Unsure If an Unpaid Internship is Right for You? Here’s How to Make it Work

Written by

Claudia Rojas


March 15, 2019


An unpaid internship can a great way to gain valuable experience and contacts that can in turn position you for long-term and paid roles. Unfortunately, not all internships are created equal. Unpaid internships are not deal breakers, but you want to be selective with them. 

All internships offer at least one of three benefits: college credit, compensation, or career expansion

College credit: an internship offered by your college or an outside organization worth credit on your college transcript and resume and as a result, is often unpaid.

Compensation: paid by the hour or an allotted stipend without a “pay raise” because the position is temporary.

Career expansion: the benefit of entry level work experience without the benefit of pay.

Should You Consider an Unpaid Internship?

Generally, you should avoid internships without any benefits or incentives, though if you must, high school and college years are the most fruitful periods to accept an unpaid internship. Plan strategically because most internships are only open to college students or recent graduates within a year.

Job descriptions list any benefit and company reviews on websites like Glassdoor contain pros and cons to inform intern applicants. The following are common rewards in unpaid settings:

  • A commuter stipend or reimbursement
  • Access to a gym or game room
  • Store membership or discounts
  • Weekly free team lunches
  • Monthly networking events

What Interview Questions Identify a Rewarding Internship Experience?

When there are benefits, employers will taut them, but it’s a smart move to verify their idea of “benefit” during the interview stage. Here are questions to follow-up on either company reviews or internship descriptions:

  • What have past interns enjoyed about your organization?
  • Does your organization participate in team-bonding exercises?
  • Is there a commute stipend for employees and are interns eligible?
  • How are interns made feel welcomed by the company?
  • When and why did you begin to offer this intern role?

A note on interview questions: review the company website thoroughly, especially the job description and don’t frame questions in a way that question your candidacy. Employers understand that you want clarity or more understanding, so make sure to acknowledge the job post. On the company website or on social media, look for intern testimonies, and when they’re not available, send the most recent intern a soft query through a LinkedIn message or Facebook message.

So, You Decided to Accept an Unpaid Internship?

Treat it like a paid opportunity! Do the work and show some effort. Commit to your fullest when on the clock; be on time, take initiative, and maintain a high energy. You’ll learn the most from your role from showing up to work and being around colleagues. With that said, don’t commit to a full-time schedule without any full-time benefits and be wary if you are suddenly asked to commit more hours. You are allowed a “no.” Depending on your unique situation, a part-time schedule will work out best, and you can take classes on the side or find a supplementary paid opportunity.

Before committing to an unpaid internship, consider taking on a volunteer role to test your response to an unpaid setting. Know yourself and your capacity. An unpaid internship should benefit you the most, and if it’s the other way around, employers are treating you like an employee. To avoid any misunderstandings, the professional practice is a contract detailing intern schedule, scope of work, and benefits. If you don’t receive a contract or anything in writing, find out why, because this can point to an unstructured environment, which ultimately means the space isn’t designed for work-life balance or a healthy work culture.

As you think about unpaid internships, use our internship guide, scroll the 100 Top Internship Programs in 2018 provided by National Intern Day, and search intern programs online. There are resources just for you, use them! Make an informed decision by learning your intern benefits and rights, what to expect in your intern role, and what the company expects from you.


Written by:  Claudia Rojas

Claudia Rojas is a freelance writer and a poet with a Bachelor’s in English from George Mason University. She is a proud first generation college student. Claudia’s poetry appears in The Acentos Review, Poetry is Dead, and The Bookends Review.

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