Grades are important, but they can only get you so far — getting practical experience in your field is another key part of the college experience. Most college students in the U.S. gain such experience by participating in summer internships.
To remain competitive with their American peers, international students also should pursue internship opportunities, some of which may be in the United States. These experiences enable students to enhance their resumes, learn how to conduct themselves professionally, and meet people who can guide and advance their careers. Companies often make job offers to students at the end of successful internships.
Below you’ll find tips for securing an internship in the U.S., getting the right visa information, and making the most of an exciting internship opportunity.
Part 1: Getting an Internship
The first part of your internship quest will entail finding a position.
5 Tips for Securing a U.S. Internship
1. Highlight your strengths.
As an international student, you may have knowledge or expertise in areas that U.S. college students don’t. Highlighting strengths such as fluency in one or more languages or global knowledge and experience can make your candidacy stand out. These areas of expertise can be especially helpful if the employer has offices in your home country or works with customers around the globe.
2. Think globally about your work experience.
As you polish your resume, remember to include all related prior work experience, even if it was gained outside the United States. I interviewed an economics major from New York University who completed an internship with JPMorgan Chase in the summer of 2014 and received a job offer from the firm at the end of it. He had spent one summer interning with Citibank in Singapore, his home country, and a previous summer interning at Citibank in India before he applied for the internship at JPMorgan Chase. His experience at different institutions, as well as in different countries, strengthened his candidacy when he applied to JPMorgan Chase.
3. Expand your network.
Talk to students who have interned with the companies or organizations you are interested in — and to alumni from your school who are currently employed there. Companies often visit college campuses to recruit candidates, so be sure to attend those presentations and make contact with speakers afterwards. Ask for a business card or contact information, and follow up to request a meeting to discuss your options. LinkedIn is also a powerful tool for connecting with people and expanding your network.
4. Do your homework.
Before you complete your application and appear for an interview, learn all you can about the organization. Your cover letter to the company’s human resources department — or, better yet, to a specific contact — should demonstrate your enthusiasm for the position and clearly describe your background, interests, and goals. Prepping before the interview will help you ask good questions during your conversation. Brush up on your industry knowledge by researching the field, small and large players in it, possible competitors, and the latest publications related to your sector. You want to convey that you understand the domain and goals of the organization you’re applying to.
5. Begin the process early.
Xun Tao, a statistics degree holder currently interning with a boutique firm specializing in health care analytics, suggests that you ask your International Student Services Office how long it will take for you to receive employment authorization (see below for further details). This process may involve application and visa processing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with timelines for issuing visas ranging between one week and 90 days.
Students who are enrolled in a college outside the U.S. or who have graduated within the past 12 months can intern in this country through an Exchange Visitor Program. You can find the sectors in which internships are permitted as well as a list of visa-sponsoring organizations at the Visa Exchange Visitor Program website. The wait time for an interview and visa processing for the Exchange Visitor visa (J-1) will vary depending on your country. You can learn more about these timelines by city at the Visa Wait Times page on the U.S. Department of State’s website.
Small vs. Large Companies
The biggest challenge you may face as an international student seeking an internship in the U.S. is that many smaller companies believe hiring an international student requires dealing with a lot of immigration-related bureaucracy. If you are well-informed about the process, you can explain and potentially convince a prospective employer that this is not the case.
Another option is to focus your efforts on securing an internship with a large multinational company that has sufficient resources and experience hiring internationally. You need to be aware, though, that such organizations tend to be very selective. The process can be highly competitive, as large numbers of U.S. and international students are vying for the same positions.
An Improving Outlook — Especially in Several Key Sectors
On an optimistic note, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that about 34 percent of organizations responding to its Job Outlook 2015 survey have plans to hire international students from the graduating class of 2015. This is an increase from 2010, when 18.8 percent of survey participants indicated similar plans. The 2015 respondents most likely to hire international students are in computer and electronics manufacturing, wholesale trade, information, and accounting.
Part 2: Securing Authorization to Work in the U.S.
Depending on the stage you’re at in your education, there are different procedures required to get employment authorization for a U.S. internship.
CPT vs. OPT for Students Studying in the U.S.
Below you’ll find a chart outlining the primary differences between Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). If you’re currently enrolled in a U.S. college with an F-1 student visa, the best solution is to use (CPT) authorization for your internship.
For authorization to work after graduation, you will need to apply for (OPT), which allows you to work in the U.S. for a maximum of 12 months. OPT is often used by students who have graduated and are waiting for an H-1B work visa to be issued. (The H-1B is a visa that enables employers to hire foreign workers in specific fields, such as engineering and medicine.)
Rules tend to change over time, so it is best to contact the International Student Services Office on your campus for the latest information. You can also read more about the available options by visiting the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services page for foreign students.
Comparison of CPT and OPT authorization
If your H-1B authorization is delayed beyond the 12-month limit for OPT, you can get an OPT extension for up to 17 months if you have graduated from a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) program. There are additional conditions and criteria for this extension, so be sure to confirm the details by visiting your International Student Services Office or the USCIS website.
International Students Enrolled in Foreign Universities
For students who are enrolled in (or who have, within the last year, graduated from) colleges outside the U.S., sponsor organizations can provide aid in searching for internship positions in the U.S. These organizations help students find a host company for their internships and arrange sponsorship of Exchange Visitor program J-1 visas. Note that students must apply for the J-1 visa at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country.
If you need an extension to your J-1 visa, the program sponsor can apply for it if your stay has not exceeded the maximum allowed length for your program. For more details about J-1 visa regulations, you can refer to the Exchange Visitor Program website.
Part 3: Making the Most of Your Internship
Once you’ve landed the internship — and gone through the extensive legal process accompanying it — you’ll want to make the most of it.
Opportunity to Learn
It may seem obvious, but ask plenty of questions, and show interest in what you are doing. The NYU student I spoke with emphasized that it is important to demonstrate a strong work ethic, even if the tasks assigned to you may not always be very interesting. Think of your internship as a way for the company to “test drive” your skills. If they like how you work, they may offer you a job at the conclusion of your internship.
Networking at the Organization
Companies often invest a lot in their interns and may organize professional meetings and presentations from various lines of business. Use these opportunities to foster a relationship with your mentors and to expand your professional network. And remember to use LinkedIn to stay in touch once the internship is over.
Internships may be paid or unpaid. Some employers offer benefits such as housing and food or transportation allowances, but they are not required to do so. Even if you participate in a paid internship, there are various expenses that students need to account for, including:
- Income tax withholdings
- Initial costs, like hotel stays, before your housing begins
- Transportation from the airport
- Extra funds in case of emergencies
Interning in a country other than your own can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but it requires planning, investigation, and persistence. The opportunities and relationships you establish, though, are well worth the effort.
- Foreign Academic Students: Students in F-1 Non-Immigrant Status. Retrieved April 02, 2015 from United States Citizen and Immigration Services.
- International Student Guide to Employment in the U.S. Retrieved April 02, 2015 from Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.
- International Student Hiring Continues to Climb (February 4, 2015). Retrieved April 02, 2015 from National Association of Colleges and Employers.
- J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Intern Program. Retrieved from U.S. Department of State Exchange Visitor Program.
- Moeller, R.N., Hiring International Students as Interns: The Process Demystified (2008). Retrieved April 02, 2015 from University of Illinois, Springfield.