As a high school student, landing an impressive, self-directed internship can be a great way to gain valuable experience in your desired academic field, explore potential career paths, and develop a strong foundation for future success in college-level work. Of course, building and demonstrating this advanced skill set will set you apart in college admissions, as you’ll already have experience and results to prove your passion and preparation for your intended course of study. By participating in specialized research related to your interests and goals, you’ll also get a head start on defining your academic niche within the field.
Though you may be excited at the prospect of taking on a high-level internship, it may also be a source of stress. Finding an internship can be complicated, especially when you’re independently seeking out a research opportunity, including choosing an internship that will fit your goals. Beyond securing an internship position, ensuring that you’ll get the experience you’re hoping for is yet another consideration — it's hard to know what exactly to expect before you actually begin.
If you’re committed to seeking out an impressive internship, this guide will address these potential concerns. Here you can find tips and guidance for each aspect of preparation: identifying the right internship area for you, successfully reaching out to researchers, creating an ideal academic experience, and sustaining connections with your mentors. Let’s walk through the key things to know as you start your internship journey!
What type of internship opportunities are available for high school students?
To start off, the crucial first step on your internship journey is deciding whether a research internship is right for you. There are two primary options for high school student internships — a research internship where you independently find a mentor to work with or joining a structured academic program. Let’s walk through the structure, pros, and cons of each.
With formal internship programs, you’ll select and apply to pre-existing summer opportunities, which are typically affiliated with universities or other organizations (private and not-for-profit) and have a designated timeline, subject matter, and faculty and/or student mentors.
Below we have outlined a few pros and cons of traditional internships and independently-structured internships.
Pros of internship programs
1. You’ll build connections with the school early: Some of these programs are held on-site at the university — you’ll experience college life, get to stay on-campus, work at university labs and classrooms, and interact with current students and professors. And, if you’re planning to apply to the school, these programs may increase your chances of acceptance. While only some universities explicitly indicate that participation will give you an edge as an applicant, at the very least your attendance is considered demonstrated interest, which is always an added plus to your application. University-run internship programs also double up as academic opportunities. This can be a great way for you to build skills and demonstrate competency in applying those skills. The Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program (SIMR) is a very good example of this!
2. Programs that are hosted by other organizations give you good face time with key people who can mentor you. These networks can be great for you to do further work and will, overall, open future opportunities. Take, for example, the internship with Foreign Policy Research Institute or Pacific Northwest National Library.
3. You’ll have a structure built into the program: Because established internships have a clear curriculum, schedule, and activities, you’ll know before you apply what you’ll be doing, and if the internship will be a good fit for you. If you’re looking for outside perspectives, you can also search for reviews from past students about what the experience is really like.
Consider Ladder Internship, a selective program for high school students to work with start-ups.
Ladder Startups work in fields including technology, machine learning and AI, finance, environmental science and sustainability, business and marketing, healthcare and medicine, media and journalism, and more. You can explore all the options here on their application form.
As part of their internship, each student will work on a real-world project and present their work at the end of their internship. In addition to working closely with their manager from the startup, each intern will also work with a Ladder Coach throughout their internship - the Ladder Coach serves as a second mentor and a sounding board, guiding students through the internship and helping them navigate the startup environment. The virtual internship is usually 8 weeks long.
Cost: $1490 (Financial Aid Available)
Location: Remote! You can work from anywhere in the world.
Application deadline: April 16 and May 14
Program dates: 8 weeks, June to August
Eligibility: Students who can work for 10-20 hours/week, for 8-12 weeks. Open to high school students, undergraduates, and gap year students!
Cons of internship programs
You’ll be in a competitive application pool: College-affiliated programs always require formal applications that are often quite extensive, with requirements such as submitting transcripts, writing essays, and obtaining letters of recommendation. Programs at elite universities often have quite competitive admissions, so you’ll likely need to submit multiple applications and prepare for an extended wait time to hear back.
You’ll have limited autonomy over what you do: Because it is a structured program, you’ll be more limited in choosing what exactly you do and how or when you do it. Nonetheless, if you feel overwhelmed about a high level of self-direction/advocacy, this could be a plus!
With independently-organized internships, you’ll be reaching out to researchers whose work most interests you to request a position. Once you successfully find a mentor, you’ll usually work together to plan out the length of your internship, what your participation and responsibilities will be, and how they’ll support you over the course of your work together.
If you are specifically looking for research opportunities, here are some ways you can go about finding and applying for them!
Pros of independent internships
1. You’ll get greater freedom and flexibility: As you’ll be collaborating with a mentor to develop your plans for the summer, you’ll have a lot more room for self-designed work. Without a pre-existing curriculum or program structure in place, you’ll necessarily play a role in scheduling the internship timeline, coordinating the tasks you’ll complete, and communicating what you’re hoping to accomplish through the internship.
2. Potential for competitions and publications: If you’re able to play a more active role in internship design, you’ll have the chance to develop individual projects with meaningful results. Though this can never be guaranteed, research that is self-directed can be eligible to submit to science fairs, competitions, or high school research journals. In coursework-based programs, though you will gain meaningful experience, it is unlikely to be sufficiently self-driven to be counted as a project that you accomplished on your own.
Cons of Independent Internships
The biggest downside to independent research internships is connected to its biggest strength. If you aren’t already somewhat well-versed in your field of interest, it can be a struggle to develop and coordinate what you’re hoping to accomplish. Beyond the difficulty of working in a technical field, the level of self-directed organization adds another challenge to creating an ideal internship experience.
Now that we’ve reviewed your two main choices of direction if you’re committed to independently seeking out the research position of your dreams, let’s consider the ways you can streamline your internship search and ensure you end up with an opportunity that fits your needs.
How do you find the right internship program?
1. Draw from Past Results to Find Programs
If you’re hoping to have an exciting and successful internship (who isn’t?), why not look at internships others have completed that excite you?
Interested in science? Check out past science fair or STEM competition winners, and identify projects that you’d love to pursue yourself. Do your research — read up on their accomplishments, and see if you find any directions you want to explore further. Internships often focus on specialized academic topics — consider which specific fields of study are most engaging to you, and use that to guide your search. Which fields connect most to your interests, or use research methods you’d love to learn?
Beyond the topic of your internship, you can find specific leads by looking at past projects. Have students partnered with specific hospitals, labs, or researchers? Are there any similar ones near you that could be promising for intensive successful research? For even closer connections, ask advice from people you know. Whether they’re other students or alumni of your school, people who have been engaged in your field of interest might have either past mentors or recommendations for options to pursue. Of course, teachers or individuals you know in the field are also great resources to ask for assistance!
2. Be prepared to make multiple attempts
Be aware when contacting researchers, professors, or professionals in areas such as business or finance that they are often overwhelmed with professional emails and potential mentors typically receive many unsolicited emails asking for research or internship opportunities. Since they have significant responsibilities in their own research and work, those who do not have internship openings or opportunities often will not respond. Don’t worry, it’s not a personal affront! In fact, this actually is the most likely response you’ll get. However, if you’re committed to the search, don’t be deterred, and continue reaching out until you’ve found a mentor.
3. Don’t reach out without doing your research
Research work will always be oriented towards a very specialized topic. For example, if you email 3 different neuroscience researchers, they will have three very different areas of interest, and therefore very different work you’d be taking on. So, just because you have a general interest in a field does NOT mean interning with someone will touch even remotely on your specific goals!
Additionally, since it is far more common for researchers to take on college students or post-docs as research assistants, offering an internship to a high schooler can be a risk. You’ll have less knowledge and experience than someone actively studying the field, and potential mentors know you’ll need a lot of guidance. So, if you want to convince them, you need to know the research you’d be contributing to. Start with reading their recent publications or searching for courses they’ve taught & familiarize yourself with key concepts and terminology before you get in contact. If they’re trying to decide if you’re a good fit, showing that you have the requisite knowledge or academic background to understand and contribute to their work will be essential.
4. Establish Clear Structure and Plans in Advance
Not all independent internships look the same, to say the least. Though it may feel intimidating to give lots of suggestions about what you hope to do or to ask them to clarify their plans or expectations, it’s always worth it to create a clear structure in advance of the internship. The hard reality is that, though researchers might be willing to provide a summer internship for you, be advised that for some it is not a top priority. For example, in some cases, you might have a chance to do lots of hands-on experimental or research work. This itself can vary between having a large degree of freedom in designing an individual project (within the scope of the lab's focus, of course!) or being assigned ongoing work for an existing project. On the other hand, sometimes students end up doing busy work if there’s not a plan established — make sure they’re offering the opportunity you’re looking for!
In short, if you’re not proactive in structuring your internship, it could mean that you won’t feel truly “involved” in the internship. In the vast majority of cases, you will get the chance to see the inner workings of the lab, but you are definitely not guaranteed to do work that you could present as a true “project” that you embarked on (read: you won’t be able to enter it in competitions/publications). In any case, if you don’t take the initiative in asserting your goals, your summer might not turn out as planned.
5. Building Relationships with Mentors and Advisors
Drawing from the previous point, there is a lot of variation in how engaged mentors are with high school interns. With some you may be spending lots of time with them every day, establishing a close relationship, and having them guide you through substantive work. However, with others, you may be working largely with post-doc research assistants or other lab/team members who handle a lot of the daily hands-on tasks.
If you’re committed to connecting closely with your mentor, express interest from the start in collaborating with them in particular. See if you can plan regular meeting times to talk over your progress if you don't see them too often day-to-day. Come with specific, meaningful questions or discussion topics when you do meet up. If you want to seek out other ways to connect, ask to attend lab meetings or other events you’re aware of.
A final tip to build a personal connection is to ask about their academic pursuits! Professors and researchers LOVE what they do, and are excited to share it with interested students. Not to mention, it's very complementary to see your engagement, which doesn’t hurt!
6. Reaching Out for Non-STEM Students
The truth is, that these methods are much more difficult for fields outside of STEM. Humanities students will likely find better results with opportunities outside of working with a professor or researcher.
While it is fairly established for scientific researchers to take on high school student interns, these opportunities are more limited in the humanities. If STEM students are at a disadvantage compared to undergraduate or graduate students, humanities students are in an even weaker position.
Due to the nature of humanities specialization, you’ll often need university-level competence in the translation of different languages, relevant texts in the field, and a deep understanding of a specific region, time period, literary movement, or analytical theory. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly rare for these topics to be covered in high school-level coursework.
To run through the differences, with STEM work, you can learn the “why” of the research in greater depth while you’re learning “how”, as you’ll witness the research methods that lead to these results, their meaning, and significance to the field. In high-level humanities, you need a high level of familiarity with the specific area of research. Without knowledge of relevant languages, current topics of discussion or debate in the field, or foundational texts, doing deep dives into archives or analyzing material will be impossible without knowing what exactly you’re looking for. This is to say, the methods cannot be approached without the underlying knowledge.
If you’re feeling discouraged, don’t worry — there are still many opportunities open to you!
Look for summer programs in the humanities: There are myriad university-affiliated offerings in subjects such as law, political science, and art, where you can engage with professors in specialized coursework, network and connect with academics in the field, and study advanced, specialized material that prepares you for college-level work. Remember the expertise that may disqualify high school students from humanities research internships? Here’s where you can get a head start!
Consider branching into humanities pursuits outside of academia: There are numerous avenues to explore your passion for history, music, literature, and social sciences outside of academia — many of which are thrilled to take on student interns or volunteers! Some key fields to pursue include art or natural history museums, activist organizations, newspapers or independent journalists, historical societies, local or regional political offices or institutions, or art and music institutions. The good thing is, although you may be looking in different places, the same techniques for connecting with STEM researchers carry over to the humanities!
7. Building a sustained connection
If you want to continue building your relationship with your mentor, it’s usually easy to do so if you’ve had a good experience working with them! It can often be as easy as just casually staying in touch. Ask if they’d be open to offering advice about your future work or studies — if you want to continue in the field, they’ll be an invaluable resource. And thinking ahead, an internship mentor who knows you well can often provide powerful letters of recommendation down the road.
If you feel that you’ve made a close connection with your mentor, emailing them updates or asking to chat and catch up is always welcome. If you really loved your time working with them, see if you can stay on as an intern, whether it’s over the next summer or even a part-time extracurricular project during the school year. If you’ve done good work & developed a strong relationship, they’ll often be more than willing to have you back, especially since you’ve now gained more experience!
How to Ace the Internship Application Process?
Think through your area of interest and where you have the best skillset
Choosing the right field and topic for your internship is essential for both securing an internship and having a fulfilling experience. In the application process, you’ll either be competing with other motivated high schoolers or university-level students. This means that most potential interns will be high-achieving and hold strong academic records. If you want to stand out, you’ll need to show that you are the best fit for the program — you specifically have the background knowledge, research competence, and engagement to succeed. Think about it this way: as an intern, you’ll be contributing to the work or research of your mentor. So, students with a clear passion for the field and pre-existing skills relevant to the research will add the most value as an intern. When you consider your opportunities, keep the following questions in mind:
Build a strategic resume and cover letter
In the vast majority of cases, applications will request your resume to gauge your practical experience and background. This is the best opportunity to “market yourself” on your own terms — before your interview, your resume is how your skills and program fit are first assessed. Make the most of this opportunity! Through reviewing the desired internship qualifications and the tasks you’ll be doing, you can strategically choose what you include and highlight on your resume based on the skills emphasized in the internship description.
As these criteria will differ from program to program, tailoring your resume to each internship’s specifications is an effective strategy – the same accomplishments can be framed in multiple ways.
Consider this example: A student is the founder and president of a school robotics club that has won multiple awards at a wide range of competitions. For a program seeking interns who are strong leaders able to set and accomplish goals, highlighting accomplishments such as obtaining club approval and funding, recruitment, and coordinating team practices and competitions would best position them for success. Alternatively, an internship that prioritizes students who work well in teams and are skilled in technology and engineering might prefer a resume detailing the collaborative work using advanced methods that led to victories at prestigious competitions.
This is an important strategy to use when writing cover letters as well. Shape your cover letter to detail your passion for the specific position, and choose examples of experience and accomplishments that best meet the internship’s priorities.
Prepare for interviews
Though you can never fully know in advance what you’ll be asked at an interview, there are several questions that you can expect to encounter at most interviews that you should practice ahead of time. Here are a few of the most common questions you’ll be asked.
Tell me about yourself.
Can you walk me through your resume and experiences?
What major are you planning to apply for?
What made you choose to apply for this internship?
Why are you a good fit for this internship?
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
Having a confident answer to these questions will boost your professionalism and will ensure you’ll nail some of the key questions at every interview you have.
Be professional but relaxed and confident
Listen to questions carefully and think through your answers. If it is a question that requires a fair bit of thinking, do not hesitate to say “Can I have a minute or two to think through this?” and then think through it on the spot. No pressure to answer every question immediately.
If you do not know the answer to something, say “That’s a great question, I’m afraid I don’t have a fully informed answer to this but I’ll look at this tonight and write back to you with my thoughts.” This response shows that you are honest but have a curiosity to learn and share that knowledge.
I’m ready, point me to some opportunities!
We got you covered, here are some lists of great internship opportunities:
Best Internships for High School Students - this one has a list of internships that are prestigious and hard to get into.
We also recommend you check out platforms like LinkedIn for more opportunities and check out platforms like Glassdoor for reviews on potential companies.
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’d rather do university-level research with 1-1 mentorship from a top PhD scholar, check out the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. We run cohorts throughout the year. You can find the application form here.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
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