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Need-to-Know Info: Externships vs Internships

For many college students, an extracurricular work experience may be required to graduate. For others it may not be an obligation, but can be an excellent way to get a foot in the door to start a career. Having experience on your resume will help you feel prepared and calm when it comes time to apply for graduation. 

Generally, there are two kinds of formalized work-environment programs that a student may encounter en route to the real world: internships and externships.

Let’s make sense of the two kinds of work experiences a college student is likely to come across.

  1. Externships vs Internships
  2. Externship Basics
  3. Internship Basics
  4. A Way to Get Ahead

Regardless of whether or not they are for college credit, internships and externships are becoming increasingly important when developing a career path. Though the names sound like they are polar opposites, both internships and externships actually have a good deal in common.


Externships vs Internships

Before we discuss the details of each, understand that every college and university has their own definition of what types of career field training a student should pursue. Those details might even differ wildly from major to major at a school. A student’s academic advisor should know exactly what is expected by their program. 

Remember, at the heart of both internships and externships is education. A student should weigh the obligations to their classes, their program’s requirements, and their personal life when comparing internships versus externships.

Externship Basics

An externship is usually a short term program, lasting about a week or two. Externships are typically a job shadow opportunity, giving a student the chance to see the working environment of their field. 

During an externship, the students observe professionals in the field and often are responsible for some form of written project to reflect upon what they learned. When required by a school, the student will either be assigned a class or faculty member that reviews the student’s experience. Completing this step is crucial for students to receive college credit for the externship.

Externships don’t typically involve the student actively “working” at the host employer. That’s not to say a student won’t be included in some projects, but the shorter length of the programs makes it difficult to count on such involvement.

While externships do not offer the depth and breadth of interning, they can still be an excellent way for a student to begin networking and developing professional relationships. They offer the kind of actual, real world opportunities that will bridge the gap between job search and job offer. 

Externships are often linked to executive staff in an organization, which means that a student should have more time interacting with career-level professionals, instead of strictly with the entry-level employees. Spending time with someone higher up is important because a student’s career goals should be long term and not short-sighted.

Externships are generally unpaid. Again, the student’s primary focus should be learning about a profession during an externship, not the day-to-day operations of an organization. A political science major, for example, may have an externship with the mayor of a town. It would be a chance to shadow the specific official and see what their duties might entail. 

Internship Basics

Internships, on the other hand, are generally longer term and might even have a full time schedule. The opportunity to be fully immersed in the work experience is essential to a successful internship. 

Take, for example, medical internships. An internship in an area of medicine typically comes around the time of residency and is the chance for a young doctor to experience a specific area of medicine for an extended period of time. 

An internship is an opportunity to work for an organization, even if in a limited capacity. That same political science major that took an externship with the mayor of a town may have an internship with a government agency. 

In an internship, the student will have a greater opportunity to work with multiple people in the organization and could even be given a number of responsibilities. After your college decision day celebration, getting an offer for your dream internship might be one of the most exciting moments of your college career. 

Generally, a student intern would take a position that is in an area that they are interested in, and hopefully it’s a role that will work for them on their path. Don’t take an internship in the water department when your hope is to work in legislative administration.

The Benefits of Internships

Many internships are paid, and students can often qualify for other benefits, as well. Even unpaid internships can bring other benefits to the table. 

Whether you attend a community college or an Ivy League school like Cornell, the importance of internships can’t be overstated. Students should look forward to a hands-on experience that teaches them actual job skills. These valuable experiences provide the kind of resume building momentum that helps when it comes time for a post-graduation job search. 

A part time internship can even morph into a full time position. Employers can use internships to engage with potential future employees, teaching them systems and procedures that they specifically utilize.

Internships can often be associated with special programs or projects at an organization. An effective internship should provide the student with legitimate insight, and should never be an opportunity for an employer to take advantage of cheap labor. Organizations that have a well-planned program that combines learning and work experience are often the most prestigious and competitive for students who are applying. 

Remember that when you accept an internship, you are representing not only your school and your classmates, but most importantly, yourself. Take the opportunity seriously and learn how to make the most of an internship.

A Way to Get Ahead

The bottom line is that in this competitive work environment, with fewer opportunities left for inexperienced, new workers, it’s important that students develop a stronger, more directly related resume. Most college seniors would agree that thinking about how to get work experience early on is advice they would give themselves as a college freshman.

In many fields, the only way to get verifiable work experience is to intern or extern. These work/education hybrid programs give smart students the chance to develop skills and their curriculum vitae simultaneously. 

Remember to follow any guidelines your college or university requires, especially if you intend on doing the internship for college credits

Make sure to investigate the programs before you apply; taking an “internship” at your dad’s friend’s office may be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Job recruiters know the internship programs in their field, and they will likely know when a student has been engaged in a legitimate internship or externship. 

Visit your school’s career center for guidance in applying, obtaining, and keeping an internship or externship. Career advisors will also have advice on how to use a successful internship program to jumpstart your career.

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