Quiz: Should you take an unpaid internship?

student unpaid intern commuting to work

Find out if one of these resume-boosting but no-wage internships is right for you.

When you do college internship interviews, you’re likely to have a list of questions for the recruiter or manager. What will the responsibilities be for an intern? What is the schedule?  

One question you should NOT be hesitant to ask is one of the most important: Is this position paid? 

Unpaid internships and paid internships are both on offer in today’s job market. You may find yourself having to make a decision about whether to take an unpaid internship, continue looking for a paid internship, or pivot to looking for a part-time or seasonal job that doesn’t offer the same career-propelling perks of an internship.   

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many internships were canceled, while others went online. But now things are picking back up. 

According to research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 92% of employers report having a formal internship program, with more than 70% of those programs focused on converting students into full-time, entry-level employees (NACE 2016 Report “Economic Impact of Unpaid Internships”). 

Internships offer myriad benefits, from networking to insider industry knowledge — and often extending to a job offer. In fact, several studies, including one by NACE, have shown that when choosing between two equal entry-level candidates, employers will choose the one with relevant internship experience 

But before you accept an internship, you should also be aware of the costs. Some estimates say you could need $3,000 to $5,000 in living expenses during a three-month internship, but that will vary widely depending on where the internship is located and whether or not one of your living expenses is rent/housing. If you are concerned that you can’t afford three months with no income, avoid unpaid positions during the summer. Focus on getting ahead financially, and work out a savings plan so you’re in the position to take an internship with low or no wages in the future. Or, take summer classes to lighten your course load during the school year so you have hours available for an internship then.  

Historically, the economic burden associated with unpaid internships has caused a kind of “glass floor,” barring entry to lower-income students (often students of color) who may not be able to afford to work for free for several months. The legality of unpaid internships has been upheld by the courts, but some states have made them illegal — so be sure to check what your state’s rules are. Some solutions to even the playing field that are currently being suggested include federal subsidies for low-income students and an emphasis on actively recruiting and mentoring a more diverse group of interns. 

The best way to make a decision is to be well-informed. After considering the pros and cons, is taking an unpaid internship right for you? 

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A note to screen reader users: Depending on what browser you’re using, you may experience that during the quiz, your screen reader becomes refocused outside of the quiz frame. If this happens, simply navigate back to the quiz to continue. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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