How to Survive an Unpaid Internship | Undergrad Success

How to Survive an Unpaid Internship

How to Survive an Unpaid Internship

Part of my college curriculum was an internship.  It was unpaid.

Despite the fact that we all knew it was coming at the end of our studies, many of my classmates were unprepared.  They couldn’t support themselves without their jobs, which conflicted with the times they would have to be completing their internship.

I’ve heard many other millennials complaining about lack of pay at their internships, claiming that the company they are interning with is abusing their work and the fact that it comes free.

There are two simple steps to be able to complete your internship and your studies, and still keep a smile on your face even when you feel like you’re being taken advantage of.


1.  Plan Ahead of Time

Look at your course of study your freshman year.  Is an internship a part of it?  If so, get your house in order early.

Before the semester of your internship starts, let your boss know it’s coming.

If you’re working a job that won’t accommodate your need for some time off or an abbreviated schedule,  weigh the risk of losing that job against losing your degree and the likely income boost that will come with it.

Odds are, the degree will win out.  If your current job is in the field you’re studying, talk to your program head and see if it would be possible to count your time at work as your internship.

Be open to talking to your boss about adjusting your responsibilities to complete any requisites your program head may set.

Is an internship not a part of your studies, but you’d like to do it anyways?  Still plan ahead.

Many internships go to juniors or seniors, so you should have some time to get your ducks in a row.

Your school may even be willing to substitute your internship for specific course requirements if you start the conversation early, saving you time and possibly money on some credit hours.

A major part of planning ahead is getting your finances ready.  Calculate how much you will need for living expenses during the time spent at your internship, and then work like crazy to get that money in a savings account.

Some options for upping your savings would be getting a part-time job, side hustling, or applying for and being awarded scholarships and/or grants that will cover expenses beyond tuition.  (This last one should not be overlooked.  A few hours spent on an application and essay can net you thousands.)

If you’re a non-traditional student and have kids, don’t underestimate child-care arrangements.

Many non-traditional students are also night students, but your internship will most likely be during the day when sitters are harder to find.

In this case you may have to find a daycare or a professional nanny, and a good one of either usually has a significant wait list along with higher fees.

Get on that wait list now, and figure out how you’re going to pay for it.

You can use the same methods listed above when we talked about living expenses, or look at assistance-based programs that will help you get through that last semester so you can better provide for your family.


2.  Keep Perspective

It’s understandable to want to get paid for your work, but you’re a college student without a degree.

What you’re gaining from that internship is likely equivalent to or much greater than the value of the work you’re putting in.

Because that company is allowing you to intern, you’re gaining experience that many coming out of college won’t be able to put on their resume.

You’re also networking and making connections that will be invaluable throughout your career.

When you feel like your “free” work is being taken advantage of, remember that your performance and attitude will greatly effect the likelihood of that company wanting to employ you.

Even if they do not hire you, a happy intern is far more likely to get a glowing letter of recommendation than a griping one.


Femme Frugality is a personal finance blogger who takes a special interest in the financial concerns of college students. While she writes for all undergrads, she has a special place in her heart for the non-traditional demographic, of which she was once a part.

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