How Has COVID-19 Changed the Internship Search and Outcomes for College Students?

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This is the fourth and last in a series that we wrote to sharpen our perspective on COVID-19’s impacts on the job prospects of students like our Braven Fellows. Click here for our first post on learnings about the job market from past recessions, second post on impacts on higher education enrollment and persistence, and third post on specific impacts on the job prospects of recent college graduates.

Executive Summary

In some ways, COVID-19 hurt internship prospects even more than post-graduation job prospects. This is troubling because internships are important in securing full-time offers.

In this memo, we explain the benefits of internships, COVID-19’s impact on internship offers and experiences in summer 2020, and coping strategies that students have available in the absence of internship opportunities. Our high level points are:

    • Internships are an important experience for securing full-time job offers, validating a student’s chosen field, developing professional skills, and identifying mentors. However, pre-COVID-19 research shows that Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in the most beneficial internship experiences.
    • Colleges and employers agree that students should include COVID-19 rescinded internships on their resumes (12). Students also used a variety of coping strategies to in summer 2020, from micro-internships to online skills development.
    • The virtual internship experience in summer 2020 limited opportunities to develop soft skills and gain new mentors for students.

Benefits of Internships

The National Association of College and Employers (NACE) defines internships as:

“A form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths, and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.” (19)

Braven views internships similarly; internships should use the knowledge and skills that students have accumulated and give them experience that appeals to future employers. 

Significant research backs the value of internships, and the majority of college students participate in at least one. A NACE survey estimated that 62% of the class of 2017 had an internship before graduation (1).

Internships improve post-graduation employment outcomes by converting into a full-time offer or enhancing employability with other firms (2). A NACE survey found that students who had internships were 20% more likely to receive full-time job offers than students who did not complete an internship (3). In a simulation, researchers sent fake resumes to companies in business-related fields and found that resumes with internship experience were 14% more likely to get an interview or callback (1). Additionally, mentors are often found during internships; these mentors can provide job-search advice and connections inside and outside of their company (3).

Internships also support students’ preparation for career success by providing an opportunity to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience valued by employers (3). A NACE survey of the class of 2019 found that students who never interned rated themselves less proficient in professionalism, teamwork, problem solving, leadership, and career management than their peers who completed an internship. In the same survey, most students who participated in an internship reported that their internship improved these same skills (4). 

Finally, internships give students an opportunity to test their career path and/or major by providing exposure to the types of positions in their field. Even if the internship leads students to decide that field/major is not the right fit, that information is beneficial to the student. Regardless of field/major, all internships provide the opportunity to learn about issues of organizational culture, leadership, and working within an organization that can apply to any field (3).

Pre-COVID-19 Internship Context

While internships – broadly – are clearly beneficial, there is conflicting research about the importance of whether an internship is paid. NACE has found that while unpaid internships have a positive impact on a student’s academic experience, students with unpaid internships received ~50% fewer job offers than peers who had a paid internship (5). Furthermore, a comparison of whether students were offered an interview from an organization they met at a career fair showed that 50% of students with a paid internship received an interview compared to 20% of students with an unpaid internship and 23% of students with no internship (4).

National Association of Colleges and Employers. “The 2019 Student Survey Report: Attitudes and Preferences of Bachelor’s Degree Students at Four-Year Schools.” October 2019.

These survey results show correlation, not causation. However, a 2018 working paper by the International Labour Office found evidence to support the hypothesis that the format of paid internships themselves help cause improved employment outcomes. In their words, “paid internships lead to better post-internship outcomes, because the payment of interns is also positively correlated with a series of other features which can be thought of as proxies of ‘better’, more structured programmes” (20).

However, a 2017 NACE study found no independent effect of internship payment source (e.g., paid, unpaid, school paid, etc.) on career destinations six months after graduation. Rather, the strongest predictors of initial career outcome were GPA and total number of internships completed. They did note that academic majors and the internship industry were the best predictors of whether an internship would be paid. Unpaid internships were more common in humanities fields and to some extent social science fields (5).

Pre-COVID-19, there were significant differences in internship participation based on gender, race, and first-generation status. While women made up 74% of a study’s sample population, they made up 68% of paid internships and 81% of unpaid internships. First-generation students (someone whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree) made up 22% of the sample population but just 19% of paid internships (6). Both of these differences were statistically significant and evidence of disproportionate internship outcomes.

Furthermore, white and Asian-American students were overrepresented in paid internships relative to their survey base. African-American students were overrepresented in unpaid internships relative to their survey base. Hispanic students were overrepresented in the no internships category relative to their survey base (6).

National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Minority College Students Underrepresented In Paid Internships.” September 9, 2020.

COVID-19 Impact on Internship Outcomes

Internships were impacted even more than full-time jobs by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early April, Glassdoor reported that while they had seen a 20% drop in job openings compared to March, they had seen a 52% drop in internship openings (9).

Internships that were not canceled or rescinded predominantly shifted to virtual internships and were shortened. COVID-19 might have also made it harder for internships to turn into full-time offers. While the internship to full-time offer track may have been unaffected at large companies, small and mid-size ones need entry-level positions to open up first. Given the COVID-19 environment of reduced demand and workers being less likely to transition jobs, new full-time positions may be opening up at lower rates (10). 

COVID-19 Impact on the Internship Experience

For those who maintained their internships or found internships, the virtual experience was different from a traditional internship. 

Researchers have noted the importance of the in-person experience to pick-up subtle clues in how to behave in each profession (e.g., how to communicate like an engineer or work in teams like a nurse). Virtual experiences may limit the development of these “soft skills” (13). Additionally, students noted concerns that virtual-networking might limit their ability to find and develop mentor relationships (14). One student explained that receiving feedback through emails and messages can be confusing for an intern. The nuances of an in-person delivery (e.g., tone) can be lost and lead interns to misunderstand feedback (15).

Importantly, internships should provide an example of what working in that field or role is like, however, the virtual experience is not representative of the “real world” (15). One student noted in USA Today that after 3 months of a virtual internship, they still didn’t feel like they truly knew their co-workers or company culture. She noted that most conversations were work-focused and it could be overwhelming to network in addition to her internship responsibilities (15).

However, not all of the differences were negative. Virtual internships can overcome financial and geographic barriers. For example, previously some students may not have looked at internships in NY because they couldn’t afford to move or afford a summer in the city. Now, with virtual internships, NY-based companies become available to everyone (15).

Virtual internships also provided new growth opportunities. As reported by CNN, one student noted that they had more exposure to VPs and Senior VPs than they expected. With senior leaders traveling less, they were more available to join internship events (16). Additionally, without a supervisor physically there to constantly check-in, virtual internships required increased independence. Virtual internships can create a steep learning curve for self-management that can prepare students for their first job (16).

Coping Strategies

First, NACE’s college and employer members almost unanimously agreed that students should include COVID-19 rescinded internships on their resumes. Even without the internship experience, the initial internship offer communicates important information. It shows that the student had the initiative to seek and find an internship, it explains a gap in internship experience, and it communicates the type of roles/work the student is interested in (12).

In addition to listing their earned offer, students have a range of coping strategies. A pre-COVID-19 NACE survey found that students who engaged in cold networking were twice as likely to earn an internship as students who only used warm networking. (Cold networking is contacting someone without any preexisting connection; warm networking involves using one’s own network for a connection.)

Specifically, first-generation students who used cold networking were 38% more likely to earn an internship than first-generation students who did not use cold networking. Among first-generation students, imposter syndrome is particularly prevalent; NACE found that practicing networking and information calls resulted in higher levels of confidence (3).

This lesson still applies during this time. Conducting informational interviews and using cold networking still increases a student’s chances of finding an internship (3). Additionally, many universities helped with networking by reaching out to companies to cultivate micro-internships or less formal short-term projects that still provided students with experience (17). Students were encouraged to reach out to small businesses individually with a proposal of how they could use their skills for a micro-internship (e.g., reworking the social media site of a local food bank) (17). Finally, students could use the time to develop new skills – either through online courses external to their school or summer school through their university (17).

It is unclear how internships will be impacted for the summer of 2021. Braven should be prepared to help Fellows and PAFs who were impacted in 2020 cope with their experience gap and help Fellows and PAFs prepare for 2021 opportunities including coping strategies.


  1. How Internships Replaced the Entry-Level Job
  2. The Positive Implications of Internships on Early Career Outcomes
  3. Research: Cold Networking Key to Finding Internships and Jobs
  4. The 2019 Student Survey Report: Executive Summary
  5. The Impact of Undergraduate Internships on Post-Graduate Outcomes for the Liberal Arts
  6. Minority College Students Underrepresented in Paid Internships
  7. COVID-19 Is Scrambling The Job Market For Recent Grads. Here’s How Colleges Are Trying to Respond.
  8. Employers Hold to New College Graduate Hiring, Summer Internships – Mostly
  9. US Internship Hiring Cut in Half Since COVID-19 Crisis
  10. GLG Interview: Steve Bonomo
  11. COVID-19 and the Lost College Internship
  12. Should a Student Add a Cancelled Internship to their Resume?
  13. Challenges to Account for With Virtual Internships
  14. Another Casualty of the Coronavirus: Summer Internships
  15. Are virtual internships worth it? Here’s what I learned from mine
  16. This is what internships look like in a remote world
  17. How College Students Can Get a Job Amid COVID-19
  18. Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Today: Twin Proposals for the Future of Learning, Opportunity, and Work
  19. Position Statement: US Internships
  20. Interns and outcomes: Just how effective are internships as a bridge to stable employment?