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Virtual internships: what are they and how do they work?

A student's guide to virtual internships

Discover the differences and similarities between virtual and in-person internships, along with ways to sell an online experience on your CV.

When lockdown hit, some employers were able to offer virtual internships and we do not yet know to what extent this will continue. While some might make the transition back to traditional in-person internships, other employers may hold on to what the pandemic has taught them and continue to make work experience opportunities available digitally – whether their employees have returned to the office or not.

What are virtual internships and how do they work?

Simply put: virtual internships are a way of undertaking work experience with an employer but done digitally and remotely rather than in person. From those we've spoken to, employers put real thought into making their virtual internships a meaningful experience for students. They know that you want to gain real learning and an understanding of the company and the sector and they are trying to provide this, despite the difficulties posed by the medium. Many virtual internships are, therefore, made up of:

  • learning and training opportunities provided via an e-learning platform – this is likely to be a mix of soft skills training for everyone and job-specific training for your particular scheme
  • distinct project work, either individually or as part of a group – this means that you are likely to work on single projects rather than helping out lots of people on smaller tasks (as you might do in the office)
  • one-to-one digital consultations and catch ups with your manager and, if provided, your allocated buddy and/or mentor (a buddy tends to be a graduate employee there to make sure you are OK, while a mentor is usually a senior-level employee)
  • digital networking sessions with employees around the business
  • digital socialising opportunities with other interns, current graduates and other employees (expect ‘happy hours’, ‘pub’ quizzes and similar).

Employers are keen to capture those bump-into-people-at-the-water-cooler conversations and networking opportunities you might gain in a workplace and so try to facilitate this through online chat.

What if I don’t have the right technical equipment?

You might be worried about not having the right technical equipment. The technology and software needed will vary according to employers, but at least one employer that we know of (IBM) provided interns with laptops this summer. If you are concerned about not having the right technology for future virtual opportunities, speak with your contact at the employer when the time comes (whether the recruiter or your intern programme manager). They may be able to help come up with a personalised solution.

Would I still get feedback on a virtual internship?

Another concern might be whether and how interns will gain high quality feedback. It’s worth noting that how managers and colleagues provide feedback does vary between and within employers in normal times anyway, with good managers providing regular, specific, one-to-one feedback. It’s also fair to say that most organisations are alert to the potential downsides of working in isolation and have put processes in place to facilitate regular contact and feedback, particularly for those still learning. So, if anything, you may get more feedback during a virtual internship than you would do face to face.

However, we’d always encourage interns to be proactive and ask for feedback – not just from managers but also from recent graduates and more experienced colleagues. The online chats should facilitate this.

Will I still get a job offer out of a virtual internship?

Traditionally, most employers use their internships to recruit for their graduate programme, either offering interns a graduate job at the end of the internship or fast-tracking them through to the final stages of the graduate recruitment process. Can you expect the same for virtual internships?

The answer to this question is mixed. Some recruiters used their internships as a selection method as before, perhaps with an additional assessment step built in (such as another interview). Others didn’t, but it is likely that they still encouraged impressive interns to apply for graduate vacancies.

How can I get the most from a virtual internship and sell it on my CV?

As with an in-person internship, the best way to get the most out of a virtual internship is to throw yourself into it. For example:

  • Take part in all training modules open to you, even optional ones.
  • Contribute to online chats and networking sessions, even if you feel awkward. Other people will feel similarly.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from colleagues on your current work, your future career and so on.
  • Actively seek feedback and, whatever you do, learn from it and act on it. Ask questions but make a note of the answers, so that you don’t need to ask the same question again.
  • Work on your time management (read our tips here) so that you prioritise and complete tasks promptly.
  • Make brief notes of what you did, what you achieved and any feedback so that you can update your CV later (particularly keep track of numbers to help quantify and scale your achievements).

On your CV, don’t be afraid to say that it was a virtual internship; taking part in a virtual internship will impress recruiters, especially if it was during lockdown when so many work experience opportunities were cancelled. When writing up your experience, stress what you have learned and what you actually did, including if you have become familiar with any new apps or programs.

Gain more tips on how to write up your work experience in our big CV writing feature, which includes a template CV.

Which employers ran virtual internships?

During lockdown, the employers that switched to virtual internships included:

  • Amazon
  • Bloomberg
  • Clifford Chance
  • Hogan Lovells International LLP
  • IBM
  • Lloyd’s (the insurance market)
  • Macquarie Group
  • Marsh & McLennan
  • Schroders
  • Sky.

What if I haven't carried out a virtual internship?

As we say in our feature on internships, work experience and the coronavirus, don’t worry about not having done an internship during lockdown; it would be a rare employer that would expect students to have done so. If you would like tips for how you can impress recruiters through your other experiences during and after lockdown (even if you’ve just been brushing up on your cooking skills), take a look at our article on filling a coronavirus-shaped gap on your CV.

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