One of the most frequent responses I hear when students are asked about their learning is “why do I have to learn this?”.  Unfortunately for students, many schools still need to “teach to the test” due to curricular constraints (ie. testing) and as a result, students do not see much “real world” connection to classroom lessons. One of the best ways to get students to remedy this is the use of Authentic Learning experiences. According to Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Authentic Learning describes learning activities that are either carried out in real-world contexts, or have high transfer to a real-world setting. There is no better way for students to learn real-world skills than participating in an internship. This article is intended to offer students advice on how to avail themselves of an authentic work experience. One thing to note: in this article I will use the term “internship” to describe an out-of-school learning experience in a workplace environment. For various reasons such as insurance and employment laws, different geographical locations may require you to use such terms as “volunteer work”, or “workplace experience”. Either way, the end goal is the same: stand out on your university application by learning and developing new skills that you may not experience in a classroom.  

I was extremely fortunate to see the power of Authentic Learning experiences in the first school in which I taught, the High School of Economics and Finance (HSEF). Located in the heart of New York’s Financial District, HSEF was founded with the mission to graduate students with the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue a variety of career pathways in the financial industry and prepare them to attend college. To further this mission, classroom lessons ended at noon every Wednesday and students participated in internships in some of the biggest Wall Street and financial firms in the world. Because of the immense amount of learning that I saw students gain from these experiences, I have been an advocate for internships ever since.  

Later, when I became a school principal in Dubai, Vietnam, and the Netherlands, I was told that creating internships would never work for various reasons: there was not enough time in the schedule, local laws would prohibit students from “working”, or that it would not be possible for students to find businesses and organisations that would provide authentic learning experiences for them. However, because I believed so strongly that students would benefit from participating in an internship, I ploughed ahead and eventually created student internship programs in all three schools (it must be mentioned that there were a lot of other people involved who helped make it happen!).

Why should a student do an internship? 

Everyone has heard about the need to equip students with the necessary skills to prepare them for future jobs that do not yet exist. Sadly, many schools are unable to provide students with authentic learning experiences where student skills most needed for their future can be nourished. Internships are a great way to stand out on your university application and show that you are developing important skills such as analytical thinking, motivation, curiosity, dependability, and flexibility:

What follows below is a “how-to” guide for students to gain authentic learning experiences by participating in an internship.

  1. Identify a profession or field in which you are interested in potentially pursuing after university.. While many students don’t know what they want to “when they grow up”, all learners have interests in certain fields and have thought about pursuing a career in that field or fields. TIP: choose something that you are passionate about!
  2. Once you have narrowed down your interests, do an online search for businesses or organisations in this field in your city or area and copy them into a document.
  3. Write a Curriculum Vitae or resume. If you have never done one before, and are worried that you may not have any experience to put on your CV, don’t worry! Everyone has to start somewhere! You can find many, free, CV templates online and including information like your school, age, interests will allow you to create a full page which you can use to grow as your work experiences and education do as well. Make sure that you have at least two people proof-read your CV, as mistakes do not make a good first impression. TIP: make sure that your contact/email address is not something silly – [email protected] may not get you taken seriously!
  4. Draft an email that you will send to the companies/organisations where you are interested in interning. A short and simple explanation of who you are and why you’re interested in the field will suffice:

Dear Mr. Yuen,

I am a 9th grade student at the International School of Utopia and I am interested in becoming a veterinarian.  I came across your clinic on the internet, and would like to ask you if you would be open to having a student volunteer at your clinic.  I would appreciate the opportunity to intern at your clinic and would like to have the chance to speak with you further about the possibility.  

Thank you,

Your Name

TIP: do not use emojis or other non-professional language that you might use on social media!

  1. After sending your emails, follow up with a phone call. Ask to speak with the person you wrote to and explain that you wrote an email inquiring about an internship and that you’d love the opportunity to meet in person.
  2. The next step will most likely consist of meeting someone at the business or organisation, probably for an interview. This is a real opportunity to grow your interpersonal skills, including your communication skills. You can find lots of interview questions online that you can use for practice.
  3. Don’t get discouraged! Just as I did, you may find that some people have never given much thought to having students as interns. Keep sending those emails – persistence pays off and also demonstrated the important skill of resilience!
  4. Find an adult mentor to help. It could be a parent, guardian, other family member, teacher, or school counsellor. They can proofread your CV and email, and use their network to potentially help find a great place to intern.

Once you have found a business or organisation that will provide you with an internship, what’s next? There will probably be some paperwork that you and/or your parents/guardians will need to sign. Most importnatnly, you should prepare some Learning Objectives for your internship. These should be focused on what you want to learn during your internship about the professional field that you’ll be interning in, as well as the skills that you will use and improve upon. It is important to prepare these Learning Objectives ahead of time and discuss them with your workplace supervisor. By doing so, you will ensure that your supervisor finds meaningful work for you to do and it will give you tangible evidence of what you’ve gained by doing the internship. Your Learning Objectives, coupled with a written reflection of your experience once it ends, will give you lots of valuable things to include in your future CVs, university applications, and job interviews!

I asked one of my previous students about his internship experienc.  He attended a top university and is now working in the energy innovation field. Thisis what he had to say:

“When I was 16, I worked for a week for a climate investment fund on the recommendation of a family friend – for me, that was the start of my now 8-year old career. When someone asks a high-schooler for a resume, they usually expect classes, clubs, maybe the odd summer job- but it says something different when among the pursuits of your teenage years there’s a professional internship on the list. 

An internship is a unique experience that most people don’t get until their Sophomore or Junior year of college. You get access to professionals with decades of experience, have a chance to get your hands on some meaningful tasks, and learn the basics of an industry of your choosing. Is it sometimes a slow start, or feels like you’re being tasked above your level? Like most things in life, the learning curve is something you have to adapt to as well. If given the choice again at 16, I would absolutely choose to do an internship again.”

So what are you waiting for?  The summer is just around the corner – a perfect time to get some workplace experience!