This week, we’re talking about internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs during the school year as part of our series, Getting Ready to Apply.
Episode 15 delved into the wide-ranging topic of activities—both extracurricular activities that students participate in at school and community-based activities that students participate in outside of school. We talked about music, student government, school publications, public speaking of all kinds, theater, service organizations, subject field and future career clubs, and athletics. But, in addition to activities, many high school students engage in some sort of work—whether paid or unpaid internships, volunteer work, or part-time jobs. Depending on your child and your family circumstances, these work activities can play an important role in your child’s life and are all a productive use of your child’s free time, which is something that colleges like to see on an application. Some college applications have sections specifically devoted to paid and unpaid work activities. Having something to say in such a section of an application shows a college that your child is likely responsible, dependable, serious, and able to manage his or her time effectively.
Let us say from the beginning that there is probably nothing that students can do to get them better prepared quicker for the real world than to have actual work experience in high school or college. Whether that work experience takes the form of internships or volunteer work or part-time jobs, students learn a lot from being in a workplace and under the supervision of adults who are not teachers. Adults outside of the school environment have different—and likely higher—standards for student behavior and work-related traits, such as initiative, perseverance, self-discipline, flexibility, and gumption.
Let us also say that experiences like these, especially in internships and volunteer services, make great material for college application essays. But we will do more on that topic in a later episode.
Students who have internships in high school almost universally say that the internship was one of the most valuable learning experiences they ever had. Adult supervisors at the workplace almost universally say that having the student intern was a great experience for the organization as well. Clearly, some students might be unprepared academically or socially for an internship, and some organizations might be unprepared to use an intern effectively. But, when a student is prepared and the organization is welcoming, internships are a well-documented way of helping students acquire the skills they will use in real life when they are employed.
Unlike many innovative programs brought into schools, there is simply no downside to student internships. Almost 40 years ago, my nonprofit started evaluating internship programs that were funded by the federal government and operated in individual school districts. Every one we looked at offered great results for students and received high marks from the adults involved—both in the workplace and in the schools. We never evaluated any kind of innovative program that was more effective or more universally liked.
We can tell countless stories of high school students’ internship experiences and how effective they were—from working in a prestigious architecture firm in Manhattan to working in a small, full-service advertising agency to working in technology support at a CUNY college campus to working in a small children’s clothing store to working in a large engineering company, where one of our students actually solved a problem that the engineers were having trouble with.
Some high schools have programs that seek out and place their students into internship programs. One excellent program that does this is operated by the National Academy Foundation (NAF), a nonprofit organization that supports the programming of over 660 career academies in high schools in 38 states, serving over 81,000 students. We have an interview with a longtime NAF staff member coming up in this series.
But, if your high school does not have an internship program, you can still help your child seek out an internship on your own—most likely during the summer, but perhaps after school instead. Ideally, you would have your child look for an internship in a career field of interest and in an organization where a responsible adult would agree to supervise and mentor your child. We are not saying that this is particularly easy to do or that your child will not have to compete with college students—in the summer, at least—who are also looking for internships and who might be more qualified than your child to help the organization. However, we are saying that an internship experience with personal adult mentoring is priceless and worth the headache of trying to find one. Using whatever personal connections you might have at work, through friends, at church, or elsewhere might be your best chance of helping your child find an internship.
Just a note: Some internships are paid, and some are unpaid. For example, NAF strongly believes that internships should be paid. To be sure, paid internships are a better simulation of the actual world of work and increase the likelihood that the student will be taken seriously by the adults at hand. Nonetheless, internships are such a good experience for students that we would argue that an unpaid internship experience is definitely worth it and being able to accept an unpaid internship should make one easier to find for your high schooler.
2. Volunteer Service
Many future career choices could be informed by having students do some volunteer service in high school to see more closely what a career is like. Students interested in the “helping professions”—like health services, education, counseling, social work, or the ministry—would all benefit from a practical experience with adults in those fields. Students interested in a future in nonprofit organizations, which serve children and adults in the U.S. and abroad—might be able to get a look at the nonprofit world through a volunteer assignment while in still in school. Students interested in government and politics might have the chance to look at how local government serves its constituents—especially if it is an election year.
Three types of volunteer service are quite popular and relatively easy to work out. The first is in the health services, where students volunteer as aides of various kinds in hospitals and nursing homes. These assignments are especially useful for students interested in studying the health sciences in college and pursuing a career in the health professions after that. These volunteer assignments let a college know that a student who wants to be a doctor, for example, has taken the initiative to get a volunteer slot at a medical facility and has put in a substantial number of hours (at least 100 hours) being responsible and doing what was asked of him or her. Clearly, students cannot do actual medical work in a hospital, but they can help in the offices, work in the gift shop, and make deliveries to patients’ rooms. In a nursing home they can talk with the residents, play games with them, help in the cafeteria, work at the reception desk, and more. These volunteer assignments are available to students who go and ask for them in a respectful and professional way.
A second type of volunteer service is through activities provided by local churches and their youth groups. Some of these are short-term activities during the school year, like tutoring younger students in an after-school community program supported, in part, by the church. Some are more intensive activities during the summer, like going on a week-long “mission trip” in or outside the U.S. to provide help to a community in need—for example, child care, elder care, soup kitchen support, neighborhood clean-up, or home repair and construction. A series of summer and after-school projects like these tell a college that the student cares about others, believes in working for the common good, and behaves responsibly in a variety of situations, often away from home. Faith-based colleges, such as those we talked about in our first series Understanding the World of College, would likely be especially impressed with faith-based volunteer service on a student’s application. By the way, many students who go on church mission trips are not actually members of the church, but rather are friends of students who are members—so have your child ask his or her friends, if your family does not belong to a church.
A third type of volunteer activity is governmental or political in nature, ranging from a summer position in a local government office (this might even turn out to be a paid position if funding is available in your city or town) to staff work on a political campaign for local, state, or national office, even if it is just stuffing envelopes. A chance to meet local officials or staffers can be invaluable in making connections for future jobs. They can also write great recommendations for college applications.
3. Part-Time Jobs
Many high school students work during the summers, and many also work after school or on weekends during the school year—sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they need to in order to help support themselves or their families. Regardless of what these jobs are, some college applications will ask students to tell how many hours for how many weeks they spent working at each one. Again, colleges want to see that students use their free time productively, and part-time jobs are certainly one productive use of time. If a student can keep a part-time job for a substantial length of time, that shows colleges that the student is trustworthy, dependable, and committed—all of which are important attributes of good college students.
Students who need to work must, understandably, take whatever jobs are available to high school students in your community at the best rate of pay possible—working in shops, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, or residential and recreational facilities and doing a variety of jobs, like waiting on people, busing tables, stocking shelves, doing light maintenance, assisting in the cafeteria, being a camp counselor, lifeguarding at a local pool, and so on.
Students who do not have to work might be better off looking for an internship or doing volunteer work that allows them to pursue a career interest or prospective college major. It is likely that internships and volunteer work would be a better source of lessons learned, which could help in writing college application essays later.
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- The reasons that working with adults outside of school is so important
- The advantages of unpaid internships in small businesses
- The right time of year to start looking for volunteer work
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