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How to Apply for an Internship in the US: Guide for Int’l Students

internship
resume
career planning
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on September 13, 2021

Looking to apply to your first internship in America? Follow our step-by-step guide for international student internship requirements.

For international students, an internship in America can be one of the biggest benefits of studying in the US. Your first internship is the foundation for your resume and future career experience. While preparing for, finding, applying to, and — most importantly — landing your dream internship is a lot of work, the benefits are worth it.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), graduating seniors with internship experience are 20% more likely to get a job offer than those without internship experience. 

So, if you are starting your search for your first internship, keep reading: Our guide will go over the important steps you’ll encounter along the way.

Internships & Visa for International Students

As an international student, remember that your student visa outlines your terms and conditions for employment while in the US, and this includes internships. Understanding what your visa allows and doesn’t allow regarding internships is important to maintain your eligibility status as an international student in your US college or university. Each student visa has its own specific internship conditions. 

F-1 Visa Students 

With a F-1 student visa, the primary purpose of your travel to the US is to complete a degree program at an accredited university or college. This visa allows you to apply for an internship in USA for international students at your university. (Some programs may even require an internship, in the form of Curricular Practical Training, or CPT.) 

A F-1 student visa limits your working hours to a maximum of 20 hours per week, and you are only able to work on campus while your academic term is in session. With permission from your university, you can work off campus. 

Through CPT, your internship must be related to your degree and you must have completed your first year of university. You also need to apply for CPT authorization and obtain an updated I-20 form to begin an internship in America. 

Upon completion of your program at university, you can also apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows you to work full time in the US for up to 12 months with approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. With a STEM-related degree, you can request up to two additional years of OPT!

J-1 Visa Students

Students with a J-1 student visa are usually enrolled in work- or study-based exchange visitor programs, approved by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While J-1 students cannot apply for OPT, they are able to apply for Academic Training (AT) in a field related to their program for up to 18 months after graduating. 

Visa holders who want to complete an internship in USA for international students without enrolling in a degree program can choose to apply for a J-1 Intern or J-1 Trainee visa. Keep in mind that, for internship roles, most businesses require you to be enrolled in a college or university or have graduated in the last 12 months. For trainee roles, having a degree and previous working experience may be required. 

As J-1 students must be sponsored by an accredited educational or other nonprofit institution, you may be able to find internship placements through your sponsor. Some sponsors may include an internship placement as part of your program, while others may provide this as a service for an additional fee.

Whether you are a F-1 student or a J-1 student, finding an internship in the US by yourself can be challenging. By preparing a career action plan in advance, you can create a process to follow after you arrive in the States – and can fine tune your plan with the help of an advisor.

Create a Career Action Plan

Your career action plan lists your professional goals and the steps to achieve them. Additionally, creating an action plan can help identify your strengths and professional interests. Use your career action plan to narrow down your options for internships and find opportunities that are specialized in the career you want to work toward. 

With your career action plan, prepare a detailed list of steps to take during your internship search. This structured approach helps you schedule your time better to balance your studies alongside looking for internship opportunties. 

A good first step in your career action plan is to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, work experience, and interests. From there, you will have a list you can turn into your resume. 

Work on Your Resume

Some universities and colleges in the US (including Shorelight universities) offer dedicated resources to help you create and maintain your resume. These include workshops that teach you how resumes in the US differ from CVs in other countries and the way resumes are made in the US. For example, you do not include your photo or marital status in a US resume, and most US resumes are only one page or less. 

If you don’t know where to start with your resume, you can find millions of resume examples and templates just an online search away. You should also meet with your career counselor or Career Accelerator program advisor for help on how to write a resume. Having an experienced partner makes applying for your first internship in America less daunting. 

Tip: Have others check your resume before you apply. Don’t be afraid of negative feedback. Share your resume with family members, career counselors, and friends. Ask for comments. It is better to find out before you apply that you misspelled a word or left out a good talking point. 

A Shorelight advisor can also support you with advice about soft skills for college students that employers seek out, virtual internships, F-1 visa and J-1 visa working conditions, and international student internship requirements. They can also direct you to academic support services, provide you with visa assistance, and more. 

Cover Letter for Internships

A cover letter is a document submitted with your resume when applying for an internship in the USA for international students or for job opportunities. The letter is usually one page long and contains a brief overview of your personal work history, skills, talents, and interests. A cover letter is usually specific to the job you are applying for, as it aligns your personal qualities and qualifications with the responsibilities outlined in the role description.

When you write a new cover letter, support what you have included in your resume. Your letter may also cover additional achievements or qualifications relevant to a job role that may not be covered in your resume. Finally, your cover letter is a chance to explain how your experiences and knowledge contribute to your potential performance in the role and how you would be a good fit for the organization.

When writing your cover letter, be sure to take the following steps: 

  • List your contact information and the employer’s details—This includes your information and key details from the employer, such as your name and address alongside the hiring manager’s name or department. You can also include your LinkedIn profile and/or links to your portfolio, if you feel it is appropriate.

  • Directly address the hiring manager—Cover letters begin similar to regular letters, so they should be addressed to the recipient. If you are not sure about their title or name, you can refer to them by their designation or department, such as “Hiring Manager” or “Marketing”. (You may also be able to find their official title on LinkedIn.)

  • Write a clear introduction—Your introduction should clearly indicate the role you are applying for, the company name, how you found out about the position, and that you are applying for the role.

  • List details about yourself—Following your introduction, tell the recipient about yourself, including your qualifications, knowledge, awards achieved, and strengths. Use this section to also briefly talk about your personal motivations, ambitions, and future plans to give the organization a better idea of who you are. Rather than just repeating the information listed on your resume, remember to use your letter to specifically address the job role and how you would be a good organizational and cultural fit. You can also list any extracurricular activities that relate to the skills required in the job role or at the organization overall. 

  • Conclude politely—Do not include any new information in your conclusion. End your cover letter by summarizing briefly why you would be an ideal hire, stating your enthusiasm for the opportunity, and thanking the hiring manager.

Finding an Internship

Once you have completed your career action plan, you can start making a shortlist of roles to apply for. In the US, there are many dedicated employment sites which list unpaid and paid internships for international students.

  • LinkedIn—A great place to find internships with major companies, LinkedIn is the current king of professional networking websites. 

  • Internships.com—This Chegg-owned website lists thousands of internships for college students from cities all over the country. 

  • Indeed.com—An aggregate site similar to Internships.com, Indeed.com offers thousands of open positions, advice and templates for cover letters, resumes, job interviews, and more. 

As you pursue your degree, take the time to network with your fellow students, professors, and even guest lecturers. Each person you meet is a valuable addition to your professional network who can help connect you with unique internship opportunities or even jobs in the long term. 

You can also take advantage of on-campus career fairs and job boards to connect with employers near your university. Many organizations attending career fairs and listing offers on job boards work with universities to provide internship or entry-level opportunities that help students gain professional experience. With the Shorelight Career Accelerator, you can connect with top employers in the US and even start a virtual internship from your home country.

Practice for the Internship Interview

If you have made it to the interview stage, that means the hiring manager sees promise in your application. Make sure you keep your momentum rolling by preparing for the interview.

You will likely have a phone interview first. Your first phone interview is usually a general conversation about the position, you, and your background. You may also have more phone interviews with other members of the team, or be asked to come in for a face-to-face discussion. Either way, here are some great ways to prepare for any interview: 

  • Talk to previous interns—Previous interns offer advice to give you a better idea of what the role entails and what interviewers are looking for from other students or young professionals.

  • Review common interview questions—A Google search is a great place to start, and you may even be able to search by company. Compile a list of common questions you think you might be asked and make sure you have answers in mind before your interview.

  • Develop a list of good questions to ask—Hiring managers love to see that you researched the company before you applied. Ask specific questions about your role, the team, and company priorities.

  • Practice—Have your friends or family members interview you, asking the questions you have gathered from your research. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel when the time comes for the real interview.

  • Dress professionally—This may sound obvious, but make sure you look responsible and professional when you go in for the face-to-face interview.

Your university or college will likely have a career center that helps international students like you learn more about how to apply for an internship in the USA. You can visit the career center and work with staff experts who can help you prepare with practice interviews, company advice, and more. Working with career counselors can be more effective than practicing with friends or family, as it can feel more like being interviewed by a professional you have not met before. 

Additionally, remember to practice your spoken English and research terms and words related to the job role that could be brought up during your interview. In doing so, you’ll show the interviewer that you’ve done your research and are committed to securing an internship in USA for international students. 

Apply for an Internship

After you have created an action plan for your internship search, finalized your resume, and narrowed down your best possible opportunities, it is time to begin applying. 

Remember to apply to both unpaid and paid internships for international students. While it is great to find a paid internship in America, these are often very competitive, and many companies (especially smaller organizations) find it easier to hire an unpaid intern.

Many organizations in the US post their applications online via job boards, LinkedIn, or other career-seeking websites. Usually, you can apply for roles found on these platforms by submitting a digital version of your resume and cover letter (if required), though some organizations may direct you to their own specific application platform. Visiting organizations (especially smaller businesses) in person and inquiring about internships can also be a viable option as you may have a chance to directly meet the hiring manager and make a friendly introduction. 

If you do not immediately receive responses to your internship applications, don’t be discouraged! There are many organizations all around the US which can offer you unique opportunities and experiences. Stay positive, keep your options open, and work together with your advisor to find your ideal internship in USA for international students!

Follow Up

Once you have applied to several organizations, consider following up on your application. While this is not a mandatory part of the application process, it can help show your enthusiasm for the role and help you stand out to employers. 

You can follow up your application with either an email or a phone call, but it is important to make sure you do not inconvenience the hiring manager and/or staff. Some applications may specify not to contact the hiring manager after you apply, so be sure to check in advance and respect the employer’s wishes. 

Keep the following points in mind if you decide to contact the organization:

  • Wait at least two weeks after sending in your application before following up

  • Be polite, brief, and clear

  • Re-express your enthusiasm for the role and your interest in the organization

  • Only contact the individual listed as a contact on the application

It is ideal to use email whenever possible, as this is the least-intrusive way to follow up. If you decided to call, avoid the most active business hours, such as opening and closing times. 

If you are able to secure an interview, make sure to send a follow-up email to the interviewer thanking them for the opportunity! This can help you make a strong and positive impression on the interviewer. 

Have Realistic Expectations

When you start searching for internships, having realistic expectations throughout the process can help you make the right decisions. For example, it is worth remembering that large and well-known companies often have highly competitive recruitment, and it can be difficult to get a position as there are many candidates vying for the same role. 

Applying to smaller or littler-known organizations for internships can improve your chances of being chosen. Additionally, many of these organizations offer more personalized training and hands-on experience due to their smaller size, which gives you a chance to develop unique knowledge and skills.

Learn from Your Mistakes

In the beginning, you may make some mistakes during your internship experience, and this is completely normal. Starting as a new intern in the US can be challenging, even if you have previous professional experience. It is important to be patient and ask as many questions as you can about your work and contributions to the team. This shows your initiative to your employer and helps you perform better at your job. 

Learn from your mistakes and seek advice from senior staff about how to overcome any issues you encounter at work. As you learn from your coworkers and spend more time at your internship in the USA for international students, you can develop valuable skills and experiences that enable you to grow as a professional.

Follow these tips and you will be in a great position to get your first internship in America. Do not get discouraged if you receive a few rejections. Instead, use rejection as an opportunity to learn. Ask the hiring manager what they think you can do to improve or what you were missing compared to other applicants they reviewed and hired. 

If you get the role, always conduct yourself professionally and do your best. An excellent recommendation from an internship may lead to a permanent position. No matter what happens, researching roles, getting your documents in order, and applying for internships is a great experience for when you apply to full-time jobs after graduation.

Explore Shorelight universities and talk to an advisor about available internship programs >