Get an internship now, at age 20, 30, or 40


It used to be that internships were just for college kids. But today, the internship is for anyone who wants to do work they have no track record for doing. The internship is learning ground and proving ground for any age. It’s true that kids in college absolutely must get work experience to be employable after college, and an internship is a good way to do that, at any age.

My favorite internship story is when my eight-year-old son got an internship as a stylist and found himself dressing a model.

People in their 30s get internships to make up for lost time in their 20s. And also to land hipster jobs that are impossibly hard to get—this internship at Versace, for example, went for $3200. That’s right. Some internships are so cool that you have to pay for them.

Goldman Sachs coined the term returnship for people in their 40s who do a job as a test, and not as a hire. It’s a high-class word for temp-to-hire. And the Harvard Business review touts this as the on-ramp for a generation of parents who scales back work periodically to accommodate their personal life.

Even if you don’t get the job offer at the end of the internship, you can put the job on your resume. And whether you’re 20 or 40, you don’t need to say it was an internship. Internship is really just a way for a company to talk about tax issues (Is the company paying employment tax on you? Can you claim unemployment if you’re let go?).

The best thing you can do in an internship is to negotiate for a real title, something else besides intern, so you can put it on your resume. People will assume you were not an intern and they will give you the benefit of doubt that you have solid experience. (Remember, when it comes to a job hunt, omission is not lying. You don’t tell people when you wiped your butt in 2010, right? There’s lots of stuff you leave off your resume because you deem it irrelevant. Whether or not you were an intern is one of those things.)

The best time to be hired as in intern is the fall.

Interns just left their positions to go back to school. They are thinking they just finished their summer internships so they don’t need another internship.  This is the time when you should be pouncing.

It’s very competitive to get internships because the definition of an intern is they’re not qualified.  So the way to increase your odds as a nonqualified person is to compete when there are fewer nonqualified people competing.  That will be your big differentiator – you showed up.

The hardest part of getting an internship is getting a company to create an internship. It’s actually really difficult to manage someone who is not qualified because you have to oversee them so carefully, yet they can produce so little. Managers have to be careful not to spend more time managing the results than the results are worth.  During this cost benefit analysis, lots of internships are simply scrapped.

The great thing about looking for an internship in the fall is that companies have already created an internship, and there’s a spot in the company and they know what the intern can contribute, but the intern is recently gone.

When you’re selling yourself in the fall you can say I’ll do exactly what your last intern did.  When you’re selling yourself in the summer, you have to make up a whole new role.

Students should cut classes to go to internships.

The best time to get an internship is when you’re supposed to be getting good grades because your grades don’t matter.  It’s a complete waste of your time.  There’s no way to translate that you got straight A’s in college.

If you’re from a good college, people already assume you’re smart.  So if you’re at Harvard, you can just get C’s – your network will get you a good job regardless.  If you are from a mediocre college, no one cares if you got good grades.  You’re at a bad college.  They assume it’s easy to get good grades at a mediocre college.  So, all in all, grades don’t matter unless you go to graduate school, and that’s a ticket to hell.

So the time you’re supposed to be in class is a great time to do an internship because getting a C requires very little effort on your part – you have a lot of extra time. Anyway, going to classes and learning about history is total BS.  If you’re so interested in history, you can do it after work for the rest of your life.  Right now, what you need to be doing is focusing on making sure that your on‑ramp to adult life isn’t destroyed by anachronistic educational goals, like being well‑rounded.

What to do next? 

Don’t worry about your resume. Interns, by definition, do not have killer resumes. Write a cover letter saying you’d like an internship in the company, explain what interests you about the company, and ask if they have any internships available. This letter is a long shot, but not in the fall, because all the internships are sitting open this month, and so few people think to apply.

49 replies
  1. MarcyB
    MarcyB says:

    I’ve found that the key to get an internship at an advanced age (I’m mid-40s) is to call it a “practicum” rather than an internship. Doing a practicum seems to be a component of several master’s and doctoral programs I’ve looked at so it’s verbiage with which lots of employers will be comfortable and familiar. “Internship” just smacks of “Hi, I’m 22 and have never done anything other than school.”

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      As much as I’d like to see interns get at least token pay, I don’t thing that companies are taking advantage of unpaid interns any more than schools take advantage of unpaid student teachers.

      It’s actually worse for student teachers because they must pay tuition for the credits they get from the unpaid teaching.

  2. Dee
    Dee says:

    Now All I have to do is find the ceramic studio that is hand throwing pottery and is looking for an intern. I am ready to switch careers.

  3. Jamila
    Jamila says:

    I disagree that GPA isn’t important. True, if you attend an elite college/university GPA isn’t that important because, as you said, your network and the prestige the institution you attend is all you need to get a job.

    But if you attend anything other than an elite school, your GPA is EXTREMELY important. There are many training programs for specific jobs that use GPA as a sorting tool–you have to have a GPA over a certain point, say 3.0 or above, to be considered.

    Thus my recommendation for those who attend/attended non-elite schools is to work, work, WORK your butt off while you’re in school and maintain a GPA of 3.0.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The only time you GPA might matter is when you are getting your first job out of college.

      In your mid-20s not only don’t employers care about your GPA, but also, anyone who puts their GPA on their resume past their mid-20s looks absurd. At that point your work history speaks for you – not your ability to learn what a teacher tells you to learn.

      Also, for college kids determined to have your GPA on your resume: instead of working hard for four years, work hard for one semester, get on the honor roll, and then your resume will say the school you graduated from, the degree, and after that you can write “honors”. No one will ever know it was just one semester.


      • Tiauna
        Tiauna says:

        Penelope, in some fields the GPA absolutely matters and having a low GPA pretty much relegates you to bottom feeder jobs in the field coming out of college, which can impact your trajectory. I majored in accounting in college. All of the top employers wanted 3.5 GPAs or higher and visited the accounting honors society first, before the career fair and other venues. We had to have high GPAs to gain entry and therefore access to the best internships and entry level jobs. Having an entry level job at a top firm or company gives more leverage to negotiate salary later over some others who were stuck with jobs that those of us with the high GPAs didn’t want. It doesn’t have to be either or with grades and working. I did both and I’m glad I did. By the way, I’m officially mid-career and have yet to join a company that didn’t require a copy of my transcripts.

        • Scott Davis
          Scott Davis says:

          I understand the problems that you are running into with on-campus recruiting but I’ve hired college graduates and in my experience we used GPA just to filter out what we thought would be poor candidates at places like career fairs. In fact, I frequently went to career fairs to meet the employees recruiting for other companies so I could hire them for sales positions at my firm, not really to hire graduates.

          You’re probably not going to get that job meeting with recruiters in an on-campus beauty contest. You will get it if you are persistent in pursuing the opportunity and show that you can think about how to create value for your employer. I would hire the 3.0 graduate who did that over the next ten 4.0 graduates that lined up at my booth at the career fair.

          Best of luck!

          • Tiauna
            Tiauna says:

            A couple of clarifying points as my previous post may seem to be about on campus recruiting – it isn’t. My point is this: GPA matters if you want to work for a top CPA firm or company in the accounting field. It’s just the truth.

            1) I do not know any successful CPAs who were C students in college. The accounting curriculum is a precursor for an entry level career in accounting and no amount of on the job learning is going to compensate for a student who failed to do well in this curriculum. Doing well is defined as having over a 3.0 as a minimum. If you know of a CPA who had low grades in college, you are looking at the exception to the rule, not the norm. I wouldn’t bank on being an exception in this economy.

            2) Go to any top CPA firm partner and ask them if they want to hire C students with great attitudes and initiative or A students with great attitudes and initiative. You will then understand what I am talking about. Partners at CPA firms want new hires that already know accounting principles and basic application. U.S. and international accounting standards and taxation are complicated and not something you just pick up on the job only. They also want to hire people who can deal with clients and work on teams – so you need good grades plus a great attitude.

            3) People don’t want to hire average people to manage their financial statements and complex tax positions. Why take a risk on a C student when there are so many stellar candidates with great GPAs and personalities?

            Some people have high GPAs and are also go getters – those are the people I hire and they tend to work out really well.

            4) Accounting is not the only profession that values a high GPA. There are likely others. I can’t speak for sure on those, but what I do know is that in my field, GPA matters if you are coming out of college and also it is a field that verifies education so transcripts will follow you around.

      • Jamila
        Jamila says:

        “Also, for college kids determined to have your GPA on your resume: instead of working hard for four years..”

        I should clarify: When I said “work, work, work” I mean’t at an actual job, either a part-time job or at internships. These are the employers that are most likely to hire you for a full-time position after you graduate.

        In my experience, the person with a high (above 3.0 GPA) and plenty of work/internship is the best prepared to start off their career after college on the right foot.

  4. William W
    William W says:

    Thanks Penelope. I love this idea. I’m constantly trying to spread the message to friends that they can do what they “want” to do and the best way to demonstrate that they really want to do it is by doing it for free.

    It’s a great way to find out if you really do love something and/or if you can develop a talent for it.

    A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of being a 30 year old “intern” but as you said it’s really just a trial run for employment.

    I think a lot of the art in this process is the approach you take in contacting the company or opportunity holder.

  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Great point about college grades not mattering that much. I remember 25 years ago we all used to really look at GPA of incoming grads (in software development, which is what I do). Now we don’t care. What experience does the budding young developer have? What actual software have they delivered? If they lack internships, what’s on their GitHub? Show me the goods and I won’t care if you graduated by the skin of your teeth. Or, hell, if you even graduated.

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    At a certain point I volunteered at an institution in town with hopes to learn a bit more about the career path I wanted to take. Or define it for myself.
    It’s true about creating a space for an intern is really hard. I had no idea what to ask for. I am surprised I even got that far being a volunteer. I learned that I didn’t want to do anything close to what the people I was near were doing.
    Next time I ask to volunteer I will be more specific about the title and other things. Essentially I will take the work out of the managers to create a place for me. Hoping that will make it easier to do.

  7. Tony
    Tony says:

    My brother is in a union. As much as I think unions are on the way out in this country one thing they impressed me with is their “human asset pipeline”. They take people with no experience and have clear road map for getting them to the top of their field (if desired). It has worked out well for my brother in that he is only 26 and is their equivalent of a project manager. When I hear IT companies whining about the lack of qualified people, I wonder what their “human asset pipeline” looks like. I also think that have an internship process is very much part of the puzzle.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a really interesting point about unions. Its ironic that the false promise of lifetime employment that colleges sell us on are actually the real benefits that unions deliver on.

      Then there’s also the issue of a huge shortage of skilled laborers. plumbers, welders, etc.

      I wonder if they will become more relevant to the next generation.


  8. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    Would love to hear your thoughts on the debate happening regarding paid and unpaid internships. I’m a fan of unpaid internships as it’s still ultimately getting the intern experience and allowing them to make professional connections and develop their network. If you can get paid for an internship, great! But don’t avoid getting one, at any age, because you aren’t compensated monetarily. What do you think?

  9. Chris
    Chris says:

    Another great post, Penelope. Love how so much clear common sense shows up in all your advice.

    Could you give me any advice on how long an internship should last to be useful to the employer? I’d like to do this, but I’m not in college and I could only afford to go two months without a salary. For the field I’m thinking of I have no closely relevant experience, but it’s office-based and I do have a white-collar work history.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The employer probably needs 3-6 months. Some ways you might approach this is either asking for a very small payment, so you can go for more than two months, or to work a second job, on the side. The second idea is difficult, but in fact, it’s pretty common. And, to be honest, every time I’ve changed careers I’ve done two jobs at once while I figured out how to do the career I want to go into. (Come to think of it, I think this is what my homeschooling blog is – me just sort of guessing that alternative education will be huge so I want my foot in the door when it happens. I blog every day on the homeschool blog, but I don’t really make money from it.)


  10. Kate
    Kate says:

    Sometimes grad school makes all the difference. I’m in public health – an educator with an MPH – and having the graduate degree helped me land the job but most importantly do the job. From program management to creating initiatives, monitoring and then evaluating them – the skills I learned in grad school rock the casbah! But of course I also had to do internships as part of the degree and was fortunate to have amazing mentors too.

  11. Carrie Gallagher
    Carrie Gallagher says:

    This is really smart advice. I attended the HubSpot Inbound ’13 conference this summer and met a HS employee who had only been working for them 4 months. I asked about how she got the job (I’ve heard it’s very competitive) and she explained that she basically had to audition by spending a few months on a marketing research project for no salary. This is someone who was successful at Microsoft in her previous job and isn’t a spring chicken, so it seems the really good companies are vetting candidates much more carefully.

    Another thing people should try is a blog centered on their career…anyone interested in doing this should watch Penelope’s “Reach Your Goals by Blogging” seminar — I found it priceless.

  12. Gary
    Gary says:

    As you know, P (and probably several readers, as well), I’m recareering. Without a net. I just turned 49, and am in RN school. The plan is to jump into a RN to MSN program as soon as I graduate and get a job. The nursing field is white-hot, has been for several years, and there is no anticipated slowdown in the foreseeable future. This program lasts three years, is totally online (though very challenging), and completely jumps the baccalaureate position. My ultimate goal is Nurse Practitioner or Physician’s Assistant, in the psych field. There is no opportunity for an internship, due to very understandable laws concerning the whole healthcare field. Bugger.
    All that to say this: if you’re no spring chicken, think about what you desire and how much time you have left. If there is a hotter field that interests you, consider that as an alternative. Nursing is competitive to get into. A’s, and a big score on a big ole bad test, are required, at least here. For each person in my class, there are three people somewhere who wish they had that seat. The curriculum and clinical practicum are grueling. Thing is, though, once all this is successfully negotiated, one can practically write one’s own ticket, and advancement awaits the ambitious and fearless. I already have a degree in x-ray, and the medical field is what I love, so I believe this will turn out to be an outstanding terminal career for me. Sorry to go so long again, P, but I want to encourage and inspire my fellow disgruntled, uncontent, borderline desperate near-middle-aged persons out there. Figure out what you really want, work hard and TAKE it. Scrap your little box, and damn the torpedoes; at our age, there is no plan “B.” You may now have your blog back, P, and thanks, you have been instrumental in my decision. BTW, nice gams!

  13. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Loved it. This was great. I will stop feeling bad applying for internships at 27.

    As a side note, I would love to see a post on this tangent:

    “And also to land hipster jobs that are impossibly hard to get—”

    I live on the West Coast in a city that prides itself on its hip-ness, and there’s genuine “coolness capital” that makes some jobs irrationally competitive despite their low pay grade and lack of room to grow in the company/organization. I’m thinking specifically of things like 3+-year-old creative startups and arts nonprofits. I still foolishly want these jobs, of course, because I like being hip and artsy, but I’ve mostly given up pursuing them.

    It might not be that relevant to your wider readership but it would be fun to see a post on alternatives to hipster jobs…like, “want to be an event coordinator for an arts nonprofit? Here are ten bank corporations who have giant Community Relations departments…go work for them instead.”

  14. Juan
    Juan says:

    I like the article and consider that internships can be beneficial, however, they are often a ticket for an employer to get FREE or cheap yet qualified labor. Hence, the reason why they might be illegal. I have had a few internships and have experienced everything.

    To put things in perspective, 10 years ago people would find it ridiculous to work for free. Not many people can afford to simply take an unpaid internship to “learn things.” If an unpaid internship is the only route and you are not wealthy, the answer is is to get a second job and persevere with good old hard work.

    I like paid internships because that often means that the work you will be doing will be valuable, although not always indicative of how things might end up in the future. Because as an internship, you will be doing entry-level work for the most part, and the work you do almost anybody in your situation can do it, I think is important to realize that an very important aspect of the internship is how much your boss appreciates you and your time to actually help you professionally develop and assist in advancing your career.

    I think it is a good idea to negotiate another title than “intern.” It makes you more experienced than you really are at a certain job.

    Furthermore, the difference between a 21 year old with a year ahead of college and a 22 year old who has finished college is that somehow as a college graduate you have sort disbarred yourself from getting internships as most companies require interns to be in school, perhaps it is so that the students get college credit and do not necessarily have to be paid.

  15. Sara
    Sara says:

    A little followup on your last point about the cover letter, from someone who has had quite a few interns over the last few years.

    Unless there was some significant cultural or economic barrier you had to overcome, don’t write about how your childhood experiences have sparked your passion for X field. If you catch yourself starting this way, STOP IT: “My parents and I frequently visited museums/galleries/symphonies/political rallies/etc. when I was a child. The experience of being in this museum/gallery/whatever had such a great impact on me that I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.”

    I do not care about your typical white middle class upbringing and your blazing enthusiasm does not set you apart. I’ve seen cover letters do this from college students and cover letters from middle-aged career changers alike, and believe me, describing how your passion was sparked is not at all compelling or unique.

    I’m much more interested in knowing what you’re capable of. Tell me that.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      You might not care, but there are definitely employers–in the nonprofit world, especially–who DO care about having an employee with a personal interest and investment in their organization’s mission, even if the background for it is boring and suburban and not a heroic rise-above tale.

      This encapsulates the problem of taking personal-pet-peeve advice from HR professionals. A lot of successful job hunting comes down to nailing an individual hiring managers’ very, very personal vision of what their ideal candidate looks like, as opposed to correctly following widely-applicable rules (beyond some of the very obvious like dressing correctly, showing up early, etc.)

      On a personal level, I agree with you–skills before feelings. But having tried both tactics in cover letters and interviews with similarly mixed results I’d caution anyone to take this as a statement of fact when applying for jobs–especially in the nonprofit field.

  16. Laura
    Laura says:

    I am taking your advice and asking for internships (practicum – I may have to use that). I would like to work in public accounting and am certain that is the right career path for me. The problem is that while I have some experience in both audit and tax in the financial industry, I am not a junior or senior in undergrad where accounting firms typically recruit. What I’m learning is that managers at accounting firms are resistant to hiring outside their traditional recruiting process. I missed those recruiting efforts when I was an accounting major, a few years ago, by attending college in a small town where recruiters didn’t visit, and at the time, being a dumb 22 year old, I had no clue what I was doing. Now that I have experience and know the direction I’d like to take, the barrier to entry is a huge hurdle to overcome. I can’t turn back the clock.

    Fingers crossed that I can generate interest in an internship.

  17. Jack
    Jack says:

    Definitely times when working for free or low pay can get you the foot in the door you need to get your next big thing. However, you need to be careful about the positions and companies you pursue. Some companies are known for using interns as free, throwaway labor – so make sure you understand your exit strategy for the internship, because a permanent position at the company you’re interning with may be difficult.

  18. Misthiocracy
    Misthiocracy says:

    I’ve often been frustrated by ads for interesting-looking internships that are only open to full-time university students.

    I’ve seen internships that looked interesting enough that I’d be willing to give up my full-time job for a year in order to give the internship a shot, but not being eligible because I graduated many years ago.

    • Nicole
      Nicole says:

      I agree, most of the companies I’ve talked to since graduating don’t allow internships for people who aren’t getting college credit. I always thought that was how the company got around the legal issues of unpaid work.

  19. Claudia Gomez
    Claudia Gomez says:

    I agree with most of the ideas presented here, however I must disagree with cutting classes to work internships. In my opinion, if you are enrolled in school then go to class. What is the point of paying for an education if you are going to skip class? I’ve learned valuable knowledge in my classes at Emporia State University and not necessarily about the topic taught in class. I’ve learned how to communicate with people from different countries with different views and culture; teamwork and presentation skills. Also, GPA is important for recent college graduates or for someone in college looking for an internship or entry-level job. My GPA has opened doors for new opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available.

  20. Laura Hamilton
    Laura Hamilton says:

    Good advice on the internships, although it disagree with your suggestion to cut class.

    Although what you learn in college may not be specifically tactical for your current desired profession, it’s highly likely that you’ll draw on random skills, facts, and trends years or even decades later. A key piece may be crucial to a new innovation — in a way you won’t understand until it happens.

    The more you know, whether it’s math, science, or history, the better you’re able to synthesize and interpret information.

    Anyway I would think it’s possible to have internships / part time work experience and also get good grades.

  21. Laura
    Laura says:

    Thank you, thank you! Around 2006, I decided to focus my energy in my last half of my 4-year BS in Psychology program in getting a part-time job. This job was selling tickets and dealing with cranky people at the local theme park. However, I learned quickly how to appropriately deal with conflict in an uncertain situation, and I was able to “promote” into an open HR assistant slot with the same company. Fast forward to post-graduation in what we now know as 2007/2008 – the time the economy crashed. My GPA was definitely average (and I went to a school you’ve probably never heard of, so, yeah, no Ivy League here), but the real-life experience I had allowed multiple interviews with various companies for HR — and I was fortunate to decide between job offers during a time when my peers were moving back home, unemployed, to figure it out with mom and dad. Five years later, I’m a Regional HRBP with a Fortune 50 company (student loans nearly paid off), and I am thankful every day that I followed my gut instinct while I was still in school. Thank you so much for sharing this advice.

  22. Laura
    Laura says:

    I think it’s a two-way street. Asking to intern/volunteer after college should be to gain specific experience, have a specific item on your resume, and with a specific career-goal in mind. In that sense, you are using the opportunity the same as the employer is using the free help.

  23. Zac Pagin
    Zac Pagin says:

    I’m on a probation at my first job. And for me, its equivalent to an internship for not doing the internship during my studies. Great loss

  24. Angela
    Angela says:

    Your views are quite interesting but what I do not approve of is not attending classes. Maybe I belong to the old school, but I feel attending all the classes and staying disciplined and focused on your grades throughout your school does make a difference. While experience might bring you knowledge and networking might provide job opportunities however, it is also important to have good grades. As some have already stated, there are jobs, for instance, in the IT field which require an applicant to have good grades.

    As for the internship part, I feel it should be open to people of all age. Not only will it help in polishing skills, it will also help a person get acquainted to a new field altogether if he/she is already not engaged in that field. And even if it is unpaid, it will in a way help the person derive benefit from it. If I get an internship today with a reputed company which will allow me to learn skills in the publishing field or help me polish my writing, I will definitely go for it even if it is unpaid. So, I think the choice ultimately lies with the individual. I hope I made a good point!

  25. Joe
    Joe says:

    Grades are important, but experience has been more of a barrier for me. Most internships seem to be for college students and some of them are scams. If I can get the experience I need then I really don’t care if I get paid or not.

    The classifieds give me false hope with the entry level title and experienced only at the bottom. Every job seems to require some experience now. No one wants to train anymore.

  26. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    You made excellent points on how internships are in reality what will land you a job after college, not the grades you received in college. However, being a college student as of now, it’s hard to believe that getting C’s at a mediocre college is acceptable. I came across this article on why getting good grades in college is necessary and I would be interested on your thoughts about this.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      That was an informative article. Truthfully, good grades and experience are both essential, but they mean different things to different people. Grades can give you an edge when competing with another person for the same job. Everyone has various interview experiences and grades haven’t come up in my interviews.

  27. Alexandra
    Alexandra says:


    What do you do if the company you want to work for requires that you get academic credit for the internship? I am in law school but the internship I want is not legal, meaning I cannot get school credit for it.


  28. Abhinay
    Abhinay says:

    Thanks for writing this post, penelopetrunk! I’m hoping to get a summer internship like the ones offered last summer at Spencer Hill Press so this is very helpful!

  29. Kirk
    Kirk says:

    This is a very insightful article about getting internships for people in their 20’s and up. Regardless of age, an internship is possible for anyone who wants to gain work experience. I agree that every college student should always be networking with fellow students, faculty, and working professionals, in places such as student organizations, on campus job fairs and during office hours with the professor. However, I disagree with the idea that job or internship applicants should not care about their GPA. It is true that GPA’s cannot accurately measure professional competency, but does measure how much input and effort an applicant has put in during their college stay. For example, hiring managers in accounting firms expect potential entry level accountants to have demonstrated least two out of the three qualifications: work experience, extracurricular student involvement, or a good GPA. The reason why a good GPA is part of the three qualifications is because it shows how hard working the applicant is. Although I do not agree with the subject of GPA, I still think that this is a good article about anyone who trying to get an internship.

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