Internships! The mere mention of the word brings waves of joy to parents of students seeking admission to high-value colleges—as if the mere mention of the word will result in multiple offers of admission from top colleges across America. Indeed, internships can be valuable additions to college applications, but not necessarily so. Why? The answer is simple and intuitive once you allow yourself to enter the mind of a college admission official. Just as there are varying degrees of meaningful extracurricular activities students can embark upon, there are also varying degrees of effective internships. So, seeing an internship on an application will invite scrutiny, which can be a good thing as long as the internship can hold up to that scrutiny. With this in mind, here are the five characteristics of a successful high school internship.
Among the things that college admission officials look for in an internship is authenticity. In other words, is it real? There are varying degrees of authenticity, or lack of authenticity. In the extreme, the internship can be wholly contrived—made up. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous parents who will put things on an application that are simply not true. They know that the chance of discovery is rather small. In a less extreme example, the internship could result from a business relationship or personal connection. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this as long as the internship is demonstrated to be valuable to the student’s admission case. Also, it should not be a situation where a student does minimal work from his computer or shows up once or twice in a summer.
While it could be argued that any work experience is valuable, admission officials will view it as far more impactful if it has relevance to a student’s demonstrated passion or likely college academic pathway or major. An internship in a dentist’s office might be viewed as relevant for a student pursuing a pre-med related major, but not for a student pursuing mechanical engineering. Similarly, an internship that involves working in a college professor’s lab will be far more meaningful if the student’s chosen academic pathway is somehow related to scientific research. If possible, students should always try to find an internship that is related to classes they have already taken and classes they expect to take in college.
One of the most vital aspects of an internship is supervision. Without it, you cannot have an internship. Instead, you have mere research, which could also be useful, but you must be clear about the differences between an internship and research. Interns should report directly to one individual who is responsible for assigning tasks and evaluating performance. There should be clearly defined goals and regular evaluation on accomplishing those goals.
Internships should have a clear outcome such as a multi-page summary, a detailed report, a published paper, a detailed poster, a recorded or formal presentation, a patent, accreditation for research results, or another tangible result that can be added to the college application. If the internship is creative in nature, then the outcome could be the result of that creativity such as a book, a screenplay, a portfolio, a record album, or a video.
Colleges will expect to see a recommendation by the internship supervisor. Without it, the internship will lose credibility and colleges will be left wondering why you were unable to attain one. Recommendations add validity because recommenders must put their own names and reputations on the line, which professionals are unlikely to do in a false or misleading way. Just as many teachers and counselors allow you to provide bragsheets containing important information you would like to see included in their recommendations, internship recommenders may ask you to provide them with information about your participation, successes, challenges, and learned experiences from the internship.
Remember that internships can be an important part of a student’s application. They can demonstrate initiative, passion, leadership, the ability to work as part of a team, the ability to take instruction, and reliability. But simply having the word “internship” on an application is relatively meaningless unless it includes these five critical characteristics. Also, the intrinsic value of an internship goes far beyond the weight it brings to a college application. It also provides students with experience and exposure to areas they might be considering pursuing in college and beyond.