‘What is an internship and how do I get one?’ Your FAQs answered

Last updated: 11 Jan 2024, 12:19

From ‘What is an internship?’ to when to do an internship and other questions, discover everything you need to know and where to find out more.

Interns working on computers in an office: what is an internship?

Ever wondered how to apply for an internship or even what an internship is? In this article, we answer frequently asked questions and point you in the direction of our other helpful internship advice, to help you decide whether it’s worth doing an internship, what to expect and how to make the most of the experience.

You can find internship vacancies on targetjobs as well as on employers’ websites. To find out about what internships are, read on or jump to the topic that interests you the most:

  1. What are internships?
  2. Are internships virtual this year?
  3. Are internships worth doing?
  4. How long does an internship usually last?
  5. Can you do an internship while studying?
  6. When to do an internship
  7. How to apply for an internship
  8. How hard is it to get an internship?
  9. Do I need an internship to graduate?
  10. How old do you have to be for internships?
  11. Does an internship count as employment?

What is an internship?

An internship traditionally means a specific type of formal work experience offered to university students. It tends to have a fixed structure and includes set tasks or project work, as well as training and skills development opportunities and (at larger employers) business improvement projects or projects focusing on corporate social responsibility. These internships can be offered by large or small employers, but they are more common with larger employers that regularly hire graduates. They were traditionally aimed mainly at penultimate-year students, but this is changing. Some employers (particularly those such as engineering, IT and construction employers, that hire from vocational degrees) call these opportunities placements. In law, internships for barristers are called mini-pupillages and internships for solicitors are called vacation schemes .

Increasingly, however, universities and students are referring to some other kinds of work experience with employers as internships, because the term ‘work experience’ tends to be associated with school students. These types of 'internships' are often more informal types of work experience and they may be either advertised on an as-needed basis or initiated by the student through a speculative application. It’s also more common among small and medium-sized employers . This article will advise on both types of internships.

Internships aren’t the only form of work experience for students. Year-long industrial placements, insight days, part-time jobs, volunteering and extracurricular activities are all valuable additions to your CV – read more about what each of your work experience options involves. Remember there are lots of alternatives to internships available too (as explained by Accenture).

Are internships virtual or in person?

In 2020 a few internships started to be run remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While many employers have now returned to offering in-person opportunities, some are still running virtual internships. You can learn more about virtual internships in the UK and how they differ slightly from in-person ones in our other article.

What is the point of an internship? Are internships worth it?

All work experience is good work experience and any type of internship will give you the opportunity to:

  • develop skills through hands-on work, both skills that are specific to the industry or job role and transferable skills that can be applied to any job
  • gain experience in a workplace environment and a sense of the etiquette, such as when to ask for help and how to adapt your communication style to different colleagues
  • network with other employees and make contacts that could help you in the future, including a reference for job applications
  • try out a particular job role or career sector to decide whether it's something you’d like to pursue
  • try out an employer to learn more about what it does, experience its culture and decide whether you’d like to work there (more on how to research a company )
  • practise going through the recruitment process, including application forms, covering letters and interviews, before you apply for graduate jobs.

In addition to these benefits, some internships can lead directly to you being offered a graduate role or fast-tracked to the later stages of the graduate recruitment process. This typically happens with larger employers that have a large annual graduate intake; it might also happen at some smaller employers if they have the budget to make a new hire at the time.

If, after your internship, you would like to work in that profession but not necessarily for that employer – or the employer isn’t able to offer you a role – you’ll have first-hand experience of the sector and the role, which will enhance your CV and interview answers. Even if you decide it isn’t the right career for you, your experience on the internship will enable you to explain to future recruiters why you decided against that sector, showing you have made a considered decision to apply for jobs in another area, while still using the experience as examples of your transferable skills.

While all work experience is good for your CV and your personal development, you only get out of an internship what you put in. The best way to ensure an internship is worthwhile for your career development and make a good impression on the employer is to follow our tips for the first day of your internship and how to become a star intern

How long does an internship usually last? How many hours is an internship?

For formal, structured internships, the employer will set the length and number of hours you’ll be required to work.

  • A summer internship typically lasts between four and ten weeks during the long university vacation.
  • A year-long internship (also known as an industrial placement year or sandwich-year placement) can last from six to twelve months and is typically held during a year out from your degree
  • Vacation schemes are typically two weeks and a mini-pupillage up to a week.

More informal opportunities – those offered by smaller employers or those you arrange yourself – might stick to those lengths of time or may be different. They may be decided in agreement with you if you apply speculatively. It’s also sometimes possible to complete an internship one day each week alongside your studies, rather than in one continuous block, if the employer advertises it that way or you agree it with the employer.

Can you do an internship while studying? When in your degree can you do an internship?

For formal opportunities, the employer decides who can apply. Always check the internship advert carefully to be sure of the requirements.

  • Some internships are for specific undergraduate year groups, such as penultimate years – the second year of a three-year course or the third year of a four-year course.
  • Some are intended for postgraduate students, including masters and PhD students , and these are most frequently offered in the sectors that accept postgraduate students who complete a conversion course after having studied an unrelated undergraduate degree (for example in the property profession ).
  • There are also internships for graduates .
  • Some internships are open to both school leavers and university students.
  • Some internships are offered to all year groups but for specific demographics, such as a particular socio-economic background or under-represented groups in that profession.

Larger employers that are in typical graduate professions (including investment banking and consulting ) are more likely to offer internships only for specific cohorts of students, as listed above. Smaller employers or those in sectors where there aren’t as many formal internships are more likely to open up their internships to any student and graduate – sometimes also including people who have never been to university (which is increasingly the case for publishing internships , for example).

When is the best time to do an internship – and when should you apply?

Larger employers that run graduate programmes tend to set deadlines for their summer internships around the same time as their graduate deadlines, though a few might stretch into spring. Take a look at our internship application timetable for advice on when to apply for these. Smaller employers are likely to recruit closer to the start date of the opportunity.

How do you get an internship?

For formal internships, whether at large or small employers, the application process tends to broadly replicate the employer’s graduate or entry-level hiring process – though it may be slightly condensed, missing out some stages. Read more about the application process for big graduate employers’ internships .

While employers with larger intakes will typically ask you to fill in an application form , smaller employers are likely to request a CV and covering letter via email. Some employers ask prospective interns to apply via LinkedIn, which may or may not ask for a CV or a covering letter.

You can also try applying speculatively to employers that are not already advertising work experience.

However you apply, it’s common to attend an interview before you are offered a place on an internship. This can be either a face-to-face, phone or video interview. The following advice will help you stand out:

How hard is it to get an internship?

Employers expect the same quality in applications for internships as they would for their graduate roles, even though they don’t expect you to have done as much work experience. After all, they may be considering hiring interns who impress them. So, make sure you put as much care into your internship applications as you would for a graduate job.

Fewer employers were able to run internships during 2020 and 2021 due to social distancing restrictions and, in some sectors, the need to work from home. It’s possible that this has increased the competition for internships as students and graduates who missed out then are driven to apply later – though internships that are only open to specific year groups would be unaffected.

For the best chance of being accepted onto an internship, it’s a good idea to look for both internships with small and medium-sized employers as well as internships with large employers .

Do I need an internship to graduate?

A few vocational degrees, particularly in construction and engineering, do require you to have undertaken a placement as part of the course in order to graduate. However, these are typically ones where you have to be sponsored by an employer before you are offered a place, attending an employer interview as part of your university application, and all work placements will be done with them. In those few cases you will need to have done an internship to graduate, but you will know that before you start and usually it will all be arranged for you. All you have to do is turn up.

A few degree courses include work-based learning as a module, which may include a placement that counts towards your credits. Usually, though, this isn’t so much a placement as a project assessed and directed by an employer, which might include workplace visits.

In most other cases, you don’t need to have done an internship to graduate from university in the UK.

How old do you have to be for internships?

In the UK, you must be at least school leaving age (16) to receive minimum wage, which is required by law if you count as a worker or employee. The rules are different for short periods of work shadowing rather than doing work yourself, if you need to complete an internship or placement as part of your course or if you are a volunteer – see our advice on unpaid internships for more. Organisations may also have their own minimum age requirements (typically 16 or 18) depending on the type of work being done and their insurance policies. It’s also illegal for under-14s to work for any profit-making organisation, even unpaid.

Does an internship count as employment?

Yes, paid internships count as employment. An internship should be paid unless it meets certain criteria .

Undertaking an internship may affect your entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance – find out whether this is likely to apply to you in our article on work experience after graduation .

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

People reading this also searched for roles in these areas:

Related careers advice

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.