In college admissions, buzz words rarely survive the time it takes to utter them. In the swiftly moving cat-and-mouse game between admissions officers and counselors, as well as the multitude of organizations that prey upon students caught in the middle, the rules are continually changing. “Legacy” has given way to “opportunity.” “Well-rounded student” has been replaced by “well-rounded student body.” “Statistical analysis” has departed and made way for “response to challenging circumstances,” or “filling time with endless activities,” or any one of a number of other factors the colleges hope will add up to a successful college experience, ultimately contributing to the intricately woven tapestry of their campus experience.
Alas, the latest buzz word to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations and the attitude of some parents that if I put enough meal into the mixture I will be able to feed my appetite for Harvard, Yale, MIT, or Stanford—is internships. At one time, internships were the exclusive province of well-connected private-school overachievers. Thus, to elite colleges, they were useful differentiators in the same way that high SAT scores were. Frankly, they were more a predictor of ZIP Code than they were of college success. In this respect, they stood out among other activities and were often rewarded, in conjunction with a number of other important objective factors, by highly competitive colleges.
Next, we moved into the era of paid internships, where students with enough money could buy a current or former Harvard or MIT professor, even receive a guest pass to enter a Harvard or MIT laboratory. These pay-for-play internships, along with the acceleration of the use of the term internship to mean almost anything, contributed to a dilution of the importance an internship could play within a college application activity list. Now, it seems that every student has at least one internship and, in many cases, multiples. So, the importance of an internship as a standalone activity has been severely diminished.
HOWEVER (please note the “all caps” and underlining as if to say, “Hey this is important!”), this does not mean that internships are not important or that you should not seek them out in order to strengthen an application. What this does mean is that internships that serve no purpose other than to take a position on a college application will not positively impact a student’s candidacy. In fact, they could have the opposite effect of red flagging an application that is being padded or stuffed by overzealous parents or by concerned students to cover up a weakness. In contrast, internships that fuel a narrative or support an area of interest can play an important role in proving a passion, proving a tendency towards self-improvement, proving a capacity to make intelligent choices, and proving the validity and accuracy of the autobiography that is a student’s college application.
To summarize succinctly and so the purpose of this article stays crystal clear, let me say that internships for the sake of internships are useless, whereas internships that support a narrative can serve as validators of a student’s candidacy at a highly competitive college. Furthermore, some of the best internships are those that spring up from a concerted effort rather than those that can be purchased. Yes, these can require a great deal of effort, but the result is almost always worth it. Also, the internship must make sense in the context of each student’s personal narrative or “sales pitch” to colleges. For example, an internship under a practicing lawyer or law professor would be far more useful for a potential History or Governmental Studies major than would an internship at a laboratory or a biotech company. Conversely, an internship at a biotech company would be highly advantageous for a student considering chemistry or biology as a major.
As I said earlier, buzzwords, such as “internship,” rarely survive the time it takes to utter them. Indeed, in my book, the word “internship” has already been replaced with the words “any meaningful activity that supports a student’s case for successful admission.” It may be harder to say, but it will also be equally harder to ignore by college admission officials.