No one likes working for free. But sometimes the work experience unpaid internships provide can be valuable in building out your resume.
Looming student debt and daily financial needs can make unpaid internships seem like an opportunity for the privileged few. Yet even if you carry a large financial burden, there are ways to make an unpaid internship work if you need the experience to land your dream job.
Here are some ways to evaluate an unpaid internship opportunity and support yourself financially in the meantime.
How to evaluate an unpaid internship
“I get employers who say, ‘I want someone fresh out of college but kind of with the equivalent of two to three years of work experience,'” said Esther Freeman, director of the Odyssey Program at Elon University. “Where are you going to get that? The internship.”
Freeman, a first-generation college student, took an unpaid internship with a U.S. senator while getting her undergraduate degree. She said the experience helped shape her career — by ruling out a career in politics. She knows how formative such experiences can be.
Despite this, she encourages students to evaluate multiple aspects of an opportunity before jumping in.
1. Are there similar paid opportunities?
It may be exciting to stumble across the chance to work for a well-known company or in a position in your field. But you should keep an eye out for paid opportunities that offer the same experience.
“What I ask students if they have an opportunity is, ‘Is this finite? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing?'” said Freeman. “Opportunities come and go. Maybe it’s not the right internship at the moment.”
In general, Freeman recommends applying to paid internships first to help minimize the financial burden of your degree. “If you’re going to have internships, it’ll be wonderful to get the paid ones,” said Freeman.
But this best-case scenario doesn’t always work out. “There will be some amazing opportunities that aren’t paid,” she said.
2. Can you mitigate the cost of an unpaid internship?
Not all unpaid internships are created equal. If you’re looking for a summer internship, for example, you might find opportunities in pricey cities, where rent, food, and transportation could be more expensive.
Even if you find unpaid work during the school year, you might have to commute across town, driving up your costs. You might also end up working hours that make paid part-time work impossible.
Consider these questions to see if you can find an internship that will cost you less:
Are there internships in a cheaper area?
- Can you find and take on paid part-time work while you complete your internship?
- Is there a similar work-study program or another opportunity closer to school or home?
Is this something you can do for academic credit during the school year? On the flip side, if you do it for academic credit in the summer, will it cost you more money to pay for the credits?
Location and the time of year you take on an internship can affect its affordability. Look for internships near your home or school to reduce transportation costs, for example.
Double-check whether your internship will allow you to pick up paid part-time work on the side. Some internships might require you to work full time or be on call, making your schedule difficult to coordinate with another job.
How to afford an unpaid internship
If you decide an unpaid internship is right for you, there are a few ways you can make it work.
1. Plan ahead and save up to cover costs
Freeman stressed that planning is critical when trying to balance an unpaid internship with your financial needs.
“I try to get students to be strategic about when to do them and then prepare financially ahead of time,” said Freeman. “How much do you need to save so you can have the funds and not be stressed out about taking this opportunity?”
Use an online calculator to set a savings goal. Consider how much money you may need to save to live comfortably while taking on unpaid work. Then, use a money management tool such as Mint to help you stay on track to meet your savings goal.
2. Ask your family for support
Chances are, your family can’t cover your living expenses during an internship. But if you speak with them ahead of time, they may be able to support you in other ways.
For example, Freeman mentioned that your family may be able to pitch in for clothes. After all, if you’re working in an office, your wardrobe may need an upgrade.
“For the holidays, tell your family to get you gift cards to get the right clothing to take with you,” said Freeman. You can do the same to help you cover food or transportation costs.
3. Connect with resources at your school
Career development offices and faculty on campus may be able to help you.
Freeman said one student she worked with was able to get a scholarship that paid for her living expenses during an unpaid internship, a resource she would never had known was available if they hadn’t connected with career services.
Even if your school is small or doesn’t have a robust career development program, approach faculty members for help.
“Professors have connections in the industry they teach in,” said Freeman. “They’re going to know students who interned before.”
Professors can connect you with alumni who have made it through similar unpaid internships in the past and may have valuable knowledge that could help you out.
Take advantage of the right opportunities
Freeman said unpaid internships can be a hard sell, especially when you’re strapped for cash and have student loans. But, as she said, “You may need to sacrifice something now because the payoff in the future is going to be worth it.”
So weigh your options carefully. You may need to balance unpaid work with a part-time job and your coursework. Just be sure you’re picking up work opportunities that help you become marketable for jobs after graduation.
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|1 Important Disclosures for CollegeAve.
College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.
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3 Important Disclosures for Ascent.
Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB) or Turnstile Capital Management, LLC (TCM), which are not affiliated entities. Certain restrictions and limitations may apply. Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. All loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Other terms and conditions apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of TCM and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.
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PNC Bank is one of the nation’s largest education loan providers. For over 40 years, PNC has been committed to helping students and their families make possible the adventure of college.
6 Important Disclosures for SunTrust.
Before applying for a private student loan, SunTrust recommends comparing all financial aid alternatives including grants, scholarships, and both federal and private student loans. To view and compare the available features of SunTrust private student loans, visit https://www.suntrust.com/loans/student-loans/private.
Certain restrictions and limitations may apply. SunTrust Bank reserves the right to change or discontinue this loan program without notice. Availability of all loan programs is subject to approval under the SunTrust credit policy and other criteria and may not be available in certain jurisdictions.
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A government loan is made according to rules set by the U.S. Department of Education. Government loans have fixed interest rates, meaning that the interest rate on a government loan will never go up or down.
Government loans also permit borrowers in financial trouble to use certain options, such as income-based repayment, which may help some borrowers. Depending on the type of loan that you have, the government may discharge your loan if you die or become permanently disabled.
Depending on what type of government loan that you have, you may be eligible for loan forgiveness in exchange for performing certain types of public service. If you are an active-duty service member and you obtained your government loan before you were called to active duty, you are entitled to interest rate and repayment benefits for your loan.
A private student loan is not a government loan and is not regulated by the Department of Education. A private student loan is instead regulated like other consumer loans under both state and federal law and by the terms of the promissory note with your lender.
If your private student loan has a fixed interest rate, then that rate will never go up or down. If your private student loan has a variable interest rate, then that rate will vary depending on an index rate disclosed in your application. If the interest rate on the new private student loan is less than the interest rate on your government loans, your payments will be less if you refinance.
If you don’t pay a private student loan as agreed, the lender can refer your loan to a collection agency or sue you for the unpaid amount.
Remember also that like government loans, most private loans cannot be discharged if you file bankruptcy unless you can demonstrate that repayment of the loan would cause you an undue hardship. In most bankruptcy courts, proving undue hardship is very difficult for most borrowers.
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