If you’re nearing the end of high school or are just starting college, you’ve probably heard at least one of your teachers talk about the importance of internships. Doing a summer internship right before your senior year of high school can look great on college applications. If you’re studying English, Journalism, Communications, or anything similar at university, an internship might be required to graduate. And if you’ve never done anything remotely similar to an internship before, just applying can be daunting. But as someone who’s been lucky to do a few internships now, I feel like I can offer a little bit of help.
So how do you actually find them?
I’ve submitted hundreds of internship applications over the years, and I only ever use two websites: LinkedIn and VolunteerMatch. Yes, LinkedIn gets a bad rap for being full of cringe hustle-culture posts. And while that’s definitely true, the search feature has saved me hours of labouring looking for internships. LinkedIn allows you to “easy apply” to postings (meaning you only have to upload your resume once) and through part-time, full-time, volunteer, or internship jobs. So with a few clicks, you can see hundreds of internships in your desired field. Job descriptions will also often say right on the page if it’s paid, unpaid, or stipend-paid positions. LinkedIn also often lists the hiring manager’s name, which is helpful because addressing who you’re making a cover letter for can help you stand out from the other applicants.
VolunteerMatch, as the name suggests, only has unpaid positions. The groups on VolunteerMatch are generally charities or nonprofits and allow you to do internships remotely. They have an immense selection of internships for anyone over 16, making it more accessible to high school students looking to add some excellent volunteer experience to their college applications. The trick to finding an internship is to know when to look. Generally, the best time (at least in North America) to look for internships is between semesters. In July, I’ll start looking for an internship for September. In September, you’ll want to look for internships that begin in December/January. In March, I’ll look for an internship that would start in June. Knowing these cycles is ideal because the last thing you want is to be applying for an internship at the last second before the summer break.
Not all are unpaid
Okay, true, there are a ton of unpaid internships. The unpaid internships are easy to spot anywhere, making it all the more critical to select one that isn’t exploitative, but more on that later. I’ve had some paid internships and some unpaid ones, but believe me, they do exist. Some internships aren’t paid a wage but will compensate you with a stipend. A stipend can be anything from covering your transportation/lunch costs to a standard monthly cheque regardless of how much you write/hours you work. Stipends are generally outlined in a work contract, so you know what you’re getting into before signing on. Paid internships are harder to find online, but once you find one, it’s usually great. If you’re only able to get unpaid internships, consider taking it if you’re genuinely able to add meaningful pieces to your portfolio or build great network contacts — these are the people that will get you paying gigs down the line.
Watch for the scams
Morally, you should not pay for an internship. If any internship says you have to pay a ton of money and doesn’t really describe the position, it’s a huge red flag. The only exception to this (at least, as far as I know) is doing an internship abroad. Internships abroad are nearly impossible to be paid for because work visas for students are complicated to come by. If you’re really invested in jet-setting abroad for an internship, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll have to pay out of pocket to do this. Why? Simply put, it’s to eliminate the cost on the employer’s side from losing too much money. Bringing in an intern from another country isn’t as easy as just walking into an office. A ton of legal paperwork, insurance, visas, and other supplementary costs come from an unqualified worker doing a job in another country. Plus, many of these companies have a secondary language component: part of the tuition you pay may cover the cost of this additional language class. That being said, there are tons of scams out there. And I won’t lie: anytime I see a posting for an internship writing at a fantastic magazine in Italy, I want to apply so bad. But I really couldn’t tell you if any of these sites were legit. If it feels too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. But if your heart is really set on an internship abroad, here are a couple of things to check for:
Are unpaid internships just running coffee?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer for this. Do some people have internships running meaningless tasks like Anne Hathaway did for Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada? I mean, maybe, but in the several internships I’ve done over the years, the unpaid ones were never so degrading. The internships I’ve done over the years (both paid and unpaid) have all been based on doing actual work. The unpaid internships often demanded more from me in my off hours — I might get a late-night email after my workday is done to quickly create something for social media.
For this reason, it can be harder to have a work-life balance on an unpaid internship, especially if you’re like me and have to work an actual paying job on the side. Unpaid internships can often put you in a shadowing role, where you shadow your supervisor and do a similar position to them for a short period. For this reason, unpaid internships tend to be shorter. I never had an unpaid internship longer than three months, and neither should you. Simply put, if people can squeeze free labour out of you forever, you’re never going to be treated with the same respect as a salaried employee. But in a way, unpaid internships are great because you often have more leeway to make mistakes. Not that you should ever try to do a lousy job, but it’s not like them firing you is a huge deal: there are about a million unpaid internships online to apply for. If you’re interested in an unpaid internship, there is a chance you won’t be there full-time. All unpaid internships I’ve done were 2-3 days a week/an average of 10-15 hours per week, allowing me to keep a full-time job on the side to pay my bills. All except for one unpaid internship were totally remote, meaning I could work from my own laptop at home and save literally hundreds of dollars on commuting.
A note on privilege
I won’t lie and say I’m not privileged. Honestly, as I get older, the more I notice that the power of networking is very real and knowing someone who works somewhere can get you a job. While I don’t have any family connections that landed me internships, having two reputable journalism schools on my resume has gotten me noticed. I got hired for an internship once because the hiring manager went to the same college I did and naturally had a soft spot for applicants from their alma mater. Being able to do work for free is a privilege in itself. There are probably zero major cities in North America where you pay your rent by only working part-time. Paid, full-time internships are highly competitive and aren’t the average internship experience for the majority of people.
For every unpaid internship I’ve done, I’ve had to work full-time waiting tables to make ends meet. Working 40 hours a week at my “real job” while still doing 15 hours of unpaid internship on the side does not leave a lot of time for a social life. I’ll be honest, I’ve missed out on so many social opportunities because of this and lost touch with some dear friends because I’ve had so much work to do. But still, I consider myself lucky because I’ve still been able to do it. Many people don’t have a dedicated home office space to work. Many don’t have stable internet to log into Teams meetings every morning. Millions of people work over 40 hours a week to pay their bills. They cannot mentally do an additional unpaid internship on the side.
I’m about to start another part-time unpaid internship while in school: the only reason I won’t have to work full time is that I’ve received a grant (and a loan), that I can use to pay rent while doing unpaid work. I’m in more debt than I would care to admit, but even being in a university with an excellent journalism program is a privilege to being with. Unpaid internships unintentionally create a class divide: they are most accessible to students whose parents can pay their rent while trying out different writing careers. And don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had: I’ve been hired for paid internships just based on having other unpaid internships on my resume, and I’ve been able to add a ton of stuff to my portfolio. But I also see students around me who are great writers but can’t take on an unpaid internship because they already struggle to pay rent as it is. And these inequalities only grow with time, as opportunities such as the lavish ones overseas become more accessible and easier to secure. Once again, I’ve been able to keep a full-time job while interning part-time on the side: but I’m very privileged to do so.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com