How to Afford an Unpaid Internship

When you’ve snagged the internship of your dreams, the last thing on your mind is money. Sure, the opportunity to learn by working hands-on in your career field is priceless. But, unfortunately, your “wealth of knowledge” isn’t going to help you afford an apartment for the summer.

It’s important to plan ahead for all of the hidden costs that come along with an unpaid position. Saying goodbye to your summer job at the ice cream shop will put a strain on your wallet, and finding a place to live can get really pricey really fast.

Freaked out? Don’t be!  It’s time to turn in the ice cream scoop for bigger and better things. Here’s how you can fund your unpaid internship. 


Check with a career counselor

The career services office at your school can actually be super helpful in helping you score money to fund your internship. “The scholarships, grants and alternative funding opportunities that students have the most luck with are those offered through their school's career center, financial aid office or alumni office,” says Laura Keegan Burrell, assistant director of experiential education at Pratt Institute.

You’ll want to visit the career services office before searching for external grants—your chances of winning a grant are definitely better if it’s a grant only given to students at your school. Your counselor can help you plan a budget for the summer (warning: this could mean skipping your daily caramel macchiato at Starbucks!), give you advice on writing essays for grant and scholarship apps and even contact counselors at colleges near your internship site to help you find affordable housing options, according to Burrell. 


Apply for grants and scholarships

There are a TON of grants and scholarships to apply for to fund your unpaid internship. Here are a few examples:

  • The B.A. Rudolph Foundation provides a $4,500 scholarship to young women who have been accepted or have applied to summer internships in progressive public service in the Washington, D.C. area.  Students must be entering their junior or senior year of college after their internship or be a recent graduate.  To apply, you need proof of acceptance for your internship, a statement of financial need, two letters of recommendation, an academic transcript, your resume and a short essay. The deadline to apply is April 15.
  • The Brown and Caldwell Minority Scholarship Program offers a $5,000 scholarship and an optional paid summer internship at a Brown and Caldwell office for minority students who are aspiring scientists and engineers with a 3.0 GPA or higher. To apply, you need a 250-word essay, two letters of recommendation and an official transcript. The deadline to apply is April 15.
  • The Chicago Headline Club Foundation offers two $3,000 scholarships for journalism students doing internships in the Chicago area.  To be eligible, your internship must be unpaid and you must be interning at least 21 hours a week for eight weeks. The deadline to apply is early April.

And if you don’t win a big scholarship…


Work on the side

“Getting a part-time job or taking on freelance work is one way to go about supporting a low-paying or unpaid internship,” Burrell says. Depending on how demanding your internship is, you can earn some cash working evenings and weekends at a store or as a waitress. Realistically, this isn’t going to help you pay for your whole summer, but it’ll come in handy for things like taking a taxi or supporting your froyo habit. It’s not glamorous, but every little bit helps.


Keep your friends close

Know anybody else interning in the area? Sharing an apartment with friends will help you manage the cost of living, Burrell says. With roommates, you can split bills for things like rent, electricity, carpooling and Internet.

Having a posse can also motivate you to save money. “Budgeting is more fun with friends,” Burrell says.  “You are going to be on a very tight budget—you will have more fun going to free local events and staying in if you have someone to hang out with who is on the same budget schedule.  You can work together to stay on track and not splurge on clothes, nightlife, dining out—all major budget busters.”


Live in university housing

Even if your internship isn’t affiliated with a college or university, there are certain schools that have affordable summer housing available specifically for student interns. If you’ll be in the Atlanta area, check out Emory University’s Summer Intern Housing Program. There’s also student housing in Washington, D.C., as well as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Talk to your internship coordinator

If taking on a coveted internship could potentially put you in debt, don’t be afraid to talk to your internship supervisor. “Students rarely try out their negotiation skills,” Burrell says. “Ask if there is an opportunity for compensation.” The worst thing that can happen is your supervisor says no, and your supervisor will likely be impressed with how responsible you’re being.


Before you turn down a great opportunity for financial reasons, make sure you’ve explored all of your options beforehand. There are always ways to save money, no matter the situation!