How International Students Can Apply for Summer Internships

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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on March 13, 2024

Landing a competitive summer internship starts long before the interview process with finding internships in your field, knowing the best practices for submitting your application, and navigating visa considerations.

A male international student from South Asia wears a dress shirt and tie and sits at a conference table speaking to colleagues at his internship

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 experts Brittany Chill and Torrie Kalm. That means for Summer 2025 internships, companies are likely looking in Fall 2024. 

If you wait until April to look for a summer internship, “you most likely missed your window of prime opportunity,” emphasizes Kalm. However, “companies are continually hiring, and even if the role isn’t your primary preference, it’s beneficial to weigh the experience it could provide for enhancing your resume,” she says. 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 a student 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.

There are companies that have hired and sponsored international students in the past. The Career Services team 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 typically do not understand work authorization rules for international students. For these companies, Kalm says, “students must be well versed in the process for work authorizations so they can assist employers and ensure they are adhering to all legal guidelines,” 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 student 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. 

In the context of a career fair, Kalm suggests being prepared for the unknown individuals you may encounter. Some companies might have a policy against hiring international students, but Kalm recommends checking if they have sponsored students previously.

Kalm emphasizes the importance of students being well-informed and steering the conversation. While a company may have a specific policy, it’s crucial to recognize that policies aren’t absolute laws. Employers might be open to updating their policies, especially if they find a candidate they like.

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 ensure comprehensive preparation, Kalm advises students to thoroughly investigate the company. She suggests exploring the company’s LinkedIn page, official website, and reviews on Glassdoor. Pay attention to what resonates with you during your research.

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.

Kalm recommends focusing on the following three questions when researching for any job:

  1. What's the role you're aiming for? Explore various career options aligned with your degree path and identify which ones pique your interest the most.

  2. Concerned about location? Kalm suggests utilizing the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Search for your desired role and click on the “state & area data” tab to pinpoint where jobs are concentrated.

  3. Considering the industry? Delve into understanding your target market, customers, and industry dynamics.

Best Practices for Applying to Summer Internships

Many students believe that applying for internships online guarantees a good chance of success. However, Kalm asserts that it’s actually the most challenging route to securing an internship.

To maximize your chances, Kalm advises aspiring interns to engage in direct conversations. Most student internship opportunities are not publicly posted, and even those available online might be awarded to applicants who have personally connected with recruiters at career fairs or with alumni who now work at the company.

So, go after those personal connections: Kalm recommends attending career fairs to have face-to-face interactions with recruiters and employers. Additionally, she suggests utilizing platforms like Handshake, commonly used by colleges and universities, to connect with potential employers. In addition, “joining industry specific groups and networking with students from other institutions who have previously worked at the company can also be advantageous,” Kalm says.

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.  

Kalm emphasizes the importance of recognizing cultural nuances. “Discussing your aspirations, plans, and strengths isn’t boasting; it’s a way to communicate your goals to potential employers,” she says. However, she acknowledges that talking about oneself can be awkward, so it is important to show employers how you can be a value added to their organization. 

Body language, including making eye contact, is also important at an internship interview, and yes, you can practice in advance! For example, Kalm suggests working with a friend to focus on the forehead between the interviewer’s eyes to strike a balance between comfort and the appearance of direct eye contact.

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 student 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.

Kalm underscores the significance of pursuing opportunities, even if you think you might not completely meet the job posting requirements.

“Students often talk themselves out of applying,” she notes. “Refuse to dismiss yourself. Embrace the uncertainty and go for it.”

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 student internship experience.

Shorelight Career Services can help you build valuable work experience