As an international student, getting a summer internship in the US is a great way to gain experience in your field. A summer internship can help you build in-demand skills, and also get a better sense of which types of careers appeal to you. With your internship experience, you may figure out which roles or industries you might like to work in, and which are not a great fit. Plus, once you’ve completed your internship, you can then add the role to your resume, making you a more competitive candidate for full-time positions after graduation.
However, summer internships in the US are competitive. In fact, many employers start recruiting and hiring for summer internships during the previous fall, say Shorelight Career Services managers Brittany Chill and Lisa Witt. That means for summer 2024 internships, companies are likely looking in Fall 2023.
If you wait until April to look for a summer internship, you have “missed most of the wave,” emphasizes Witt. “That said,” she adds, “companies are hiring all the time.” The key takeaway is to start your search as early as possible.
International students also have special requirements to consider. In order to set yourself up for success, you need to understand whether your visa makes you eligible for certain internships, what to look for in an internship (beyond visa considerations), and best practices for applying. (Spoiler: It is not hitting “easy apply” on LinkedIn!)
Visa Considerations for Summer Internships
There are tens of millions of businesses in the US, but only a portion of these have the means to hire international students as interns. Some organizations are limited to only hiring US citizens. This is a useful data point for you as you focus your list of companies. You want to limit your internship search to the companies you want to work for that are also legally able to hire you.
As Witt points out, there are companies that have hired and sponsored international students in the past. She recommends using a site like MyVisaJobs to research employers and narrow down your search. You can search by industry, employer, job title, or a combination of these factors.
The bulk of US companies, emphasizes Witt, do not understand the work authorization rules. For these companies “you must know the process so well that you can explain it to the employer,” says Witt, noting it is very important that prospective employers understand that it will not cost them anything for a student who is on CPT or OPT to take part in the internship process, other than salary for paid internships.
With a F-1 visa, students can do an internship under a work authorization status through Curricular Practical Training, or CPT. Through CPT, your internship must be related to your degree and you need to have completed at least two full-time semesters. Once you complete your degree, you can apply for Optional Practical Training, or OPT. This allows you to work in the US for up to 12 months, or an additional two-year extension for graduates with STEM degrees.
“Sometimes recruiters or hiring managers do not know all the requirements around CPT and think it takes just as much time as [a] H-1B petition,” explains Chill. “So, prepare for pushback, but it may simply be because the employer does not know.”
The H-1B petition Chill refers to allows employers to temporarily employ international workers, but also has fees associated with it. This is not the case for CPT and OPT, making it much easier than employers may realize.
“You do not know who is going to be in front of you at a career fair. They may have a policy of ‘we do not hire international students,’ but see if they have sponsored students before,” Witt advises. “If you gently say, ‘I see you have sponsored international students in the past,’ they may take your resume.”
“Students need to be knowledgeable and control the conversation,” she adds. “It may be the employer’s policy, but it is not law, and they may be willing to bend policy if they like a candidate.”
How to Find a Summer Internship
Before you start submitting applications to any internship, you want to find industries, companies, and roles that seem like a good fit.
If you are open to many possible paths and are hoping an internship can help you narrow down what you want to pursue after graduation, Chill recommends getting as involved as possible. “Take on projects or research,” she recommends. “Gain experience among different functional areas in your field to get an idea of what you may want to do more of.”
She also recommends researching companies ahead of time to find organizations whose values align with your own. “Values are a great initial indicator of finding an organization that is a good fit for you,” she says. Understanding the company’s mission and goals allows you to avoid organizations that, while they may have the right job for you, may be the wrong place overall.
To conduct thorough research, Witt recommends students read the company’s LinkedIn page, the company website, and reviews on Glassdoor. “Notice when you’re reading what pulls on your heartstrings, or makes you think ‘wow, that’s cool they’re doing that’ or ‘I want to do that!’”
The next step is to do informational interviews. Identify alumni who are in roles that you think you would like. Reach out to them on LinkedIn and see if they would be willing to talk about their path to their job role and what they recommend to you. Informational interviews like this may even lead to an internship.
Ultimately, Witt recommends focusing on three key factors for any job:
What is the role? Explore different options you have with your degree path. Which ones interest you most?
What is the location? Witt recommends using the Occupational Outlook Handbook to search for a particular role and then clicking the “state & area data” tab so you can see where, by concentration, jobs are focused.
What is the industry? Who are you serving — who are the customers and what is the market?
Best Practices for Applying to Summer Internships
Students often think that if you look for an internship online and submit your application online, you have a good chance of getting the internship. However, “that is the hardest way to get an internship,” says Witt.
When applying for an internship, you ultimately want to “talk to humans,” as Witt says. The majority of internships are not posted online and even the ones that are may ultimately be offered to an applicant whom a recruiter talked to at a career fair or who talked with an alumnus from the company.
Witt recommends students attend career fairs to talk to recruiters and employers in person. She also recommends Handshake, a job posting software program that most colleges and universities use to connect students with potential employers, or any university job board. “Connect with students from other schools who have worked at the company,” she adds.
Finally, use LinkedIn to connect with people you already know and ask them to introduce you to their connections. Or, you may look for alumni from your school who are already working for the company that interests you. Reach out to see if you can set up informational interviews with them.
If you are invited to interview for a position, Chill recommends practicing how to talk about your skills in a question-and-answer format. “You need to be able to speak to your specific interest in the company and why you are a good fit,” she says.
“It all comes down to practice,” stresses Chill, noting that it is never too early to start preparing your resume, writing cover letters, doing company research, and preparing for interviews. Some questions she helps students prepare for include:
Why this internship?
Why this company?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
How would an internship like this help your future career?
What are your strengths/weaknesses?
Tell me about a time you had a difficult teammate or supervisor and how did you make it work?
“Take the job description and turn each line into question, and be able to answer that question,” she adds.
Start thinking now about how you can speak about yourself and practice answering in a conversational way versus memorizing a script.
Witt also recommends being aware of cultural differences. “Talking about yourself, your plans, your strengths, is not bragging. It is showing the employer what your goals are. But talking about yourself can feel very uncomfortable,” she says.
She also has worked with students on making eye contact with their interviewer. Her tip: “Look at the forehead between their eyes so you are comfortable, but you also appear to be looking someone in the eye.”
Virtual Internships with Career Premium
Career Premium, a virtual internship program, is designed specifically for international students. The program helps you apply for eight-week remote internships at top US companies. This allows you to gain valuable experience that does not count against your CPT or OPT time.
Career Premium begins with professional training before your internship starts. Along the way, you receive coaching and mentorship from experts in your field. You then apply your skills to real-world projects, giving you the resume-building experience you need to land a job.
Whether you decide to pursue a virtual internship, an in-person internship, or both, Chill likes to remind students it is a numbers game. So, prepare to send tailored resumes and cover letters to dozens of organizations, depending on the industry. It is extremely rare to apply to one or two organizations and even get an interview.
Witt also stresses the importance of applying for opportunities even when you think you meet only 80% of what the job posting includes.
“Students tell themselves ‘no’ all the time,” she says. “Never tell yourself no.”
If you are prepared to put in the time at the beginning of the process and pursue paths that may take you past your comfort zone, you set yourself up to reap the rewards of an invaluable internship experience.
Shorelight Career Services can help you build valuable work experience >