How to Create an Internship Program

The popularity of internships among employers and students has steadily increased every year, but what is an internship and how are interns integrated into the workplace? The following information is offered as a way to get started in the process of having a successful internship experience. Please remember that our staff is available to assist with all aspects of your internship program. Contact Alice Harra, for more information.

What is an internship?

Internships can be full time or part time, paid or unpaid, a few weeks or a full year in length, for undergraduate or graduate students, local or international. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) internships can be defined as a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skill development in a professional setting. Interns should be given significant work to do for the organization, with minimal hours of tasks such as filing and copying. This expectation differs from a part-time hire who is paid for performing whatever tasks the employer assigns, menial or not.

To ensure that an experience can be considered a "legitmate internship" by the NACE definition, all of the following criteria must be met:

  • The experience must be an extension of the classroom: a learning experience that provides for applying the knowledge gained in the classroom. It must not be simply to advance the operations of the employer or be the work that a regular employee would routinely perform.
  • The skills or knowledge learned must be transferable to other employment settings.
  • The experience has a defined beginning and end, and a job description with desired qualifications.
  • There are clearly defined learning objectives/goals related to the professional goals of the students's academic coursework.
  • There is supervision by a professional with expertise and educational and/or professional background in the field of the experience.
  • There is routine feedback by the experienced supervisor.
  • There are resources, equipment, and facilities provided by the host employer that support learning objectives/goals.
For more information about the NACE Internship Statement please go to

The Department of Labor has six criteria that address the acceptability of an internship being unpaid:

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

Please refer to the Department of Labor's website and consult your legal counsel if you have questions. Northwestern University strongly encourages employers to pay the interns.

There are limited opportunities for students to receive credit for their internships, and those that exist require that tuition be paid. The smallest amount of available credit will cost the students approximately $800.

Why do you need an intern?

Organizations have many reasons for wanting to hire an intern. An intern can give you additional talent to complete an existing project or to start a new one, to expand into a new line of business, or to bring knowledge that the current employees might not possess, such as working with social media. Additional benefits to the organization are the energy and fresh ideas that the interns bring to the workplace, and the positive publicity on campus that will be given to your organization by the intern. Of course, an internship is a cost effective and efficient way to potentially hire full time employees.

How do you hire an intern?

Ideally, the internship search begins two to three months before the interns are needed. The best starting point is to evaluate your need for an intern and to select the specific projects or tasks that need to be done. Decide who will be the supervisor of the intern and work with him/her to identify the skills and abilities that the intern will need to be a success. An internship description is then created with all or most of these areas covered:

  • Description of your organization
  • Description of the project or tasks to be assigned to the intern
  • Preferred skills*
  • Required skills*
  • Description of training opportunities
  • Work days and hours**
  • Pay or stipend
  • Transportation options to work site
  • What documents are needed to apply (i.e. cover letter, resume, writing sample, unofficial transcript, media portfolio)
  • How to apply
  • Start and end date of the internship
  • Housing availability or assistance with finding lodging

It is always better to prepare a thorough internship description rather than a brief one.

*When discussing skills, give examples ofhow they will be used rather than just naming the skills. **If work days and hours are flexible, you can state this fact but also give guidelines such as needing 20 hours per week, or only Monday through Friday.

Post the internship on CareerCat and/or iNet, or contact Alice Harra to create an on-campus recruiting schedule.

As submitted resumes are received, interviews can begin. Interviews can be conducted on campus, over the telephone, or at the organization's site. Please keep the applicants informed as to your time frame in making the decision to hire.

International students are talented interns since they have wide cultural experiences and are adaptable to changing situations.  They may have the option for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) which will allow them to be your interns. Please refer to our International Office's website for more information and consult with your legal counsel.

Please be aware that students should not sign non-compete agreements and that Northwestern University will not sign hold-harmless agreements unless the student is receiving credit through Northwestern for the internship.

What do interns want?

Just as any new employees, the interns want to see that they are welcome in the work place. The way to convey this feeling is to be ready for the interns on their first day. There should be an assigned work space, telephone and voicemail (if applicable), computer log-in password, email access, and a name plate or name badge. An orientation and a tour of the office and meeting of staff should be completed within the first few days of the internship. Inviting the interns to staff meetings or other department gatherings will integrate the interns into the work team quickly. It is best not to have interns on projects where they are the only people working on the tasks since interns can become disconnected with the organization.

The interns want to do "real work" for the employer. They want their work to be of benefit to the organization's mission. In addition, they want to learn about the career fields and industry of the employer. It is helpful to the interns if they can be given the opportunity to cross train with other work units. Also helpful is having the opportunity to network with employees in other parts of the organization, especially senior management.

How are interns supervised?

The first meeting with the assigned supervisor should include a review of the work to be done by the intern, how the training will be done and by whom, expectations for work due dates, explanation of how and from whom the intern will receive feedback, and standards of the workplace, such as dress code and confidentiality. Now is a good time to address limitations to the use of cell phone, Internet and social media on the internship, if they exist.

Interns will benefit from regular access to the supervisor and regular feedback. A mid-term formal evaluation of the work with the interns will ensure that they continue to grow and excel. The end of the internship performance review will offer the student an opportunity to reflect on their strengths and skills. Offer to write a letter of recommendation if warranted.


The Learning Agenda

UCS recommends students to complete a learning agreement or learning agenda with their supervisor upon starting their internship. This helpful tool provides the student and supervisor structure for goal setting and maintaining open communication for expectations.

Personality Preferences Handout

Learn all you can about the preferences of your interns in regards to their personality and work style. To help you UCS has created a personality preferences handout. After completing this handout please look for ways to challenge and support your intern in their professional development.

Northwestern University Guide to Intern Success

Use this step-by-step and week-by-week guide to see the potential projects and ways to work with your intern. Find ways to mentor, support, guide and develop your intern by reading through the Northwestern University Guide to Intern Success.