Can you afford an unpaid internship?

student unpaid intern commuting to work

A former intern shares her tips to make the most of an unpaid, yet resume-boosting, internship.

Like any prepared interviewee, I arrived at my college internship interviews with a list of questions about the jobs. The one question I was hesitant to ask, however, was one of the most important: Is this position paid?

Too terrified that my interviewers would take offense, I would assume that the position had to be paid. You can imagine my loss for words when I received the offer letter, and a zero next to the “stipend” line.

I realized I had to make a decision about whether I’d take the unpaid internship, continue looking for a paid internship, or rely on my previous summer job as a swim coach to pull an income. I knew this internship, though unpaid, would propel my career further than coaching, so I decided to accept the position. I also checked to make sure the position passed the six criteria for unpaid internships, set by the Department of Labor.

As a veteran of unpaid, paid, full-time, and part-time internships, I’ve put some tips together to help you decide whether or not an unpaid internship is right for you, and how you can offset the financial challenges if you choose an unpaid position.

57.5% of students who had an internship reported receiving a job offer, which is nearly 14 percent higher than the percentage of graduating seniors who did not have an internship (43.7%).

— NACE Class of 2019 Student Survey Report

Tip 1: Be honest with yourself. If you know that you can’t afford three months of 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 wages next summer. Or, take summer classes to lighten your course load in the fall, and look for an internship position then.

Tip 2: Ask for other perks. Your employer may not have the budget for a full-time intern, but negotiating your offer letter is common practice. Ask for things like a commuting budget, a flexible schedule, or even a little extra vacation time. Some employers may reimburse your bus pass or daily train ticket. And, by working out a flexible schedule, you may be able to pick up some extra money at a second, paying job (like being a swim coach, in my case!).

Tip 3: Live for free (or cheap). If your summer internship isn’t in your hometown, reach out to family and friends in the area where you will be working; and look into student housing options if there are colleges in the area.

For example, I lived at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA during my summer internship, even though I didn’t attend that college. I was given a discounted student rate so they could fill their otherwise empty dorms during the summer. Other schools, including Emory University in Atlanta and American University in Washington, D.C., offer similar programs.

Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to say no. When I was interning without pay, there were days my supervisor asked me to work late hours and on weekends. Occasionally, I would agree, but I also knew my limits. The last thing you want to do is feel taken advantage of — especially if this is your first time in the workforce. Always hold up your end of the contract and work hard during your normal hours, but don’t be afraid to hold firm to being unavailable outside of working hours, since you won’t be compensated for that time.

Tip 5: Search for scholarships. Check in with your career counselor to find out if your university offers scholarships and grants for unpaid internships. Or, check for private scholarships for unpaid internships. Since unpaid positions are becoming more common in certain industries, like journalism, more scholarships have started to pop up.

Want to read more about getting internships and being an intern?

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