Everything you need to know about high school internships, including how to cold email for an internship
The following is a guest article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies or positions of Shemmassian Academic Consulting.
Part 1: Introduction
The bar for getting into elite universities keeps getting higher and higher. It used to be that high ACT or SAT scores, a high GPA, and a well-rounded assortment of extracurricular activities were enough to ensure admission into your child’s dream school.
These days, however, universities are inundated with record numbers of applications from high-achieving, well-rounded students. Therefore, your child needs to do more in order to stand out. They need to specialize and demonstrate a deep commitment to one or two extracurricular activities instead of trying to do every activity possible.
There are plenty of ways for your child to stand out on the Common App Activities section, but one of the best strategies is one that many parents and students overlook: internships.
Below, we’ll explain how to get an internship in high school that will help your child explore potential careers, put theory into practice, and stand out amongst other competitive college applicants.
Part 2: Why high school students should pursue internships
As a parent, it’s understandable to be surprised that your high school student should already be looking at internships. You probably associate internships with something that undergraduate students pursue over the summer, or something that recent college graduates do in order to get their foot in the door at a prestigious company.
The idea of your child (who may not even have their driver’s license) interning can thus seem like overkill. Shouldn’t they just focus on the extracurricular activities that their school already offers? Why do an internship?
While we certainly encourage your child to explore the extracurricular activities at their school, internships offer opportunities that schools simply can’t provide.
When your child does an internship, they get a glimpse at the professional world, one that many students don’t even receive until college. This provides fertile material for a Common App essay that will stand out from all the rest.
Furthermore, internships can help high school students explore career paths even before they’re in college. This can be very helpful when your child is trying to choose a major, as it lets them see real-world applications of an academic discipline.
For instance, if your child has excelled in their high school chemistry courses, then interning at a local manufacturing facility could help them see what working chemists do each day. They might find out that they love the work and want to pursue it at the university level in order to prepare for a career in the field.
On the other hand, they might realize that they find the work mind-numbingly boring and would rather explore another area. Either way, your child has learned a valuable lesson that can help inform their academic and career decisions once they enter college.
Finally, pursuing an internship in high school is an excellent way for your child to find a professional mentor and begin growing their professional network. The right mentor can serve as an asset to your child in a variety of ways, and there’s no better way to gain a mentor’s respect than offering to help them with their work.
The mentor can write a letter of recommendation for your child when they apply to college, and they may even be able to leverage their network to help your child get into the college of their choice. Not to mention, building a professional connection while still in high school will become immensely useful when your child is applying for college internships or even jobs post-college.
But how exactly can your child go about finding an internship? It’s not as difficult as you might imagine, especially if you follow the tips in the next couple sections. So to start, let’s look at some of the best places high school students can look for internship opportunities.
Part 3: 8 places to find internships for high school students
Finding a high school internship can feel like an impossible task. This is understandable, given that most organizations who hire interns don’t even have high school students on their radar.
While this can seem like a disadvantage, it actually isn’t. Because if your child does take the initiative to reach out to a local business or other organization about an internship, the person reading their inquiry is going to be impressed.
Most high school students are so caught up in the world of grades, extracurriculars, and peers that they wouldn’t even think to take steps to prepare themselves for the professional world. To find a student that looks beyond all of that will certainly make an impression.
But where should your child get started when searching for an internship? The first thing we’ll say is that your child should not apply for internships posted on job boards or other similar sites. While it is possible to get an internship this way, your child will often be competing with undergraduates who are more experienced and qualified.
This isn’t to diminish all that your child has accomplished, but the fact is that most companies would rather choose the college student. They’re likely to view them as more mature and competent simply because they’re in college.
Furthermore, if your child can take the initiative to create their own internship, it will look far more impressive to an admissions committee than if they just applied for an internship that was available on a public job board. They’ll also likely be able to have more input in shaping what they do during the internship, which can lead to a richer experience overall.
Now that we’ve covered where not to look for an internship, here are some of the best places your child can get started:
1. Family members
It’s possible that the person who could help get your child an internship is someone you see every year at your family reunion. Many students (and parents) might overlook family members as a way to find an internship, but they can actually be a very useful resource.
To start, they already have a personal connection with your child. This can make it much easier to connect than if your child were reaching out to a stranger. Also, because they’re family, they’ll be invested in your child’s success from the start.
Our only caveat here is that your child should avoid reaching out in a way that makes them seem entitled. Your son’s uncle who works at Dow might have some great connections in the world of chemistry, but that doesn’t mean they owe your child an internship.
Your child still needs to demonstrate that they’re passionate about the field and can bring something to the table in the internship (see the next section for tips on how to demonstrate this).
2. Family friends
Moving outward from core family, there are family friends. We use this category because, more than likely, your child isn’t personal friends with anyone who can help them get an internship. It is likely, however, that you have friends who might be able to help.
This is another area where you need to be careful in your approach. It’s fine to say something like, “My daughter is very interested in [FIELD YOUR FRIEND WORKS IN] and was curious if they could reach out to you to learn more.”
But you should still let your child take the initiative in making contact. Don’t do all the work for them. Not only does this rob your child of valuable experience, but it also gives the impression that you’re the one interested in the internship, not your child.
3. High school teachers
You might not think to look here unless your child is actually interested in being a teacher. But this overlooks the fact that your child’s teacher likely has a large network of friends and former classmates who just might work in a field that would be perfect for your child’s internship.
For instance, if your child is interested in journalism, they might ask their English teacher if they know anyone in the field. If they do, your child can ask their teacher to make an introduction via email and let your child take the conversation from there.
4. Guidance counselors
This might be the most obvious resource on this list, but it’s easy for your child to forget that, in addition to helping them through the college application process, their guidance counselors are also there to help them clarify their career interests.
Many counselors will help students in this area by giving them career aptitude tests or other general advice. Your child needs to encourage them to go deeper, however. They should tell the counselor that they’re interested in getting experience in a particular field and ask if the counselor can connect them with any relevant people or organizations in the community.
Remember: it’s the guidance counselor’s job to be a resource for your child, so they shouldn’t hesitate to make sure that the counselor is doing that job to the fullest.
5. Other high school staff
This category encompasses anyone at school that your child deals with outside of class. Coaches or club moderators are the most obvious people here, but this could even include other staff such as librarians or people who work on the administrative side of the school.
There are a couple approaches your child can take when finding internships this way. The first is to find a staff member who works in the field that your child is interested in. This could be useful, for instance, if your child is interested in library science. In this case, talking to the school librarian is the clear move.
The other approach is to consider who the staff member might know. For instance, your child’s coach may be in charge of basketball, but they likely also know people in a variety of other fields. It never hurts for your child to ask, as that staff member might just know someone with serious industry connections.
6. Local universities
So far, we’ve focused on what we would classify as “warm” connections—people you or your child already know who can provide an introduction to a potential internship opportunity. While we encourage your child to start with these connections, they may sometimes need to go beyond this immediate circle and reach out to unfamiliar people in the broader community.
One of the best places to start when taking this approach is a local university. Universities exist to provide education, after all, so they’re likely to be interested when a local student reaches out to them asking for a way to further their education outside the classroom.
When reaching out to a local university, we recommend your child go to the source. That is, if they’re interested in interning with a particular professor or department, they should contact them directly. Contacting the university’s general email or admissions department is unlikely to yield results.
They should also avoid reaching out to undergraduates (at least regarding internship opportunities). For while this can help with getting the attention of a professor, the faculty are the ones that actually have the power to get your child an internship.
7. Local businesses
If your child wants to get experience in the professional world, the most direct way to do it is to reach out to someone at an actual business. This can be a nerve-wracking process, but remember this: most business leaders rarely hear from high school students who want to help them out. At the very least, this level of initiative will intrigue them.
In terms of which businesses to contact, this all depends on what interests your child. Encourage them to do some Google searches on businesses related to their preferred field, and don’t be afraid to mention any relevant businesses you know of.
As with reaching out to universities, your child will increase their odds of success here if they reach out to someone in the organization who has decision-making power. Sending a general inquiry is likely to result in a message that either goes unanswered or receives a generic form response.
Instead, they should do their best to get the contact information for the head of the department that interests them or (if it’s a small company) the founder/head of the organization.
8. Local charities and religious organizations
Our final suggestion for finding high school internships is one that your child may not have considered. After all, isn’t it better to get experience at businesses, not nonprofits?
This is absolutely not the case. Working with charities and religious organizations can provide a whole range of experiences that your child couldn’t get elsewhere. At the same time, working with these organizations can still provide relevant professional experiences that can help inform both college major and career decisions.
One advantage of reaching out to groups in this category is that, because they’re not for profit, they almost always need extra help.
Part 4: How to ask for an internship
You should now have a better understanding of all the places your child can look for an internship, but what about when it comes time to actually reach out? This is a critical part of the process, as your child needs to convince someone to bring them on as an intern.
The first thing to understand here is that many organizations view high school interns as a risk. To start, they have to comply with a host of additional legal requirements when dealing with minors. Furthermore, they’re likely to be skeptical that a high school student has the knowledge or work ethic necessary to be a real asset to their organization.
When reaching out, your child needs to keep all of these potential objections in mind and write an inquiry that addresses them. That being said, your child also has some advantages as a high school student that other people do not.
There is persuasive power in the phrase “I’m a student.” While just saying that you’re a student isn’t very persuasive by itself (in fact, it could work against your child), your child can use their student status to frame their interest in a particular field.
When a business leader hears from a student who already wants to get professional experience, two things will happen. First, as we already discussed, they’re likely to be impressed that someone so young is taking so much initiative.
But second, hearing from a student is likely to remind them of their student days, a time that’s nostalgic for adults caught up in the hustle of professional life. Bringing on someone that young can, by extension, make the other person feel young again, which is quite appealing.
So how does your child write an internship inquiry email that both demonstrates their competence and capitalizes on the fact that they’re an eager student looking to gain experience? We’ll start with some general tips, and then we’ll conclude with an example that your child can adapt for their purposes:
1. Keep it brief
This is critical. The person your child is reaching out to is likely busy and has little time for extra emails. The ideal internship inquiry email should get straight to the point and be formatted in a way that makes it easy to skim.
2. Do your research
This is important in all cases, but especially if your child is emailing someone with whom they don’t have a preexisting connection. Before drafting an email, your child should research what the person they’re contacting does and make sure that they understand it.
Then, when they write the email, they should include a couple sentences that show that they’re interested in the specific things that the person does. When the person they’re contacting reads this, it will be both flattering (people love to be reminded of their accomplishments) and impressive.
3. Offer clear value
One of the biggest mistakes students make when reaching out regarding internships is to presume that the company will just “find something for them to do.” While your child should certainly remain open-minded and seek to serve the organization, they should also explain upfront what they can offer.
For instance, if your child is seeking an internship at a local non-profit that helps natural disaster victims, they could mention that they could put their writing skills to work writing social media posts asking for donations. This is far more compelling than just saying, “I’d like to help any way I can.”
4. Don’t be afraid to follow up
As all busy professionals know, you’re far more likely to not answer an email because it got buried in your inbox than because you don’t want to answer it. Recognizing this, your child shouldn’t be afraid to send a quick follow-up reply to their original email if a couple weeks have passed without a response.
Most likely, the person they emailed will appreciate a reminder of something they’ve been meaning to do but had to put off due to more urgent matters.
How to cold email for an internship
With that general advice in mind, let’s take a look at an internship inquiry email example.
We encourage your child to modify this template as necessary, since every case and person are unique.
But this will give your child an idea of where to start and help them overcome the intimidation of sending what may well be their first professional correspondence.
Internship inquiry email example
Dear [NAME OF PERSON YOUR CHILD IS CONTACTING],
I am a student at McGavock High School with a deep interest in graphic design (portfolio attached). Recently, I came across the work of your firm. I was particularly interested in how you blended classic typography with contemporary flat design in your recent project for Stanfeld Industries.
I’m writing to discuss the possibility of interning at your firm this summer. While I’ve explored graphic design in my high school art classes, I’d love to learn more about how the graphic design process works in the real world.
As your intern, I’d be able to assist with the following:
Answering the phone and other correspondence
Printing and formatting client samples
Anything else I can do to free up your time
If you don’t have space for interns, would you be able to recommend any resources for aspiring graphic designers to learn more about the field?
Please let me know if I can provide any additional information. I look forward to hearing from you.
[YOUR CHILD’S NAME]
Here’s a follow-up email sample:
Dear [NAME OF PERSON YOUR CHILD IS CONTACTING],
I hope this message finds you well. I recognize you’re incredibly busy but I’m writing to float my previous email to the top of your inbox.
[YOUR CHILD’S NAME]
If your child still doesn’t receive a response, that’s OK! Some organizations may not have the ability to take on a high school intern, so your child should move on and look for another opportunity elsewhere.
Part 5: Frequently asked questions
Should my child take an unpaid internship?
Absolutely. In fact, your child should never expect compensation for an internship they do during high school. Money is not the point; experience and professional connections are. If an internship does pay, that’s a nice bonus, but it’s uncommon.
Don’t worry: universities don’t care if the internship was paid or not. They’ll be far more impressed that your child has done an internship at all, especially if it helps support the broader narrative in your child’s college application.
What’s the difference between an internship vs volunteer work?
The main differences tend to be the amount of time your child spends on the activity and the level of responsibility they have. For instance, volunteering at a soup kitchen might mean just spending a couple hours a week ladling soup, while interning at one would more likely involve helping to find and coordinate other volunteers.
Should my child spend their summer pursuing an internship or working a part-time job?
This is a difficult decision, particularly if your child is working out of necessity to help pay for college or even to help you pay the bills. It also depends on the nature of the job. Working at a fast food restaurant won’t provide the same kind of relevant career experience as helping file papers at a law firm, for instance.
That said, part-time jobs (even if they are unglamorous) can provide interesting talking points in your child’s admissions interview and could even be the subject of their personal statement. It all depends on how your child is able to frame it.
Given the choice, however, we recommend that your child pursue summer internships that are relevant to their interests.
What if my child doesn’t know what field or career interests them?
One of the main benefits of doing an internship is that your child can learn more about what does (and doesn’t) interest them as a future career. If your child is truly unsure, however, then they should first do some brainstorming and research to figure out what interests them and how that might apply to a future profession.
Does my child need to intern somewhere prestigious?
Many parents think that prestigious experiences will help their children stand out to admissions committees. The reality, however, is that admissions officers care far less about prestige and name dropping and far more about what your child got out of the internship experience.
For instance, a child who’s interested in developmental psychology would do far better to intern at a preschool than a law firm, even if the preschool internship sounds less “serious” than the law firm one.
When should my child start applying for internships?
Every child’s situation is different, but we think it’s never too early. For instance, if your child leaves their freshman biology class fascinated with the subject, they could try to find a summer internship that begins after the completion of freshman year.
That being said, it’s fine if your child leaves their freshman year still unsure of what they want to intern in. However, we recommend doing an internship either during their sophomore year or the summer after it, as that will give them plenty of time to think about how to incorporate the experience into their college application.
About Our Guest Contributor
Ransom Patterson is the editor in chief at College Info Geek, a site that helps students study more effectively, become more productive, and get great jobs after graduation. You can learn more about how College Info Geek helps students here.