How to Get an Internship with No Experience

Becca Cornell
May 25, 2021

Internships during college can be a student’s best chance at getting a job right after graduation. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers says they're even better than co-op programs. A full 68% of interns are offered jobs, according to NACE’s 2020 Internship & Co-op Survey Report, compared to 42% of co-op students.    Interns tend to stay longer at the company that hires them too. The report looked at one-year and five-year retention rates, which were 68% and 42%, respectively. Compare this to employees with no experience. Only 40% stay for a full year and that drops to under 30% for those who stay for five years.   All of this is wonderful, but how do you actually get an internship with no experience?   Internships during college, even virtual ones, allow students to further explore their interests, gain valuable work experience, and find out what a career in their field might look like. It gives companies the chance to evaluate potential long-term hires and see how effectively that student could work with them in the future.   To start, it’s important to know why an internship is valuable, the different kinds of internships available, and how to figure out which internship is right for you.   Photo by Brooke Cagle

Why apply for an internship in college?

Internships give students valuable workplace experience, and some turn into full-time jobs after graduation. Even if your internship doesn’t end with a job offer, the work experience will bolster your resume and you’ll have made some professional connections. Both can lead to other job opportunities and offers.  

Paid vs. unpaid internships

While internships won’t make you rich, some don’t even pay at all. Still, there may be a valuable pay-off.   The NACE points to studies that show that students graduating with internship experiences – paid or unpaid – tend to get hired after graduation more than those who never interned. Plus, graduates with three or more internships have the best chance of securing full-time employment.   The Department of Labor has a fact sheet that shows how it determines whether students and interns are entitled to pay. Basically, if the intern gets the most out of the arrangement, an unpaid internship is allowed.   However, some states like California, require that unpaid internship programs must be attached to an accredited school and employers hiring interns must submit an internship proposal to the California Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement.   Photo by Mimi Thian

What internship is right for you?

The best internship is one that matches your major and career objectives. You should be learning the entire time, not doing busywork.   The interview is the best place to get an idea if the work you’ll be doing is meaningful and whether you’ll increase your knowledge and skills. A good internship should provide you with regular feedback and evaluations.  

How to apply for an internship when you have no experience

Once you’ve decided on an internship program that fits your interests and school schedule, you can apply. But what do you do when they’re looking for experience but you don’t have any?  

Change your part-time job

If applicable, you may be able to talk to your boss at your current part-time job about expanding that role. This will only work if you’re already working in an industry you’re interested in. Even small businesses may be open to offering an internship within the company.    If it’s not the right field or your boss is unable to create an internship, ask for additional responsibilities. These can provide you with management experience and transferable skills that may be useful when you do apply for an internship.   Photo by Brooke Cagle

Prepare your resume

There’s a resume format that’s good for applicants without experience. The functional resume focuses on skills rather than experience. Put your transferable skills first, with a description under each one and how you developed it, then move on to listing any job experience.   Don’t leave anything out. Your resume should include applicable courses, volunteer experience, memberships, student competitions, portfolio links, and recommendation letters, as follows:  

Highlight applicable courses

By focusing on courses you’ve taken in your major, your resume will show expertise within your discipline. Certainly make note of relevant projects and collaborations you’ve been involved in, and draw attention to transferable skills too. These include time management, leadership, and communication skills you may have obtained from part-time jobs and extracurricular activities.  

Don’t forget about your volunteer experience

Volunteering develops those transferable skills too. Depending on the type of volunteer organization, you may actually be able to gain experience in your field.    It’s never too early to start volunteering, and the time required can be fairly minimal, as long as it’s consistent. If you’ve spent a couple of years as a charity volunteer, make sure that goes on your resume. It speaks to your work ethic, commitment, and loyalty.   Don’t worry if you haven’t volunteered before. Charities and causes are always looking for help. That makes finding an organization that matches the skills you’d like to develop for potential future internships fairly easy, and there are many you can do online.   Photo by Fitsum Admasu

Remember sports teams, clubs, and other interests

Being a team member or part of a club or other organized group can teach you skills that companies value highly. Simply knowing how to cooperate as a member of a team or group is a skill that is sought after and appreciated. It also indicates that you likely have other soft skills that can be transferred to an internship job, including adaptability, problem-solving, and leadership.   This includes student organizations on campus, which range from local academic and professional chapters of national organizations to student government and student association organizations.   Some internships may have stated preferences, looking for interns with specific interests or extracurricular activities. If you have that experience or interest, even though you lack related work experience, you might be able to get your foot in the door.  

Include competitions

Showing that you’ve taken part in student competitions on your resume is extremely worthwhile. It indicates that you are ambitious and competitive. You’re someone willing to take risks and to learn. If you happen to win, great. You might get a very nice check and that status will further enhance your resume.   Even if you don’t win, just taking part in a student competition demonstrates your work ethic and strategizing skills. You can certainly make worthwhile contacts with peers and professionals in your targeted industry.  

Offer your portfolio

While this won’t be an option for every internship, it will be for most looking for a creative internship. This can be a great opportunity as you can use anything from class, from a freelancing gig, or even just that you’ve created specifically to showcase your work. It demonstrates that you’re capable of doing the work, even if you lack professional experience.  

Have recommendation letters ready to go

Recommendations won’t replace experience, of course, but having professionals express their confidence in you, your skills, and your work ethic can land an interview at the very least.  And they don’t necessarily have to be from a former boss; they can be from a coach, professor, or former teacher. Anyone who’s taught or known you in an educational or professional setting will make a worthwhile reference.   Photo by Surface

Don’t be afraid to take your internship job search offline

Be proactive in your job search. If your college careers center and the internship job boards aren’t turning up anything useful, go offline. 
  • First, determine exactly what you’re interested in, then make a list of small to medium businesses to target. Don’t limit yourself other than company size: If your interest is in sustainability, for example, you can work in a consulting firm or manufacturing concern.
  • For each company you contact, do your research. Get information about the operation from their website and social media. It’ll give you insight as to how they operate, what’s important to them, what their goals are, and the company culture.
  • Get the name of the hiring person, and send them an email. 
  • Show how you can add value to the company if they bring you on as an intern. For example, if a research paper you did dovetails with their work, explain how your insights could be useful.
  • Let them know what you hope to gain from your internship with them. In the case of your first internship, this would be job experience relevant to your future career as well as making professional contacts.