How to Land an Internship in High School

How to Land an Internship in High School

While my examples in this article focus on my experience applying to tech internships in high school, you can definitely adapt these principles to whichever field interests you. Good luck!

In high school, I realized my passion for Computer Science pretty early but struggled to find ways to learn more about the field and apply my skills. In my junior (3rd) year of high school, I learned about internships that my fellow students were doing and decided to apply for some. After many rejections, I continually improved my resume, application strategies, and interview techniques. By the end of high school, I used what I learned to secure internship offers at a startup, tech nonprofit, and government agency (NASA) during my junior and senior years of high school. Now, I’d like to share these takeaways with you.

Have A Solid Plan (and write it down!)

It’s one thing to know what you want; it’s another to have a well-thought-out plan written down to really help you strategize and prioritize how you’ll be spending your time applying to positions from now until summer.

Here’s how you can write an effective plan for landing your internship:

  1. Start with your key takeaway/goal you’d like for your internship. It should be one sentence.
    1. Here was mine: “I’d like to take part in an internship that lets me use my Python, Web development, and User Experience design skills to improve a product used in the real world.”
  2. Assemble a list of opportunities that will help you accomplish this goal. See the Put Your Best Foot Forward (Applying) section for ways to look for these opportunities.
  3. Think about the top 3-5 opportunities on this list and what common factors they look for in candidates. These are your focus for personal development.
  4. In addition to applying and interviewing, spend time taking courses or working on individual projects that can help you boost your skillset and resume for those core areas.
    1. For example, as a prospective CS major, I had been scripting in Python and developing static websites in HTML and CSS. Some high-level skills I gained from these experiences were a better understanding and intuition for well-designed user interfaces. I knew how to recognize great designs and find pain points in poor ones. This came in handy at 2 out of my 3 internships. Now, as a Product Management Intern at Salesforce, I still use what I learned then.
  5. Stay consistent and keep track of your progress with your applications. This includes tracking their deadlines! Apply early, especially to programs with rolling admission.

Start Early If You Can

Obviously, this is out of your control if you’re 3 months or less away from summer. But if you’re at least 4 months away, you’ll be able to make the most of this article’s tips.

Again, don’t sweat it if you’re running out of time. Personally, I landed my startup and nonprofit internships in June and my NASA internship in August (ended up being part-time during the school year). Though I thoroughly enjoyed both, neither was a full-time role and that limited the value I could add to the organizations and vice versa.

At the time of this article's release (August), it's a great time to think about next summer. Though many opportunities haven't released their application, it's never to early to develop your plan and set the proper dates for when to check for applications and when to submit them.

Weigh Your Tradeoffs

Let me start by saying that I hate unpaid internships. I really wish companies would stop posting positions where they work you relentlessly with the promise of “an amazing learning experience.” That’s a given for any internship.

This being said, sometimes the opportunities you want will run out of spots. When worst comes to worst, you may have to create your own opportunities. The startup that hired me wasn’t looking for any interns. I “created” my own unpaid internship with them by reaching out to the CEO and asking if they could use my help. I had to do this since all of the paid opportunities that caught my eye had rejected me.

An unpaid internship won’t be desirable for everyone that reads this article. But if your overall goal is to boost your resume for future roles or college applications, an unpaid internship beats no internship at all.

Put Your Best Foot Forward (Applying)

Since you are in high school, apply to as many opportunities as possible. You’d rather have multiple opportunities in hand and say no to some of them than have nothing in hand because you applied too selectively.

If you’re looking for a list to start out with, I’ve written another article on my most [recommended high school internships](https://www.internexpert.org/hs-internships-list/).

It's also important to prepare an amazing resume and cover letter. With your cover letter, having a strong base that you can use when applying to multiple companies is a good starting point. It would include general information about your most important past experiences. The rest of the cover letter would need to be personalized according to the company you're applying to.

For further tips on sharpening these two parts of your resume, check the appendix at the bottom of this article.

Leverage Your Advantages

Yes, you heard that right. I know what you’re thinking: what advantages could I possibly have as a high schooler?

It doesn't take a college degree to have

  1. Enthusiasm: If you bring a sense of genuine, positive energy to your interviews, the people interviewing you will recognize you as someone they want to work with. Sometimes, this can outweigh your technical knowledge.
  2. Unique experience: Starting a club, playing sports, boy scouts, etc. are all examples of unique experiences you can talk about when answering interview questions with your dream program. Make sure to check the next section to structure your answers effectively.
  3. A student's perspective. This can be especially useful if the company's customer segment includes students.

Optionally, if you're willing to do an unpaid internship in the worst case, you'll have a direct edge over competing applicants who demand high wages. Startups want cheap labor, so you'll be very valuable to them.

How to Interview

Finally, the day has come. You’ve applied to tons of interesting internships, gotten some nibbles, and your in-person interview with a prospective manager has been scheduled.

Remember to be polite to everyone you meet and give it your all in the interview! If the interviewers know you’re in high school, they’ll probably ask you more behavioral questions to explain how past experiences have made you a good fit for the role. I recommend structuring your answers to such questions with STAR:

  • Situation: Describe the when and where. Was this during a previous internship? With a club you're a part of at school?
  • Task: This is the ‘what’ part of your answer. What were you trying to accomplish?
  • Action: How did you approach the task? For example, if the question asks how you dealt with conflict, detail the strategies you used and communicate clearly that you applied a structured approach to solving that conflict.
  • Result: Be sure to quantify some outcome as a result of your action. This will really help explain why this experience is an insightful story that explains your ability to work for the interviewer’s company.

Here’s an example to help you practice STAR for your own personal experiences:

Interviewer: Describe a time when you disagreed with your supervisor on how to accomplish something.

Me: Absolutely. During my software engineering internship at Amazon, a senior engineer questioned a certain design choice I made in my Java code for storing healthcare data. Usually, we’re taught to respect the decision of our superiors and do as they tell us, but one of Amazon’s leadership principles is “have backbone; disagree and commit” so I decided to hold my ground and explain why I believed my implementation was correct. Since it was a software design decision, I compared my and his choices side by side with an emphasis on the effect on runtime and memory usage. I explained how space usage was identical for both but runtime was faster for the way I had implemented the program. After getting the engineer on board with my decision, the result was an order of magnitude (10x) speedup in the worst-case scenario for our program.

Another tip for practicing behavioral questions is to create a behavioral answers matrix (I learned this technique from Cracking the Coding Interview). Write down your different experiences (clubs, past positions, leadership experiences, etc.) along the top row and the below topics on the leftmost column. Fill in as many boxes as you can that show when you faced a certain topic in one or more of the experiences.

This matrix is a great tool for virtual/phone interviews as well since you can have it open for reference.

Appendix

If you're interested in the startup and nonprofit where I interned:

Other Resources