High School Internships: Vault SEO Scholars Program Workshops
In May 2009, Vault made a series of workshops about internships at the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars Program. The SEO Scholars Program is an after-school program for high school students from N.Y. public schools that focuses on raising grades and college admissions. Vault spoke to about 60 rising seniors about the different kinds of internships out there and how to get them—no small feat for high schoolers.
Traditionally, internships have been considered standard college student fare: once they've chosen their major, undergrads take internships during the summer months to get more hands-on training and work experience in their industry of choice. However, internships aren't just for the 18- to 22-year-old set anymore. Recent media has focused on the jump in the number of experienced professionals taking internships because of the current economic climate, either to change careers or to wait until something more long-term comes along. But internships have also become more popular among high school students competing for admission to top colleges and universities. Having an internship on your college application will set you apart from the hundreds of other students with top grades and extracurriculars vying for spots.
So what did we tell the SEO Scholars? First, just being in the Scholars Program put them ahead of the game. Most high school students assume that there are no internships available to them. Not true! We talked with the Scholars about how to decide what kind of internship to pursue and how to approach an organization about an internship.
Different kinds of internships
The first thing you need to know when starting your search is: what exactly is an internship? An internship is an opportunity to learn about an industry, organization and career path. In other words, you can test drive a potential career. There are lots of different kinds of internships out there: paid and unpaid; formal and informal (some internship programs have set intern projects and interns work on those projects for the duration of the program; others are much more casual and intern duties can change from day to day). Also, although most full-time internships are during the summer, there are lots of internships available throughout the year with a part-time structure so you can balance them with school and other responsibilities.
So how do you decide what internship is right for you? Think about what you like to do. Are you on a sports team? Do you like to write? How about working with children? Do you volunteer anywhere? These are all things that can translate into a career, and are great things to put in your cover letter when it comes time to apply.
Once you've figured out what you're already doing that you enjoy, it's time to start looking for internships that incorporate those things. Go online and research the industry you're interested in. Read about the history of the industry, as well as recent news. Good places to start search are nonprofit organizations and professional associations within the industry; their websites often have historical information, as well as news summaries.
Armed with industry insights, it's time to start looking for an actual position. Tons of internships are posted online on job boards and websites like Vault. However, most of the programs you'll find online will be formal internships. If you're looking for an informal internship, you'll have to do a bit more work.
Most informal internships are found by word of mouth. Talk to your teachers, coaches, co-volunteers or managers, tell them you're thinking about an internship in a particular industry and would like to get their advice. These people may be able to help your search by offering guidance, sharing their personal experiences and perhaps connecting you with professionals who have internships to offer. Moreover, these people know you and can speak to your character and work ethic, so they are good people to ask for a reference.
If you've asked around and figured out exactly where you'd like to intern, it's time to do more research (see a theme here?). Learn about the companies or organizations where you'd like to intern. You can even contact professionals at the organizations directly to gather information, and this new connection can often lead to an internship.
Approaching someone to talk about their experiences or organization is very similar to actually applying for a position. Send an email or written letter to the person, with your resume enclosed. The introduction letter is often the first time the reader will learn about you, so it's important to put your best foot forward. It may seem daunting to contact someone you've never met before; but keep in mind that people do it all the time, so don't be shy.
Most of the cover letter consists of talking about yourself and your past experiences. It's where you describe what volunteering you've done, any part-time jobs you've had, what student clubs or teams you’re on, and what classes you've taken. When you talk about what you've done, make sure to focus on your role within the club or organization and any accomplishments—personal as well as club-wide. When talking about your accomplishments, think about them in these categories:
- Leadership experience
- Problem solving
- Making money/saving money (since this is high school, we like to think of this in terms of innovation and efficiency)
Introduction letter how-to
When writing a cover letter, start by reading sample letters and templates. You can find templates on Vault.com, as well as on college career center websites. Career center websites are great resources because they are geared towards student applicants and also offer a great opportunity to learn more about a school's resources. In general, here's a step-by-step guide to a simple introduction letter:
1. Paragraph 1: Start by saying who you are and why you're writing. You want to be clear and straightforward. Also include a line about how you learned about the person you're writing or position you're applying for—if you were referred by someone, mention him or her here. Finish the paragraph with why you're interested in the person you're contacting and his or her organization. In cover letters, interest is very important, so you want to show you've done your homework, so include an example or concrete reason why you're interested.
2. Paragraph 2: The overall goal of this section is to highlight your qualifications. Talk about your past experiences that are relevant to the organization and person you're contacting. The reader has your resume to see all of your experiences, so make sure to focus on only what is applicable. You can talk about specific classes, community service projects, with attention to leadership experience, problem solving, innovation and efficiency. Use concrete examples that tell a short story about why you would fit in at the organization. By choosing only relevant experiences, you will also show the reader that you understand what an internship entails.
Paragraph 3: Short and sweet. Thank the person you're writing, give your contact information, and let him or know you'll be following up with a phone call or email later on in the week.
In our workshops, students created cover letters of their own using this template. They focused on what they did, not necessarily where they did it. For example, one student has a freelance translating business with her family, another creates buttons for fund raising events, and a third volunteers at a pediatric hospital, delivering meals to patients. Though these may have seemed small to the students who undertook them, in a cover letter they are perfect examples of what employers are looking for: leadership experience, problem solving, innovation, efficiency and commitment. Cover letters don't have to be too personal or detailed. Basically, your cover letter should make a case for what you have to offer and why you want to use your skills at that particular organization.
A great introduction letter will make a connection with the reader and often lead to an internship. But before you send anything, ask a teacher or parent to read over your letter and offer suggestions. There may have been something you missed or you may have included too much (you want to leave the reader wanting more). And remember—always proofread!