Climb the Ladder

Why every undergrad should intern at a startup

8409314268_15d14d5d5c_bIf you’re an undergrad looking to get valuable work experience, the startup world might be the place for you.

The statistics are pretty clear: if you want a job after you graduate from college, you should get one or more internships under your belt first. Before you start hyperventilating and drafting cover letters to all of the Forbes 500 corporations, I’d like to ask you to consider the road less travelled.

Consider startups — those scrappy, casual, exciting companies you see on shows like Shark Tank and Silicon Valley. Startups are perpetually in need of good talent, and many offer summer or part-time internships for undergrads. I worked at Scouted (the awesome startup hosting this blog) the summer after my junior year, and it was an invaluable experience for me, helping me figure out what I wanted to do, and teaching me how to be a vital contributor to a small company.

So, if you’re looking for an internship that will be challenging, fun and make you more employable after graduation, an internship at a startup might be right for you. Here’s why.

It’s not as hard to get an internship at a startup as you might think.

Google-searching “startup internships” will overwhelm you with a jumbled catalogue of black hole job postings, but fear not: there are many databases (such as, AngelList ) that can help you sort through the vast number of internship opportunities out there.

And there are even startups that will help you work at startups (meta, I know). Scouted, is one of them. You can apply to jobs through Scouted here.

If those options don’t get you anywhere, talk to your friends, fellow students, and recent grads from your school. Chances are at least one of them has or has had a job in the startup world, and can get you connected to the right people.

And if you’re worried about the pay, you’re not alone — there’s a whole slew of questions on Quora about how much startups pay undergrads. Many startups pay their interns competitively, while some only offer unpaid internships Don’t panic, your school may also have grants in place to help you out so check out your career services website.

You can also check out this directory of grants from Harvard. And make sure to search for grants and scholarships specific to you and your field — places like Brown and Caldwell offer scholarships to students focusing on the environment, and BA Rudolph gives scholarships to women working unpaid internships in public service and science. If you want to work abroad, you can get funding from places like LIVFund, International Internships, the scholarships listed here, and many other places.

You’ll do real work on real projects that matter to the company.

Startups have tons of critical work to do, so they need their interns to contribute to business-critical projects.

My friend Matt, who just graduated from college with a full-time job offer, said this about his summer internship at a startup as a software-engineering intern:

“Interning at a startup is like running a sprint for 10 weeks straight. You have to be able to become an effective engineer, not just an intern, very quickly and drive projects to completion in short periods of time, which is why it’s such a rewarding learning experience.”

When I worked at Scouted, I took on responsibilities I never imagined I’d have as an intern. I helped out with the pitch deck Scouted used to get investors, had a say in naming the company, and helped redefine the way Scouted evaluated and presented candidates to companies looking to make new hires. I worked harder and cared more about the company because I was given all that responsibility, and I was able to take ownership of projects I can now put on my resume.

You’ll be doing things far outside your job description.

Anya, another friend of mine, told me this about being a startup intern at Birchbox last summer:

“I think startups give you a more well rounded experience since you’re often required to step outside your designated role. You learn to become a team player and ditch the “that’s not my job” attitude.”

At a startup, you’ll be exposed to every rung of the ladder and have the opportunity to contribute to every branch of the company.

By trying out different kinds of work, you can discover what you’re good at and what you really want to do. Here’s Anya, again:

“Even though I was a software developer, I got to work closely with product managers. Birchbox exposed me to the role, and by doing so, it helped me realize [being a product manager is] what I wanted to do.”

You can sparkle the way only you know how

Most startup internships don’t follow the same strict formulas corporate internships follow. If you like to work late into the night and sleep in, you can find a startup that will accommodate that. If you hate dressing up, you can work at a startup that lets you wear t-shirts to work. And, if you want to try your hand at social media marketing, coding and design and/or data analytics, you can find a startup that will let you do all of those things as an intern.

Your family and friends might be worried when you tell them you’re interning at a startup. Many worry that interning at a startup and gaining a less traditional experience means sacrificing the name recognition you might get by having an established corporation on your resume. But maybe the predictable, highly structured, tried-and-true internship programs those corporations offer just isn’t for you. Interning at a startup instead of a corporation won’t make it harder for you to get another internship or full time job later on. Like any job, it all depends on what you make of it.

But, best of all, after interning at a startup….

You will be extremely employable

After interning at a startup, you’ll have compelling stories to tell potential employers. You’ll be the expert on what your company does, and you’ll have taken ownership of business-critical projects. You’ll also have built vital connections to the startup world, which will make it easier if you ever want to work at a start up again. You may even fall in love with the hustle and try to make a career out of it.


Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get our best career advice and job search tips.


Candidates, Climb the Ladder