Is High School the New College When It Comes to Internships?

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Nothing is worse than oversleeping and missing your alarm. You wake up with a start and bolt out of bed, scrambling to the bathroom while your eyes are still clouded with sleep. After you splash some cold water on your face and frantically brush your teeth, you stare at the clock for a second. The numbers come into focus. And that’s when you realize—today’s Saturday, and you don’t have to be anywhere. Yep, nothing is worse than being late… except maybe thinking that you’re late and then discovering that you’re actually very, very early.

In today’s competitive academic and professional worlds, a lot of people feel pressure to start the job search earlier and earlier. Which leads to the question: How early is too early in the job and internship search? Or is there even such a thing as being “too early” in this environment?

Meet Lauren Chan, a 15-year-old sophomore from Menlo School. Not only did Lauren complete an internship in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, but she took the initiative to pitch her services to her potential supervisor—and it paid off. I caught up with Lauren to learn how she landed the position, what she learned from the experience, and how you can use the same tactics—even if you’re a college student or recent grad.

lauren chan

What was your internship search process like?

This past summer I wanted to at least do a short stint as a volunteer or unpaid intern to gain experience. My mom had mentioned that I could be of help to Sheetal [Patel, Director of Branding and Digital Communities at Stanford University] and learn a lot, given her vast knowledge of marketing and branding. I had met Sheetal once or twice before, but I didn’t know her well. I sent her a quick email (very quick: just three lines asking if I could be of any help to her)—and she responded saying yes!

Had you had any prior work experience? What did you expect before you started?

Before working with Sheetal, I had no prior work experience. When she replied saying that I could come in to help her, she let me know that I should be prepared to do both the cool projects and the tedious ones, so I knew that there would be a mix of the two—which seems reasonable for any job!

A common preconception of an intern or volunteer is a coffee-bringing, hole-punching worker bee, but I was truly interested in Sheetal’s job as Director of Branding and Digital Communities, so I knew that no matter what I was doing, I would be learning from her and learning what it’s like to have “real” work to do. I figured that even if the work didn’t feel meaningful or dynamic, it would contribute to a cause—building the Career Center’s brand—and that is definitely meaningful and impactful for students!

What was the actual internship experience like? What kinds of activities did you do? What did you learn from the experience?

During my time working with Sheetal, I completed two projects. The first was creating a new-hire binder full of information about special perks and benefits that come with working at Stanford. I had to search through piles of brochures and leaflets, online databases, ask around the office, and ultimately create a binder with all of the perks and benefits catalogued in a findable way.

My second project was researching and reporting on Generation Z’s media habits. This was especially cool because I had never really thought about the generation that I am a part of or how we uniquely interact with the world. I created a slide deck detailing specifics about Generation Z as well as some recommendations for the Career Center moving forward.

I now realize that both of these projects involved synthesizing and organizing information in an interesting, streamlined format. It’s really rewarding to look back and see a theme of my experiences and how much I gained from just a few days.

The most incredible part came later: Sheetal invited me to present with her at her workshop on Generation Z at the Mountain Pacific Association of Colleges and Employers (MPACE) Conference in San Francisco, which I gladly accepted. Presenting at that conference was challenging, engaging, and overall an awesome experience that I would never have been able to partake in had I not initially reached out.

Do you think it’s becoming common for high school students to seek out internships?

It’s definitely becoming more common for high school students to seek out internship opportunities, especially in the Silicon Valley. I see a lot of my classmates trying to accelerate themselves by starting early.

In general, we think it’s a cool way to experience a field of study or work in a bite-sized piece of time, as well as building a résumé or application for future internships and even college apps.

My brother, at 17, has already had 3 internships in the past 3 years. However, he applied for many more that he didn’t get because they were so popular—tons of students see the importance of spending their summers doing research or learning in a lab rather than just watching TV, traveling, or relaxing.

What would you say to other high school or college students who are shy or hesitant to reach out to personal connections for an internship or other opportunity?

Definitely go for it! Personal connections, though they can seem intimidating, are a great way to get started on work experience. The key is to be curious and helpful: show interest in their field of study and ask how you can be of help.

Regardless of what happens, the effort you demonstrate and the people you meet will benefit you in some way. Whether it sets you on a new life path or makes you realize that you’re not cut out for a certain field, any kind of work or volunteer experience will teach you a lot about yourself and your own capabilities.

If you reach out yourself, it will show those connections that you have the tenacity, interest, and guts to create your own opportunities and ask for what you want. Your connection might say yes or no, but the answer will always be “no” if you never ask!

Finally, there is more room to “build” your own experience if you personally reach out to someone rather than filling out a uniform application. Usually, traditional internships that are posted online already have a specific, laid-out plan for how the internship will play out. However, if there isn’t a predetermined work plan, you might be asked what you want to do and be able to shape the structure of your time with more flexibility. The non-traditional route could potentially be a much better fit than anything you might find posted online!

How has your experience with Sheetal affected your ideas about internships, work, or college?

I found out how rewarding it is to seek out internships, opportunities, and find out how I can be helpful! For the coming summer, I will definitely have a mixture of email “requests” and also traditional applications. I used to be very shy and would never see myself reaching out for an opportunity, but now I see how valuable it can be to demonstrate enthusiasm and tenacity.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered in the questions above that you’d like to add?

Always start by asking a potential employer what you can do for them, not what they can do for you! The best way to show your value is to have them tell you how you can be valuable to their company or organization.

Writing the email:

I’ve included tips, a template, and a sample to help craft a solid email request. Remember that these are just suggestions—there is no perfect formula and the right tone will vary based on the situation.

What to include:

Introduction

  • If you are a student: year in school, field of study/major, school/university name
  • If you are working: current job position & company
  • If neither of the above apply: where your expertise lies, what kind of experience/education you have

How you know them or know of them

    • Personal connection? Saw them speak at a conference? Had the same professor?

Why you’re interested in working for or with them

    • What excites you about their field or job position? What do you want to learn more about?

Ask how you can be helpful

Thank them for their time and consideration

Remember to:

  • Adjust the formality as needed! You might be really familiar with them or have never met them.
  • Keep it short and sweet. They’re probably busy people and don’t have time to read a long email.

Template:

Dear Mr./Ms.[name],

My name is [name] and I am a [current year in school or job title] at [school/college or company name]. [If applicable, state your connection to the person here.] I am really interested in your role at [company/department name] because [reason]. I know you are a very busy person, so I was wondering if you need help with any projects or tasks. I am eager to find out more about your field of work. I can do anything from [suggestion] to [suggestion]. Let me know if that would be helpful for you. [State when you would be available.] Thank you for your time and consideration!

Sincerely,

[name]

Sample:

Dear  Ms. Lahiri,

My name is John Smith and I am a junior studying economics at Anystate University. My cousin, Jane Smith, once worked with you in your previous position at the Jill Akers Foundation and told me about the incredible work you are doing in your new non-profit to combat poverty by providing education to young girls in developing countries.

I am really interested in your role at Educate for a Better World because I have always been passionate about education and am really interested in how you create sustainable opportunities for females in developing countries.

I know you are a very busy person, so I was wondering if you need help with any projects or tasks. I am eager to find out more about your field of work and can do anything from organizing donor lists to idea-generation for communication with school founders abroad. Let me know if that would be helpful for you this summer, as I am available for the entirety of July. Thank you for your time and consideration!

Sincerely,

John Smith

Homework time! Try out Lauren’s template with a few people in your extended network. Remember you may need to make adjustments to the tone and content depending on the person you’re reaching out to.

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