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HC’s Guide To Making the Most of an Unpaid Internship

This summer, the ‘Trending Articles’ section of my Facebook has been riddled with articles about the doom and gloom facing this year’s graduates. In the last week alone, I have read at least four articles telling me that, as a result of my year of graduation, I will forever be working in a job below my qualifications and forever be paying off my debts. Delightful. However, while everyone has been panicking about the percentage of students who will be graduating into unemployment – or, even worse, a life of stacking shelves in the local supermarket – a subject which continues to be overlooked is the increasing availability of unpaid internships. These internships are a controversial issue – there is something morally unnerving about well-rounded, highly qualified students and graduates slaving away in an office simply to have their travel to and from work reimbursed (for the lucky ones, that is). However, these internships exist because there is a market for them. And my advice is, if you can afford to complete an unpaid internship – do it! With the competition for jobs ever rising, having that extra bit of work experience on your CV can be a real boost. And while such roles do not have the attraction of monthly wages or particularly exciting tasks, there are definitely some very important perks and opportunities…



While the cliché of an intern simply doing coffee rounds is long out-dated, it is certain that the intern’s job in many cases is to do the jobs that no-one else wants to do. This could involve filing, photocopying, proofreading or even carpet-laying – and yes, this really is speaking from experience! However, every banal task you carry out does have a benefit. For example, at a job interview you could explain how as an intern you reshuffled and improved the company’s filing system, showing an example of your organisational skills. Therefore, my first piece of advice is to do each job to the best of your ability. This sounds obvious but when you’re proofreading the 50th page of a property contract your mind can tend to zone out! And while you may think that such small tasks do not contribute to the bigger picture, suggesting to your manager that Excel may be a better programme for the task at hand than Word, for instance, will ensure that you’re remembered and will make a difference to that all important reference sometime in the future.



Networking is as important, if not even more so, than improving your CV when it comes to internships. According to the DLHE (an annual survey which explores the destination of graduates six months after graduation), the most common way in which last year’s graduates found employment was through contacts. So when you’re introduced to the company’s director, be sure to ask for a business card. If you’re invited to a meeting with an agency who works with your company, ask for a business card. If you’re at a work event or conference, ask for a business card. Whenever you meet a potential connection, ask for a business card. It’s not rude or forward or unexpected – so just do it! And to take your networking one step forward, add people on LinkedIn (if you don’t have an account, why are you still reading? Go and make one now!). It’s a great way to network with people in business and there is a ‘Recommendation’ function to allow previous employers, colleagues, friends and family to write wonderful things about you. While it may seem cheeky at the time, emailing a contact who you met once during your internship 2 years ago really could lead you on to a great opportunity.


If you’re not entirely sure about what career path to take, doing an internship could be a real help. While you might be given seemingly trivial tasks of typing or neatening up presentations instead of doing the ‘real’ work, you’re also observing exactly what that ‘real’ work is. You would be working side by side with the potential future you. And if you don’t like what you see, then it’s better to have an early indication that this job may not be for you, so that then you can try to gain experience in other areas. On the other hand, if you do like what you see, as well as increasing your determination to succeed in your chosen career, having this insight will give you something to talk about in your future interviews.


I have certainly had my own share of unpaid placements due to my constantly changing career objectives! My first was at a property law firm, where I became an expert in proofreading, printing, photocopying and stapling. The most important thing I learned was that I never wanted to go into property law – a valuable lesson if you ask me! However, I worked hard at my placement and, on my last day, my manager rewarded me with a paycheque to say thank you. My next unpaid placement was at London Fashion Week. This may sound glamorous, but this is where the reference to carpet-laying comes from! On our first day we were told that our job was essentially to be, and I quote, “invisible” and that if we were going to run late, not to bother calling ahead, just turn back and go home. We slaved away on menial tasks before each show and by the second day the number of interns had reduced noticeably. However, I stuck it out and there were some pretty cool rewards. I got to watch every show that I worked on; I met Karen Binns, a famous stylist (and I also stood next to her while she spoke to Kanye West on the phone, which I count as meeting him too!); I spoke to Mr Hudson (after one of the other interns told him he wasn’t on the guestlist – bad move!); and overall, made some good connections. I even returned to intern the next season, much to my own surprise. I am currently interning in the marketing team of Champagne for Life. Unsurprisingly, the main perk is drinking champagne – for free! I even received a bottle of champagne from the company CEO simply for winning an office competition. And, as the company hold frequent events, there have been some great networking opportunities.

However, the best perk of all of these internships is that, despite what the aforementioned articles say about “The graduates without a future” (as we’ve been dubbed by The Guardian), I have secured a graduate role in my dream company! As of September, I will be working for Kantar, a part of WPP Group – the company I always said I would work for. And I really believe that my experiences as an intern helped me through each stage of recruitment and will continue to help me throughout my career. Hopefully, after a few well handled internships, you’ll be able to say you achieved your dreams too!

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