As you start thinking about life after college, you may hear that internships are the most important stepping stones to your first job. And they are often the simplest and most traditional way to build up your resume so you can land a full-time job. In many fields, having internship experience gives you a leg up in pursuing an entry-level job, and in some, it might even be seen as a sort of requirement—a signal that you’ve “paid your dues” or “shown how invested you are in the career path”—leaving you at a disadvantage if you don’t do an internship.
Unfortunately, many internships are unpaid or low paying and, depending on your career path, can require you to spend a few months living in expensive geographic areas like New York City, San Francisco, or Washington D.C. This puts internships out of reach for many students and recent grads who can’t support themselves (and possibly others they’re responsible for) on low or no wages in a pricey city.
Yes, internships are valuable. They can aid you in clarifying your long-term career interests, developing marketable skills, and launching a professional network. But fortunately, internships are not the only way to accomplish these goals.
For nearly a decade, I’ve worked with college students and young professionals on all things career—unpacking self-assessments to identify potential career paths, building and launching strategic action plans for internship and full-time job searches, and more. And I know that there are many other steps that students and recent grads can take to increase their employability.
So I’ve come up with a list of creative ways to gain skills and experiences as a college student if well-paid internships in your field aren’t common and you can’t afford to pursue an unpaid or low-paid internship.
(If you’re looking for advice on how to write about your college experiences on an entry-level resume, read more here.)
1. Activate Your Network and Conduct Informational Interviews
If you can’t do an unpaid internship, before you decide on how you’re going to “replace” it on your resume, consider putting your networking skills to good use and doing some active outreach to learn more about potential career paths.
Talking to alumni and friends of your institution who work in jobs or industries you’re interested in is a great way to increase your knowledge and understanding of the ins and outs of a particular career. A quick 20-30 minute conversation with someone in a job you have an interest in to learn more about their work is called an informational interview. And setting up a handful of these meetings is a great way to learn about multiple industries in a relatively short period and to figure out what skills and experiences are most important to build up before you enter the workforce full time.
In today’s digital age, it’s easy to search for professionals in specific jobs who went to your school on platforms like LinkedIn (and you should have a LinkedIn!) and set up brief phone, video, or coffee chats. You might also see if your school’s career center can connect you with an alum in your prospective field. Ahead of the conversation, make a list of key questions you would like to dive into. Consider asking things like:
- “What skills do I need to develop to be a great candidate for a job like this in the future?”
- “How are most organizations within this sector structured?”
- “What is the typical path to entry and promotion if I am interested in becoming [X type of position] in the future?”
- “As an [X professional], if you could have taken any course in or after college to accelerate your learning and success, what would it be?”
I can tell you from my conversations with job seekers and employers over the last 10 years that the landscape of work in different fields is ever changing, so being intentional about how you spend your time is a must as you look to add skills and experience to your resume. These informational interviews will help you learn what companies are looking for in candidates right now and in the near future so you can improve your post-graduation employability accordingly.
2. Explore Funding Opportunities to Offset Unpaid Experiences
Perhaps you find out through your informational interviews that unpaid internships are exceptionally helpful for landing a first job in your desired field, or maybe you’ve identified an unpaid internship that you are deeply interested in. Finding alternative funding sources to make unpaid internships more accessible is a great way to think outside the box here.
Explore grant, scholarship, or other funding opportunities through your school, foundations, and community organizations in your area. For example, maybe your school’s public service center has grants for students who want to work with nonprofits, or maybe you can apply for funding from a foundation that supports internships for students who aspire to work in the arts. There might even be funds available within your academic department that can be used for students to pursue research, unpaid internships, or other experiential learning opportunities.
This is something you can start researching before you plan to apply for an internship with the help of a college career coach or advisor from your school’s career services center.
3. Apply for a Part-Time Job Related to Your Career Interests
You may also be able to find a part-time paying job related to your role, field, or industry of interest. Maybe you’re an education major or have an interest in going into education in the future, for example. Part-time opportunities at a tutoring center during the semester or summer camp jobs where you’ll gain experience facilitating youth programs could be a great fit.
A personal-growth hack for identifying opportunities like this would be to reach out to peers or faculty in your major to see if there are any organizations or companies that have hired on students in the past. If you try this and don’t find part-time opportunities readily available, you can also use online job search websites (like The Muse!) and filter by part-time or contract opportunities.
Depending on your course of study or interest, you may also be able to land part-time employment on campus with faculty or administrators. For example, perhaps you can support a faculty member’s research; funding for this kind of experience might come directly from the department, lab, or grant funds managed by faculty members, or you might need to secure funding through on-campus research grant funds available to students.
This is a great opportunity to replace an unpaid internship with a paid experience while receiving direct mentorship and guidance from someone in your field of interest. You can identify these opportunities by talking to peers or faculty members in your major as well, but you also should keep an eye on any departmental or similar listservs and bulletin boards and check your university’s job site if it has one.
4. Identify Paid Freelance Opportunities to Build Your Portfolio
Freelancing, or taking on individual (paid) assignments, is a great way to get real-life experience before entering the workforce. It can help you build a portfolio of work examples, which may be more like what you’d need to produce in a job than school projects.
For some career interests, like graphic or web design, software development, user experience, marketing, and writing, there are many people and business owners looking for short-term, project-based help. Not only is this the perfect opportunity to flex your skills and possibly gain experience crafting proposals in addition to doing the actual work—which is great practice for writing cover letters—it’s paid and usually doesn’t rely on a set time commitment (so you can schedule it around your other responsibilities).
To find projects that fit your skills and abilities, you can use websites designed for connecting freelance workers with organizations and individuals looking to hire them like Fiverr or Upwork. You can also reach out to local businesses, alumni, or contacts in your field of interest to identify potential freelance work.
5. Look for Remote Internship Opportunities or Negotiate a Flexible Work Arrangement
Unpaid internships are often difficult because not only are you not getting paid for your labor, you may also have additional expenses to cover, like rent and transportation to and within in a new—possibly expensive—city. You also might not have the time or availability to supplement your income with a paying job on top of your internship. One way to get around this challenge is to find remote internship opportunities or negotiate a flexible work arrangement.
With a remote work arrangement, you may be able to stay at home and still get notable experience with top companies without adding the strain of paying out of pocket to live in a new place that isn’t affordable. A remote internship might make it more feasible for you to supplement your income with a paid part-time job or combination of freelance projects since you won’t have to commute, and a flex work arrangement may allow you to keep blocks of time free for a part-time job. In response to COVID-19, many employers shifted their traditional internship programs to online experiences and may become more open to remote internships even after the pandemic.
If an internship is not listed as remote up front, consider broaching the possibility early in the hiring process. For example, I once had a client who was able to make an in-person communications internship remote by being transparent about their caregiving responsibilities and stressing their eagerness to pursue the opportunity. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic showed many companies the possibilities of remote work. After this perspective shift, I predict a growing number of companies will be open to increased flexibility with their internships. If you’re considering asking for this, think about the type of work involved and overall company culture. Are full-time employees working remotely? Can the internship duties described be done from home? Are there offices in multiple locations and is the company’s work culture already maintained in an online environment? These are all important things to understand before requesting that an internship be made remote.
6. Take Practical or Applied Learning Courses and List Them on Your Resume
Look for practical courses at or outside of your university that could help you stretch your skills. Many online courses offered by companies like LinkedIn, General Assembly, Udemy, and Teachable are great ways to expand your knowledge in a particular area—often in a relatively short time frame and at low or no cost. Can’t afford to do an unpaid social media internship this year? Consider applying to a part-time job close to home so that you can earn money and blocking off times on your calendar to complete an online course that will teach you about online scheduling platforms, content creation, branding, analytics, or another key social media skill.
You can add these intensive learning experiences to your resume to show your skills and experience in areas related to your future professional path. In addition, by dedicating the time to grow your knowledge base and learn foundational skills that may not be offered in your major, you’re showing future employers that you’re a self-starter who took initiative to learn what you needed and that you know how to manage your time wisely—both of which are also highly valuable skills in the workplace.
Contrary to popular belief, unpaid internships aren’t the only way to gain experience. Taking your skill development and career exploration into your own hands is a great way to open up job possibilities after college. Not only will you fast track your learning, but you’ll also build your network and resume content along the way. And all three are equally necessary to land you your first full-time (paying!) job after graduation.