A Guide To Finding Summer Internships for High School Students

A Guide To Finding Summer Internships for High School Students

A Guide To Finding Summer Internships for High School Students 1000 1000 Theo Wolf

This post was written by our founding team member and coach, Theo Wolf, for Snow.day, an edtech platform he co-founded. See the original post here. Due to its relevance to our students, we’re re-posting it here. 

 

When it comes to high school summer internships, there’s a little known secret: most are hidden. 

When I was in high school, every senior was required to complete an internship. Most students did it in our town, but when I discovered that the company behind my favorite video game, Lord of the Rings Online, was a 30 minute drive away, I knew what I had to do. Without any personal connections to the company, I wrote a cover letter and made a case for how I’d make a meaningful contribution as an intern, including reference to a popular guide I had created on the official forum for the game. Even though email was widely used by this point in the 2000s, I opted to snail mail my letter to increase the odds that it would be seen. After weeks of waiting, they called me in for an interview, and soon offered me a position. 

The point of this story is not to brag, but to give an example of how most high school students find internships. One of the most common questions we receive via our Ask Snowday service is “how do I get an internship?” Our hope for this post is to provide a more comprehensive answer to that question. There is more than one way to go about this, so we’ll break down the most common methods here:

Formal Internship Programs

There are many formal internship programs out there. We have a good number in our database. For instance, Mount Sinai’s Internship Placement Program. Or Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Garden Apprenticeship Program. Or the Department of Navy’s Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program

Notice any similarities? These are all based within major institutions. There’s a reason for that. An internship program is costly for an organization to run: they need employees to interview, train, and manage interns. There are legal considerations as well. Usually these interns are not making a meaningful contribution to the organization; instead, these programs exist to give back to the community, cultivate a diverse talent pipeline, and to nurture good will. For this reason, it’s common for internship programs to only exist at institutions such as hospitals, governmental entities, and large companies. These end up being highly sought after and as a result, highly selective. Most are paid or provide a stipend. These types of programs tend to be known entities to college, and earning one can be seen as an impressive accomplishment. 

“Pay to Play” Internship Programs

There’s another category of internships, which are “pay-to-play.” These are not your usual paid internships, but rather educational, pre-college type programs that take on an internship format. You pay them to participate. Examples of this include the UC Santa Cruz’s Science Internship Program or Stanford’s Clinical Science, Technology and Medicine Internship. Even though these too are at reputable institutions, because they are “pay to play” they tend to be viewed with greater skepticism by colleges. This is not to say that they aren’t valuable; they absolutely can be. We’ve seen many students love these types of programs, but they do not provide real work experience. Rather, they mimic it in an educational setting. They can also be expensive and are most commonly in the sciences. They will often not use internship in their titles – you’ll see names like “research program” or “training program” or “mentorship program.” You can find plenty of these in our directory, particularly when looking in the “Research” category.

Hidden Internships

The majority of internships occur elsewhere. You won’t find these opportunities by googling or by looking in databases like ours. That’s because most high school internships are never publicly listed. And there’s a good reason for that.

I’ve interviewed and hired many high school interns, but I’ve never written up an internship job description nor have I ever publicly posted a position. Not once. Creating a listing, advertising it, and vetting candidates is a time consuming and costly process for a business. This is the most important secret to getting an internship as a high school intern: just because a company doesn’t list internships doesn’t mean that they don’t offer internships. 

The interns that I hired were people who, like me when I was in high school, showed initiative by tracking my company down and making a case for how they could help us. It was a self-selected group of go-getters, and we hired them at a disproportionately high rate because we knew they had the ownership necessary to make an impact. This is the second most important secret: companies don’t want an intern to cost them time or money by requiring a lot of support. The best way to assuage that concern is to (1) show that you’re independent, professional and have initiative (you are a proactive, go-getter), and (2) show that you’ve done your homework and know their business and company.

For a high school student, the path to a formal or pay-to-play internship is straight-forward: research them online, find the best-fit ones and then apply. It’s a familiar process to anyone who has applied to anything before. Landing a hidden internship, on the other hand, is not as simple. 

Before you decide that this is for you – first make sure you know why you want to do an internship. There’s an assumption among high schoolers that internships are the single best way to spend a summer, but that’s not always true. There’s a huge amount of value in working a summer job (like being a camp counselor or scooping ice cream), attending a summer program, volunteering, or working on an independent project. Many of these can look as good or better on your resume than an internship and can be more significant of a learning experience. 

Colleges know that most internships come through networking, so they discount them unless they are appropriately connected to a student’s focus. Just doing any old internship is not meaningful. What’s important is the how, the why, and the what: how you got it, why it makes sense for you, and what you contributed to the organization.

Now if finding a hidden internship is right for you here are our our recommended steps: 

  1. Figure out what you’re excited/passionate about. Your internship should be aligned with the things you care about, whether it’s an area of interest you want to explore, a community you want to support, or an identity that’s meaningful to you. Think through what excites you most, and narrow that down to what you’re interested in exploring via an internship. 
  2. Figure out what type of industry aligns with your passion. If you’re interested in sustainable agriculture, complete an internship on a vertical farm! Interested in urban planning? Complete an internship at a startup building navigational technology. Interested in medieval fantasy literature and 21st century worldbuilding? Completed an internship at a video game company making a medieval fantasy game (sound familiar?). Get creative and look for ways to connect your passions to a professional setting. 
  3. Identify local companies in that sector that are doing exciting work and make a list of them. This will take research!! Keep an eye out for organizations smaller than 50 people – startups (scrappy new fledgling businesses), SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises), and nonprofits; smaller companies are generally less subject to administrative red tape and compliance issues, and have managers who are more empowered to be decision makers when it comes to hiring interns. We recommend using sites such as LinkedIn, Crunchbase, and Wellfound (formerly AngelList Talent) for startups and SMEs, or Guidestar, CharityNavigator, CatchaFire and Taproot for nonprofits. You should look at industry news sites and job boards to learn about what companies exist in your space. ChatGPT and Gemini can also be helpful as a starting point, you just need to be specific. An example prompt could be “I’m looking for small companies and startups in the Brooklyn, New York area that are addressing food waste in an innovative way. Can you list out at least 5 for me?” This prompt instantly found 5 interesting companies for my student!
  4. Find managers who work at these companies. Do not underestimate your personal network for this! If you proactively ask adults in your life, you’d be surprised who might have a connection, especially if you’re looking locally. One of my students found an incredible internship through his soccer coach! Talk to your family members, friends, friends’ parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, or anyone who you trust! If you frame what you’re looking for clearly and provide guidance to these people it can make their job easy. You can also use LinkedIn to support on this. Add all of the people you know on it, which then lets you see mutual connections you have to the companies you’re interested in.
  5. Draft an email to that specific person. This should not be a full cover letter, but rather a short note saying who you are, what you find intriguing about their company, and asking if you could have a conversation with them to learn more about their work. Here’s an excellent guide to sending these types of emails (written by someone I went to high school with!). If you can’t find their email with some sleuthing on the company website, Rocketreach can be helpful to find it. Here’s a good blog on the topic as well. 
  6. Meet that person. Generally we don’t recommend asking about an internship upfront by email, as you’ll receive more rejections that way. A better method is to make contact and ask for an informational interview, then have a conversation that allows you to get to know this person, their company, and their work. At the end, you can ask if they ever have interns or follow up by email when sending a thank you note. Often they’ll be willing to see what they can do, especially if you had a good conversation. Adults remember their high school selves vividly, and are usually willing to go out of their way to help students! And even if they’re not, the worst case scenario is that you learned something in the process and made a connection that might be handy in the future.
  7. Be prepared for rejection!! If you get warm introductions to people, you will have a better success rate. But if you are reaching out cold, you will likely get no response from the majority of these emails that you send out. When you do get a response, there’s a good likelihood the answer will be no. You need to be persistent. One of my former students sent more than 70 of these emails, and ended up with 2 internship offers. Why does this happen? Well, let’s break it down. For instance, if you’re sending 70 emails, then 5 of those probably went to an invalid email address, 5 probably went to people who aren’t working there anymore, 20 simply won’t be read or seen, 30 will read it but won’t respond. Then, of the 10 who do respond, 5 won’t meet you, and of the 5 that will, only 1 or 2 of those will be willing to consider you for an internship. This is a numbers game. Don’t send one email and expect a miracle! My story of sending one letter and getting an internship offer is a total anomaly.

Using this methodology, many students I’ve worked with in the past have found fantastic internships. But more importantly, they’ve gone through a process that has taught them resourcefulness and resilience. Sometimes in life, getting in the door is the hardest part and it often is a result of this type of hustle; networking leads to most jobs. This internship sourcing strategy is a process that can be repeated in college (I got every single undergraduate internship through it) and in life, so it’s a good one to learn early!