How to get a kick-ass internship as a high school student
This was originally posted on my blog on July 31, 2012. Most of my advice still stands.
I was an intern at Valve the summer after my senior year. Another one of my friends worked at NASA. Others worked for Microsoft, Bank of America, or interesting startups. Others threw their hands up in the air because “no one wants a high school intern.”
Once you’re in college, the road to an internship is straightforward. Often, a recruiter comes to your school, you give him or her your resume, and then later they follow up with you. (Or sometimes they don’t.) Then there are a couple of rounds of interviews and eventually, if you’re lucky, you get an offer. Different companies and different schools have their own variation on this, but there’s almost always a clear road to an internship.
It’s not that simple in high school. It can seem like companies don’t want high school students, or, if they do, they’re hiring just for “coffee and copies.” But the truth is that if you have technical skills, it’s entirely possible to get an internship as a high school student. And those internships are often pretty sweet.
I asked some of my friends how they managed to nab real tech internships right out of high school.
Though everyone had his or her own story, I noticed two themes. The first was networking. The second was sheer gall.
Many of the people I talked to managed to find internships by leveraging their networks. I’m kicking myself for using such an MBA-like phrase—I think “leverage your networks” is right up there with “synergy”—but this is absolutely the way it worked. So many of my friends got internships in high school just because they reached out to the right people.
I’ll give you a few examples, starting with my own story: I wouldn’t have even known about the Valve opportunity, much less received an offer, without my high school computer science teacher. She referred me to the company—and if I hadn’t had a good relationship with her, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. Meanwhile, I referred some of my brightest peers to my dad’s startup, and several of them ended up working there.
This makes it sound like it’s more about who you know than what you know. And for high school students, I think that’s often the case. The good news is, however, that you absolutely can build these networks up—just don’t try to do it at the last minute. As some business-type once said:
“Networking is what you do when you’re not looking for a job.”
The nuances of networking are best left to someone else, but here are a few ideas on how to get started: Go to tech events in your city. These can be conferences, or meetups, or hackathons, or anything, really. Anything that will expose you to people in the industry. Collect business cards (and if you’re feeling plucky, hand out your own). Follow people on Twitter, and cultivate online relationships. You can even try “networking” on sites like StackOverflow or Quora. I’ve received offers based just on answers I’ve written—and trust me, none of those answers were even that good.
If you’ve ever won an award or any kind of distinction, try reaching out to the people who run it. In 2011, I won an award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Though I’ve never found an internship through NCWIT, the women who run the program have helped countless other award winners—there are about three dozen every year—find internships. Being part of a community like that is invaluable.
If this seems daunting—well, it is. But remember that you probably already have some important connections. If you’ve ever taken a CS course, for school or otherwise, you probably have your teacher in your (informal) network, as well as your classmates. If you have other programmer friends, those are connections you’ve already made. Networking is sometimes easier said than done, but you don’t have to start from scratch.
However, strong networks were only one piece of the elusive high school internship puzzle. I’ve also noticed another trend.
You’re going to have to be ballsy.
Stretch the requirements, and try applying to some internships for college students. My friend who worked at NASA actually had an internship for college students, but he applied anyways.
Try looking into some industries that you’re not familiar with. I didn’t know a thing about video games, so I was nervous about applying to Valve. (I didn’t grow up playing games. When I was nine, my dad brought home an Xbox and told my sister and I that we couldn’t touch it.) However, once I got to Valve it was clear that there’s a healthy crew of non-gamers—and, better yet, I developed an appreciation for the gaming industry.
Of course, there are other considerations.
If you happen to live in an area with a vibrant tech scene, you’re in luck. A number of my friends who were local to Seattle were able to snag Microsoft high school internships (and another, from Boston, was an intern at Microsoft’s NERD Center). This also makes access to startups easier. If you live in a less urban or less tech-centric area, though, you may have to consider relocating for the summer, or stomaching a long commute. It’s not super common among HS interns, but it definitely happens—my ex-NASA friend, for instance, moved from the East Coast to the Midwest for several weeks. Larger companies will often have corporate housing, which makes temporary relocation relatively straightforward.
But perhaps the most salient snippet of advice comes from another one of my friends: “Be persistent. Keep bothering people until they respond to you.”