In the years since I became an admissions consultant, one of the most common questions I get asked is whether or not internships are genuinely important for university admissions. After all, the students doing these internships are often only sixteen and seventeen years old.
The quick answer: it depends, especially on whether you intend to pursue an academic or professional programme.
1. Why internships do not matter for academic majors
Whether an internship is useful and whether they are necessary depends on the nature of your major.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that students or parents may think an industry internship is required because graduates of that specific major end up in those industries. For example, many Economics majors end up working at banks, which results in a lot of teenagers, intending to major in Economics, pursue internships at banks. However, the truth is that for non-professional majors, the work involved in these internships is often not directly relevant to the course of study. Admissions tutors also downplay the value of internships for academic majors for a number of reasons. The name of the bank alone does not lend credibility. Moreover, universities know you were a teenager in high school when you attended these internships. Not only do they know you did not do much of value (as it is illegal to profit from the work of minors!), but they also know that you likely gained such positions due to family connections. Other than that, the menial tasks that you will be given and the work you will observe being done have barely any relation to academic economics. Of course, there are always exceptions. I had a student who was recruited by his professor to intern at a bank’s research division that looked at mathematical models, which proved insightful. However, such opportunities are very rare.
If you were an applicant looking to apply to Economics at university. I suggest looking toward academic activities that show off your ability and potential in the subject instead. For example, focus your efforts into giving your best in your 4000-word Extended Essay if you do the IB or opt to do an EPQ in the A-Levels. These activities are more worth your while and place you in a better light when applying to college. If you are not in these academic systems, reading and discussing books in the field can also help.
If anything, internships have sometimes proven to be counter-productive. I have had a student who accidentally applied for a Geology internship rather than one related to her intended major – Geography. She spent an entire month categorizing rocks and learning nothing much related to her intended field. She did not even end up writing about the internship in her personal statement, in fear that universities may think that she doesn’t know the difference between Geology and Geography.
If you are pursuing academic subjects such as Economics, English Literature, History and more, pursuing the academics will serve you much better. After all, you will spend most of your time studying text and theory; boasting of skills outside of these areas will do little to convince universities to accept you over another competitive applicant. Though I am not saying you shouldn’t show off your extracurriculars—you definitely should—but they should definitely be framed in the academic light with the auxiliary skills mentioned as a side note.
2. Why internships do matter for professional majors
On the other hand, if you are pursuing professional majors, such as Law, Medicine, Accounting, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry, etc., you should definitely try to get an internship. Remember, in many other Western countries, these degrees are only offered at the graduate level; those who apply to law or medical school in the US all have bachelor degrees first. They are usually nearer to age 30 when they become these professionals. In the UK, many professional degrees are offered at the undergraduate level. But does this mean universities expect less of their applicants? No! They want students who have thought through what they want and can demonstrate a commitment to their subjects and, in turn, their eventual profession.
An industry internship can demonstrate that by ensuring that you know what the reality of working in these fields is like. Law schools often require internships because they want to see whether a student understands that the practice of law is far removed from the dramatized depictions in popular culture, and medical schools need to assess whether a student can endure the rigours of medical practice. For these fields, even if your internship only involves menial tasks and it may seem as if you do not provide anything of direct value for the professionals, the universities now know that, through the internship, you know what working as that professional is like. And importantly for them, this means you are less likely to drop out and abandon your degree.
3. How do I get an internship?
To be frank, most of my students acquire internships through their parents’ connections. Others may approach the parents’ of their friends. Of course, I do have many more students who do not have any connections within their intended field of study. In these cases, my students have to show more initiative and try their best. I assist them in drafting an earnest cover letter and a presentable CV. Then, the student will send them to their school counsellor or teachers that may have helpful alumni connections. In addition, they will also attempt to cold email various firms. One of my students last year managed to attain an internship with a legal professional this way, after two months of work and sending over dozens of emails. The person responded because he was impressed by his letter. However, sometimes, internships may still be hard to find.
4. Does this mean if I don’t get an internship, I should adjust my school list?
Absolutely not! Every year I work with students who do not get an internship and that is the furthest thing from a death sentence. Remember the spirit of an internship. It is to show universities you have knowledge and understanding of the field you are applying to. Without an internship, you can do things that demonstrate your deep knowledge of the field. Books are one of the most accessible ways, and why many universities are interested in seeing whether a student discusses pertinent works in their desired field within his or her personal statement. And depending on the strength of the student and the specific major he or she may be applying to, the strategy changes.
In conclusion, definitely do not refrain from applying to a competitive university simply because you didn’t do an internship. Remember, they are good indicators of your commitment but are not mandatory nor the only method to convince schools you know what you are talking about. Outside of their implication for boosting a college application though, internships are a good way to gain work experience and broaden your horizons.
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By Antonia Chui, Managing Director