When to Apply for Summer Internships

March 5, 2024

when to apply for summer internships

Are you interested in making the most of your summer break? Summer internships provide opportunities to gain valuable experience, develop professional networks, and explore potential career paths. Preparing for and securing a summer internship requires some advanced planning, though. In particular, you’ll need to know you should apply for summer internships. Hint: It’s earlier than you think!

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a Summer Internship?
  • The Benefits of a Summer Internship
  • How to Find Summer Internships
  • When to Apply for Summer Internships
  • Summer Internship Application Tips

Before we dive in, know that a summer internship is not the only way to gain valuable life and career skills. For many students, personal, familial, or financial circumstances might prevent them from pursuing internships—particularly unpaid internships. That’s okay! Likewise, there are benefits to spending one’s summer break in pursuit of other types of experiences, including volunteer opportunities or travel.

What is a Summer Internship?

Summer internships are work opportunities that run from eight to twelve weeks during a student’s summer break. Unlike many summer jobs, summer internships are designed specifically for high school or college students and offer a more reciprocal professional arrangement—with the benefits and specific duties clearly outlined. Moreover, summer internships often include structured opportunities for mentorship and career guidance in one’s academic field.

While there are part-time summer internships, most summer internships tend to be immersive and full-time. This allows students to have complete, comprehensive experiences in a short amount of time, and without having to balance academic responsibilities.

Some internships are compensated, and some provide school credit. Meanwhile, unpaid internships remain common. Note that even unpaid internships should follow the guidelines established by the US Department of Labor in the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act). Increasingly, ethical and economic arguments have been made against unpaid internships. Your own circumstances and values will determine whether you’ll want to consider an unpaid internship, but regardless remember that internships are meant to be mutually beneficial, not merely an opportunity for companies to exploit free labor.

The Benefits of a Summer Internship

Summer internships allow students to explore career interests and enhance their professional networks and resumes. Internships pursued during high school can help students identify professional goals and narrow their college search accordingly, while also strengthening their applications. Internships constitute work or extracurricular experiences, and can also result in strong letters of recommendation.

Meanwhile, internships early in college can help students hone in on or solidify their academic interests, whereas internships towards the end of college prepare students for their careers and can even lead to job offers.

Specifically, benefits include:

  • Are you interested in a career in the medical field, but don’t know what kind of role would be a good fit? Medical internships allow you to try out different roles before you commit to a particular path. Likewise, are you interested in computer science, but don’t know what a career in the field would entail? Check out a computer science internship. Overall, internships are a commitment, but can save you a lot of time and energy later on by helping you focus on or rule out certain career paths. Even an internship that ends up not being a good fit provides valuable insights. It is better to realize a career is not for you before you go all in!
  • Insights into a particular industry. What’s the culture like at an advertising agency? At a publishing house? At a tech company? What are the daily operations of a medical office? A law firm? With a summer internship, you’ll be able to experience a sector or role first hand. This will prepare you for a future career in that field (or a related one), and ensure a smoother transition out of school and into a profession.

When to Apply for Summer Internships (Continued)

Note that even a seemingly less-relevant internship opportunity can provide valuable insights into an industry as a whole. Let’s say you’re committed to pursuing political journalism, but end up with an internship at a fashion blog (i.e. the plot of every early 2000s rom-com). You’ll still gain insights regarding what it takes to churn out writing, navigate different publishing mediums, work with sources, etc.

Skill Development

Typically, summer interns are assigned individual projects and assume very real responsibilities. They acquire skills and training that will serve them well professionally, even if they decide against a career in that specific field. Depending on the field and the internship, one may also end up with tangible evidence of experience in the form of a portfolio, publications, or certifications.

Networking Opportunities

Summer internships provide opportunities to connect with leaders in your intended (or a related) field. Building strong relationships with employers, colleagues, and even fellow interns during your internship can pay off long after the internship itself concludes. Often, you’ll end up with invitations to industry events, helpful contacts, and a list of references.

Resume Enhancement

Speaking of references, internships look great on one’s resume. They demonstrate commitment to a particular industry or sector, concrete evidence of professional experience, and initiative. Depending on one’s career path, summer internships often make an applicant more qualified for certain positions.

Payment, School Credit, and/or Opportunities for Permanent Employment

As noted, some summer internships are paid and/or entail additional benefits and opportunities (travel stipends, housing, etc.). Other summer internships can count for course credit, though you should absolutely confirm your school’s policies first. That is, even if an internship lists school credit as a benefit, you’ll need to check with your school first and also confirm eligibility and any documentation requirements. Finally, sometimes employers end up offering interns permanent positions or seek out current and former interns first when positions open up before they advertise an open position more widely. In fact, this demonstrates how summer internships benefit employers as well.

By offering internship opportunities, they’ll often end up with a pool of known, qualified candidates from which to recruit for permanent positions. Moreover, internships tend to reduce labor costs for employers. Even paid interns are typically compensated less than regular employees, and assigning one-off projects to temporary interns is less expensive than contracting out certain types of work.

Moreover, providing summer internship opportunities strengthens relationships between companies/brands and younger demographics or local communities. Interns often bring a valuable perspective to a company and provide permanent employees opportunities for professional development (mentoring, development of trainings, etc.). In short, a well-designed summer internship should be mutually beneficial and enriching, and should not leave any participants feeling exploited.

How to Find Summer Internships

First, you should decide on an industry or sector. Think about what you want to gain from a summer internship. Are you looking to try out a career path? Then try to land an internship in that specific field. Are you more interested in developing transferrable skills? Consider broadening your internship search beyond your immediate academic field. Remember that not every internship will check every box. Be flexible and open-minded in your search.

Many colleges offer co-op programs or facilitate internship opportunities. If you know that gaining hands-on work experience is important to you, factor this into your college search. In general, schools with strong career service offerings tend to prioritize connecting students with internships and maintain strong relationships with local employers. Likewise, school counselors often keep track of internship opportunities.

Attending career fairs can help you focus your search and gain insights into a company before you even apply for an internship.

You can also search for internship opportunities online by:

  • Checking the websites and social media pages of specific companies in which you are interested.
  • Perusing sites like LinkedIn and Indeed.
  • Finding lists of industry-specific internships, such as those in business or computer science.

Finally, don’t underestimate old-fashioned approaches, including word-of-mouth tactics and cold calling. Ask friends, family, and, especially, older students if they know of any opportunities. Reach out to a company’s HR department to ask about any openings.

When to Apply for Summer Internships

For high school students, the “best” time for a summer internship is after your junior year—before you begin applying to colleges or when you’re deciding if to apply to college. Internships after your senior year can be beneficial as well, particularly those that provide college credit or are intended to help you solidify your academic interests. However, for all students, it’s never really too early to begin applying to internships, particularly if you are interested in pursuing a variety of experiences or planning to pursue repeat internships with a particular employer.

In college, many college students pursue internships after their junior and senior years as they prepare for permanent employment. However, internships at earlier points can position one well for more competitive internships later on.

Note that applications for summer internships open well before summer—as early as October/November—and typically close in late January or February. However, you can begin your search as early as a year in advance. In fact, the best time to learn about internship opportunities for next summer is often as the current summer is coming to a close (i.e. in August of 2024 in preparation for a Summer 2025 internship).

When to Apply for Summer Internships (Continued)

Most students will apply either during winter break or at the beginning of the spring semester, although you should be on the lookout for earlier deadlines. Likewise, plenty of companies will continue recruiting summer interns well into the spring should you miss earlier deadlines.

Remember that summer internships can be competitive and often have multiple applicants for each position. The more prompt you are with your application, the greater your chances of landing the internship. Familiarize yourself with deadlines and start preparing early by asking around and crafting your resume. Some internships will have strict deadlines and firm requirements, whereas others will have a more flexible process. Remember that the more structured the application process, the more structured the internship (which may or may not be important to you).

Summer Internship Application Tips – When should I apply for summer internships?

  • Craft a strong resume and cover letter. Don’t be afraid to develop several different versions of your resume to submit for different types of internships. Likewise, avoid generic cover letters and instead tailor each one to the specific internship for which you are applying.
  • Prepare for Interviews. Depending on the size and competitiveness of the internship program to which you are applying, you may be required to attend one or more interviews—either virtual or in-person, group or individual. Do your research, anticipate potential questions, and prepare some talking points.
  • Following the submission of your application and/or your interview, feel free to follow up occasionally about the status of your application and to ask whether you can provide any additional information.
  • Keep your Options Open. As with college applications, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply for multiple summer internships while perhaps also pursuing other summer opportunities. Remember that, as with any other professional opportunity, you are not obligated to accept an offer for a summer internship. It is acceptable for your interests or circumstances to change between the application period and the start of summer. Likewise, it is acceptable to ask for more information about the internship or clarify the details in advance of accepting. No matter what, remember to stay professional and communicate your decision as early as possible in order to maintain the relationship.