The Rise of High School Internships

·5 min read

High school seniors are expected to do a great deal. College applications. Community service. Sports, clubs and classes. Now, there's a new item on the list: internships.

Some high schools are encouraging students to complete internships in their junior and senior years as a way to gain real-world experience, explore potential career paths and learn basic workplace skills.

Once the purview of college students looking for an on-ramp to the job market, high school internships focus more on experience and learning than on obtaining full-time work, education experts say. They allow students to investigate fields of study and career options that are still years away.

"Working and interacting with various employees and being exposed to the basics of what a future career in the industry would entail gets students out of their high school bubble," says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, a certified educational planner and president of One-Stop College Counseling in New Jersey. "We find that students who take on an internship in high school often mature, rising to meet the level of responsibility expected."

Interning with local companies, nonprofits or community organizations can be an educational alternative to the low-wage work often offered to teenagers, and it can be an asset on college applications. Kevin Davis, founder and chair of First Workings, a nonprofit that pairs low-income students with paid internships, says high school internships can also help students develop professionally.

"Through the internship experience, high schoolers gain the confidence to succeed in their chosen path," he says.

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The Benefits of High School Internships

Studies at the college level show that internships can dramatically increase employment potential for students. A 2019 survey of internship programs by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 70% of interns received a job offer.

At the high school level, statistics show that interning is still catching on. A 2020 study by American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps students obtain college degrees, cites a recent survey showing that only 2% of high school students had completed internships.

Many high school students saw interning as a college pursuit, according to the study, and many also were focused on traditional, paying jobs. Among teenagers ages 16 to 19, 17.6% held a job in 2020, according to Statista.

"This points to an exciting opportunity to change the narrative around work-based learning experiences," the American Student Assistance report says, adding that, "We must find more opportunities for students to learn AND earn."

Accordingly, some high schools are now adding internships as an option or a requirement. In fact, some schools have done so for decades.

For example, the Madeira School, a private high school for girls near Washington, D.C., emphasizes experiential learning and has made internships part of its curriculum for more than 50 years. Today, students at Madeira intern at community organizations as sophomores, on Capitol Hill as juniors and then in career-oriented positions as seniors.

Another pioneer is Trinity High School in Ohio. Its internship program has placed students at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Botanical Garden and in companies across a range of industries, from healthcare to municipal services.

Building Professional Skills

Education experts say experiences like these allow students to "try on" a career path.

"Some teens are simply trying to educate themselves in a field that they believe might interest them," Weingarten says. "For example, some look for positions in the financial industry, while others look for internships in computer science, environmental science, health sciences, communications or another field."

Educators say that internships also build valuable professional skills, including communication, self-advocacy and the ability to effectively work with other people in a professional setting.

Joe Nannini, director of clinical experience and assessment at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Nevada -- Reno, says he can tell when students have had high school internship experience.

"The more prepared a student is when they enter college, the easier of a time they will have adjusting to the rigors of college-level academics as well as social pressures," he says. "In higher education, we try to do everything we can to support students in their perseverance toward degree completion and social connectedness. From my experience, students who were involved in extracurricular internships during high school have a fairly distinct head start."

While some might argue that traditional high school jobs in retail or restaurants may offer similar benefits, Nannini says there is a difference.

"They are goal-oriented rather than task-oriented," he says of internships. "They provide a test drive of a future opportunity. Jobs during high school may not provide the same sort of forward focus."

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Finding a High School Internship

When looking for a high school internship, it's important to understand what the student's responsibilities will be and to ensure that the work aligns with a student's goals, according to Weingarten.

"It's always helpful if the student believes they will learn and grow from the internship, and not just complete administrative busy work," she says.

When it comes to landing an internship in high school, students can start by preparing a one-page resume that contains all of the experience they have. In high school, this might include participation in clubs, performing arts or a sports team. Leadership roles can be highlighted. So too can any work experience.

Nannini recommends that students then reach out to organizations that can provide guidance, starting with the career center at the student's high school, as well as local colleges or trade schools. If needed, students can extend their search to the local chamber of commerce, nonprofits and community organizations.

Nannini also suggests that parents support their child with advice and guidance, while allowing the student to do the majority of the legwork.

"It is crucial for students to arrange for their own internships because it teaches them to communicate effectively, to present themselves professionally, to prioritize, to manage their own time and, most of all, to create a situation for which they can be proud," he says. "When a student has sourced, approached, communicated with, secured and flourished in an internship of their choosing, we should celebrate their accomplishment."

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