress.

It’s a chicken and egg situation as most grads will take an unpaid position to gain an advantage over others. The choice is really down to each individual.

Begin your search for opportunities using our internship search engine.

Have you secured an internship? Did it help you to find permanent work, and would you recommend it to other students or graduates?