For international students, an internship in America can be one of the biggest benefits of studying in the US. Your first internship is the foundation for your resume and future career experience. While preparing for, finding, applying to, and — most importantly — landing your dream internship is a lot of work, the benefits are worth it.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an average of 57.6% of interns are offered full-time employment opportunities after completing their internship
So, if you are starting your search for your first internship, keep reading: Our guide will go over the important steps you’ll encounter along the way.
Internships & Visa for International Students
As an international student, remember that your student visa outlines your terms and conditions for employment while in the US, and this includes internships. To understand how to get internships in the USA, knowing what your visa allows and doesn’t allow regarding internships is important, especially to maintain your eligibility status as an international student in your US college or university. Each student visa has its own specific internship conditions.
F-1 Visa Students
Can F-1 students do internships? Yes! With an F-1 student visa, the primary purpose of your travel to the US is to complete a degree program at an accredited university or college. This visa allows you to apply for an internship in the USA for international students, with assistance from your university. Keep in mind that some programs may even require an internship as part of your program, in the form of Curricular Practical Training (CPT).
With an F-1 visa USA internship, you may not work off campus during the first academic year, but you can accept on-campus employment opportunities. With permission from your university, you can work off campus.
Through CPT, your internship must be related to your degree program and you must have completed your first year of university. You also need to apply for CPT authorization and obtain an updated I-20 form to begin an internship in America.
Upon completion of your program at university, you can also apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). You can apply for OPT during your studies as well; this type of work assignment is known as pre-completion OPT. Pre-completion OPT programs limit working hours to a maximum of 20 hours per week while school is in session, but allow for full-time working hours during academic breaks and annual vacation. Post-completion OPT allows you to work full time in the US for up to 12 months with approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). With a STEM-related degree, you can request up to two additional years of OPT!
J-1 Visa Students
Students with a J-1 student visa are usually enrolled in work- or study-based exchange visitor programs, approved by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While J-1 students cannot apply for OPT, they are able to apply for Academic Training (AT) in a field related to their program for up to 18 months after graduating.
Visa holders who want to complete an internship in the USA for international students without enrolling in a degree program can choose to apply for a J-1 Intern or J-1 Trainee visa. Keep in mind that, for internship roles, most businesses require you to be enrolled in a college or university or have graduated in the last 12 months. For trainee roles, having a degree and previous working experience outside the US may be required. If you are a J-1 university student who is pursuing or recently completed your studies in a STEM-related field, you have the unique opportunity to extend your academic training period and stay in the US for a total of 36 months!
As J-1 students must be sponsored by an accredited educational or other nonprofit institution, you may be able to find internship placements through your sponsor. Some sponsors may include an internship placement as part of your program, while others may provide this as a service for an additional fee.
Whether you are a F-1 student or a J-1 student, finding an internship in the US by yourself can be challenging. By preparing a career action plan in advance, you can create a process to follow after you arrive in the States – and can fine tune your plan with the help of an advisor.
Create a Career Action Plan
Your career action plan lists your professional goals and the steps to achieve them. Additionally, by creating an action plan, you can identify your strengths and professional interests. Use your career action plan to narrow down your options for internships, consider your methods for how to get an internship in the USA, and find opportunities that are specialized in the career you want to work toward.
With your career action plan, prepare a detailed list of steps to take during your internship search. This structured approach helps you schedule your time better to balance your studies alongside looking for internship opportunities.
A good first step in your career action plan is to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, work experience, and interests. From there, you will have a list you can turn into your resume.
Work on Your Resume
Some universities and colleges in the US (including Shorelight universities) offer dedicated resources to help you create and maintain your resume. These include workshops that teach you how resumes in the US differ from CVs in other countries and the way resumes are made in the US. For example, you do not include your photo or marital status in a US resume, and most US resumes are only one page or less.
If you don’t know where to start with your resume, you can find millions of resume examples and templates by searching online. You should also meet with your career counselor or Career Accelerator program advisor for help on how to write a resume. Working with an experienced advisor makes applying for your first internship in America less daunting.
Tip: Have others check your resume before you apply. Don’t be afraid of negative feedback. Share your resume with family members, career counselors, and friends. Ask for comments. It is better to find out before you apply that you misspelled a word or left out a good talking point.
A Shorelight advisor can also support you with advice about soft skills for college students that employers seek out, virtual internships, F-1 visa USA internship and J-1 visa working conditions, and international student internship requirements. They can also direct you to academic support services, provide you with visa assistance, help you write cover letters, and more.
Cover Letter for Internships
A cover letter is a document submitted with your resume when applying for an internship in the USA for international students or for job opportunities. The letter is usually one page long and contains a brief overview of your personal work history, skills, talents, and interests. A cover letter is usually specific to the job you are applying for, as it aligns your personal qualities and qualifications with the responsibilities outlined in the role description.
When you write a new cover letter, support what you have included in your resume. Your letter may also cover additional achievements or qualifications relevant to a job role that may not be covered in your resume. Finally, your cover letter is a chance to explain how your experiences and knowledge contribute to your potential performance in the role and how you would be a good fit for the organization.
When writing your cover letter, be sure to take the following steps:
List your contact information and the employer’s details—This includes your information and key details from the employer, such as your name and address alongside the hiring manager’s name or department. You can also include your LinkedIn profile and/or links to your portfolio, if you feel it is appropriate.
Directly address the hiring manager—Cover letters begin similarly to regular letters, so they should be addressed to the recipient. If you are not sure about their title or name, you can refer to them by their designation or department, such as “Hiring Manager” or “Marketing”. (You may also be able to find their official title on LinkedIn.)
Write a clear introduction—Your introduction should clearly indicate the role you are applying for, the company name, how you found out about the position, and that you are applying for the role.
List details about yourself—Following your introduction, tell the recipient about yourself, including your qualifications, knowledge, awards achieved, and strengths. Use this section to also briefly talk about your personal motivations, ambitions, and future plans to give the organization a better idea of who you are. Rather than just repeating the information listed on your resume, remember to use your letter to specifically address the job role and how you would be a good organizational and cultural fit. You can also list any extracurricular activities that relate to the skills required in the job role or at the organization overall.
Conclude politely—Do not include any new information in your conclusion. End your cover letter by summarizing briefly why you would be an ideal hire, stating your enthusiasm for the opportunity, and thanking the hiring manager.
Now that you have a clear understanding of what it takes to write the ideal cover letter for your application, the next step involves finding the right internship opportunities!
Finding an Internship in the United States
Once you have completed your career action plan, you can start looking into how to get an internship as an international student. Make a shortlist of roles to apply for. In the US, there are many dedicated employment sites which list unpaid and paid internships for international students.
LinkedIn—A great place to find internships with major companies, LinkedIn is the current king of professional networking websites.
Internships.com—This Chegg-owned website lists thousands of internships for college students from cities all over the country.
Indeed.com—An aggregate site similar to Internships.com, Indeed.com offers thousands of open positions, advice and templates for cover letters, resumes, job interviews, and more.
As you pursue your degree, take the time to network with your fellow students, professors, and even guest lecturers. Each person you meet is a valuable addition to your professional network who can help connect you with unique internship opportunities or even jobs in the long term.
You can also take advantage of on-campus career fairs and job boards to connect with employers near your university. Many organizations attending career fairs and listing offers on job boards work with universities to provide internship or entry-level opportunities that help students gain professional experience. With the Shorelight Career Accelerator, you can connect with top employers in the US and even start a virtual internship from your home country.
When you find an internship position that suits you, check to see whether it is paid or unpaid.
Paid vs Unpaid Internships
Internships in the USA for international students can be offered with or without pay, and this often depends on the nature of the industry, the specific company offering the internship, and whether there is a lot of competition for available internship roles. Typically, companies specify if an internship is paid or unpaid in the job description, or this information is mentioned when you are being interviewed. Specific working experiences, learning opportunities, and responsibilities available through a paid internship can be different compared to unpaid internships, so consider these factors when deciding where to apply.
In general, paid internships are designed to have more specific responsibilities, with a higher scope of work and tasks compared to unpaid internships. You may contribute a maximum of 20 hours per week, depending on your visa, and pay levels may be based on the technical requirements of your role on an hourly or salary basis.
A paid internship in the USA for international students can offer a glimpse of what it’s like to have a permanent job role, as the tasks of your job may require more responsibility and results compared to an unpaid internship. A recent study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that students with paid internships are offered a higher number of job offers compared to unpaid internships, making it an ideal option for those who have a clearly defined career path.
For students looking for a rewarding learning experience, identifying professional specializations and interests, developing interpersonal skills, earning college credits towards graduation, and understanding the US work culture, an unpaid internship can be an ideal learning opportunity. You can dedicate a maximum of 20 hours of work per week to an unpaid internship.
Compared to paid internships, there is a wider range of unpaid internships in the USA for international students to choose from, giving you a broader scale of opportunities. With an unpaid internship, you can explore, experiment, and understand individual roles and responsibilities across a diverse array of industries and companies. Taking advantage of this sneak peek of a real-world work experience can provide valuable insights to make informed career decisions for your future!
After you decide if you would like to take up a paid or unpaid internship role, the next step is to apply for it!
Apply for an Internship
After you have had a good understanding on how to get an internship as an international student, created an action plan for your internship search, finalized your resume and cover letter, and narrowed down your best possible opportunities, it is time to begin applying.
Remember to apply to both unpaid and paid internships for international students. While it is great to find a paid internship in America, these are often very competitive, and many companies (especially smaller organizations) find it easier to hire an unpaid intern.
Many organizations in the US post their applications online via job boards, LinkedIn, or other career-seeking websites. Usually, you can apply for roles found on these platforms by submitting a digital version of your resume and cover letter (if required), though some organizations may direct you to their own specific application platform. Visiting organizations (especially smaller businesses) in person and inquiring about internships can also be a viable option as you may have a chance to directly meet the hiring manager and make a friendly introduction.
If you do not immediately receive responses to your internship applications, don’t be discouraged! There are many organizations all around the US that can offer you unique opportunities and experiences. Stay positive, keep your options open, and work together with your advisor to find your ideal internship in the USA for international students. You can also consider practicing for the interview to boost your confidence!
Practice for the Internship Interview
If you have made it to the interview stage, that means the hiring manager sees promise in your application. Make sure you keep your momentum rolling by preparing for the interview.
You will likely have a phone interview first. Your first phone interview is usually a general conversation about the position, you, and your background. You may also have more phone interviews with other members of the team, or be asked to come in for a face-to-face discussion. Either way, here are some great ways to prepare for any interview:
Talk to previous interns—Previous interns offer advice to give you a better idea of what the role entails and what interviewers are looking for from other students or young professionals.
Review common interview questions—A Google search is a great place to start, and you may even be able to search by company. Compile a list of common questions you think you might be asked and make sure you have answers in mind before your interview.
Develop a list of good questions to ask—Hiring managers love to see that you researched the company before you applied. Ask specific questions about your role, the team, and company priorities.
Practice—Have your friends or family members interview you, asking the questions you have gathered from your research. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel when the time comes for the real interview.
Dress professionally—This may sound obvious, but make sure you look responsible and professional when you go in for the face-to-face interview.
Your university or college will likely have a career center that helps international students like you learn more about how to apply for an internship in the USA. You can visit the career center and work with staff experts who can help you prepare with practice interviews, company advice, and more. Working with career counselors can be more effective than practicing with friends or family, as it can feel more like being interviewed by a professional you have not met before.
Before your interview, you can prepare a set of mock interview questions they may ask, and a set of questions you may want to ask your future employer regarding the company and their work environment.
Additionally, remember to practice your spoken English and research terms and words related to the job role that could be brought up during your interview. In doing so, you’ll show the interviewer that you’ve done your research and are committed to securing an internship in the USA for international students.
Once you have applied to several organizations, consider following up on your application. While this is not a mandatory part of the application process, it can show your enthusiasm for the role and help you stand out to employers.
You can follow up your application with either an email or a phone call, but it is important to make sure you do not inconvenience the hiring manager and/or staff. Some applications may specify not to contact the hiring manager after you apply, so be sure to check in advance and respect the employer’s wishes.
Keep the following points in mind if you decide to contact the organization:
Wait at least two weeks after sending in your application before following up
Be polite, brief, and clear
Re-express your enthusiasm for the role and your interest in the organization
Only contact the individual listed as a contact on the application
It is ideal to use email whenever possible, as this is the least intrusive way to follow up. If you decide to call, avoid the most active business hours, such as opening and closing times.
If you were able to secure an interview, make sure to send a follow-up email to the interviewer thanking them for the opportunity. This can make a strong and positive impression on the interviewer.
What to Expect Working in the USA
In an internship position, you may have the opportunity to speak to and work with company directors, managers, and other interns in different departments. Depending on how large and versatile your company’s scope of work is, you may have access to a range of responsibilities and learning opportunities.
Similarly, working as an international student in the US exposes you to different types of people from a variety of cultures. It offers a space for you to learn to be flexible, adapt, and empathize with other people and their opinions in a professional manner. You can expect to have a better understanding of workplace culture and expand your professional network with your internship experience!
As you dive into your role, you may notice interactions, policies, and behaviors may be different from what you are used to in your home country (or other companies where you may have worked previously). You may find your new company culture has particular ways of communicating, being social, and collaborating as a team.
Take note of how formal or informal your meetings are. Is everyone referred to by their first name? Where does everyone have lunch? How is teamwork perceived in your company? All these factors contribute to workplace culture. Understanding and adapting to your workplace norms, without necessarily losing your originality, can help you integrate successfully into the US work environment.
Here are some tips to get a better understanding of your company’s culture:
Follow your company’s social media channels
Listen and observe how people behave, especially during the first few days
If your colleagues seem approachable, ask them about how things are done and preferred practices
Be open to making mistakes – and learn from them!
Social Life in the United States
Landing your internship is beneficial academically, professionally, and socially. Having a balanced social life in the US is vital to help you enjoy your overseas educational and work experience. As you get used to US culture, you can gain confidence interacting with others in the workplace and outside too, which can expand your social opportunities and help you feel more comfortable. Depending on the type of work environment where you get an internship, many of your new colleagues may become friends.
Navigating through a new experience like an internship may seem challenging, but taking a step-by-step approach and setting realistic and achievable goals can help you through the process.
Have Realistic Expectations
When you start searching for internships, having realistic expectations throughout the process can help you make the right decisions. For example, it is worth remembering that large and well-known companies often have highly competitive recruitment, and it can be difficult to get a position as there are many candidates vying for the same role.
Applying to smaller or little-known organizations for internships can improve your chances of being chosen. Additionally, many of these organizations offer more personalized training and hands-on experience due to their smaller size, which gives you a chance to develop unique knowledge and skills.
Remember, this is a learning experience — you may make several mistakes, but the most important part is to learn from these so you can grow as a professional.
Learn from Your Mistakes
In the beginning, you may make some mistakes during your internship experience, and this is completely normal. Starting as a new intern in the US can be challenging, even if you have previous professional experience. It is important to be patient and ask as many questions as you can about your work and contributions to the team. This shows your initiative to your employer and helps you perform better at your job.
Learn from your mistakes and seek advice from senior staff about how to overcome any issues you encounter at work. As you learn from your coworkers and spend more time at your internship in the USA for international students, you can develop valuable skills and experiences that enable you to grow as a professional.
Follow these tips and you will be in a great position to get your first internship in America. Do not get discouraged if you receive a few rejections. Instead, use rejection as an opportunity to learn. Ask the hiring manager what they think you can do to improve or what you were missing compared to other applicants they reviewed and hired.
If you get the role, always conduct yourself professionally and do your best. An excellent recommendation from an internship may lead to a permanent position. No matter what happens, researching roles, getting your documents in order, and applying for internships is a great experience for when you apply to full-time jobs after graduation.
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