Over the past 5 years, internships have become very popular for students applying to highly competitive colleges based on a belief that an internship alone may be a ticket to elite college admission. The truth is that there is no one factor, not even an internship, that will ensure admission into a highly competitive college. Put into context, an internship can be a wise and valuable use of time, providing a student with work experience, responsibility, and the opportunity to build passion for a particular subject. However, in this era of 10 to 30 candidates for every college seat, admission committees have come to expect much more from their candidates. To these colleges, an internship is only one part of one activity among many parts of many activities. To better understand this statement, it helps to understand what it is about internships that colleges value, and what it is about a student’s overall set of activities that colleges are seeking.
I. An Internship Should Have Five Components:
E. Supervisor’s Recommendation
At the most basic level, colleges want to be certain that the internship actually existed. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people who will put activities 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 demonstrably relevant to a student’s interests and was not merely situation in which a student could show up whenever they wanted and do whatever they wanted as long as they “stay out of the way and not interfere with the real work that is going on there.”
The internship should have value or relevance to the student. It may be directly related to their expected area of study, such as an engineering student conducting an internship at an engineering firm. However, this is not absolutely necessary. As long as the internship provides value or relevance of some sort, it will be considered an advantageous activity for the student. Further, the value that the internship provides should not be a one-way street. Not only should be internship be valuable to the student, but the student should also provide value back to the organization that is sponsoring it. The value a student brings should be reflected in both the outcome and the letter of recommendation.
An internship is, by definition, a supervised activity. The intern should report directly to one individual (or team) who is responsible for assigning tasks and evaluating performance. There should be clearly defined goals and regular oversite to assist the student in accomplishing these goals. Ultimately, it is expected that the supervisor will write a recommendation at the conclusion of the internship.
There are several potential outcomes or forms of documentation that can follow an internship. The better the outcome or documentation, the more valuable an elite college will consider the internship to be. Examples include a multi-page summary, a detailed report, a published paper, a detailed presentation poster, a video recording of a formal presentation, a certificate of patent (or patent pending), or accreditation for research results. If the internship is creative in nature, then the outcome could be the result of that creativity. Examples include a book, a screenplay, a portfolio, an album, or a video to which the intern contributed.
E. Supervisor’s Recommendation
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 they 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 resulting from the internship.
II. Each Internship is Just One Activity!
No matter how valuable and prestigious an internship may be, it is still only one of many activities a student should list on the college application. In the case of the common application, for example, a student may list as many as 10 activities, although filling all 10 spaces is not necessary. Overall, elite colleges expect their candidates to engage in meaningful activities and to make intelligent decisions with regard to their use of time and opportunities. Among their list of activities, students may have one, two, or even three internships. However, there are many other activities that could occupy their time in a meaningful and advantageous way. For example, colleges like to see that students get involved in community service or charitable endeavors. They appreciate students who use their time to improve themselves athletically, academically, or in other meaningful ways. They even appreciate students who engage in competitions, and elite colleges expect their candidates to be successful in those endeavors. Overall, there are five main factors that colleges look for in a list of activities.
C. Longevity of Commitment
As is the case with an internship, a list of activities should be authentic. Top colleges see right through a list of activities that is designed to impress rather than one that is designed to provide significant benefit to the student. Too many students make the mistake of signing up for high-priced, name-brand programs simply because they are recognizable. While it is perfectly acceptable for a list to contain name-brand programs, each activity should be chosen for its value to the student rather than for the value of its name.
Consider that college admission is largely about creating a compelling narrative. Therefore, the activity list should have relevance to that narrative. While it can comprise several eclectic entries, collectively it should tell a story about a student who fits the profile the top colleges are looking for. At least a few of the activities that comprise the list should be directly related to the students expected field of study at college. However, even activities that don’t directly relate to an academic field of interest can indirectly relate, such as a future pre-med student volunteering to work in a local community center or a biomed lab, a future legal studies student participating in Model UN, or a future business student engaging in debate competitions or public speaking engagements.
C. Longevity of Commitment
It is better to stay with a particular activity for an extended period than to always be jumping around from one activity to another. For example, colleges appreciate athletes who play sports for all their years of high school, or students who participate in school clubs over several years. The same is true of students who engage in multiyear internships or who consistently perform community service or volunteer work.
Whether a student starts a business, founds a club, or rises through the ranks to become captain, president, or leader of an organization, colleges like to see students who possess natural leadership abilities. Leadership qualities include direct communication skills, the ability to delegate responsibility, and the ability to earn loyalty.
Similar to outcome for an individual activity, outcome for a list of activities should include improved abilities in one or more areas, significant lessons learned that will be helpful in college and in life after college, and personal growth. When looking over a student’s entire list of activities, elite colleges will be looking for a significant record of intelligent choices, advantageous and meaningful use of free time, and a demonstrated record of making the most of one’s opportunities.
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. Further, 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. But also keep in mind that an internship is just one of many activities, each of which is a chapter in the overarching narrative a student presents to colleges. Each activity comprises a set of characteristics that collectively bring value to the activity in just the same way that each activity is one of many components of the overall activities list. The collective outcome of engaging in these meaningful, high-caliber activities is the creation of a full, rich, robust, and impressive college activities list in which internships may play a major, albeit nonexclusive, role.
By Neil Chyten
Founder of Avalon Admission