Resumes & Cover Letters

Don’t want an unpaid internship? Here are 5 ways to build your resume

Written by Kate Lopaze

Internships are generally shorthand for “newbie getting experience, for no pay.” And they can be a beneficial career step when you’re a student, recent grad, or otherwise starting a new career. But internships are also increasingly problematic: many feel that companies take advantage of interns to provide labor that should be compensated more fairly. Unpaid (or low-paid) internships are also a luxury for people who can afford to go without a paycheck for a certain period of time. And if you don’t have other means of support while you’re an intern, then that may make it a no-go. Unfortunately, “work experience” can’t pay the bills.

It’s important to remember that traditional internships aren’t the only way to get career experience or make connections in your field. If you can’t afford an unpaid gig, you didn’t get the internship you wanted, or you’re inclined not to take that route at all, there are things you can do to help build your resume and opportunities in the meantime.

1. Schedule informational interviews in your field

Just because you’re not meeting people on the job or around the water cooler, that doesn’t mean your network should be at a disadvantage. You should start looking at LinkedIn or other social networking sites to help identify people who are in your field, or at the company you’d like to work for eventually. Requesting an informational interview doesn’t take up much of your time or theirs, and can help you start learning about what you need to know about your field. It also helps you start making the kinds of connections you’d make organically in an internship.

These informational interviews are also good for helping you figure out what gaps there are in your knowledge or skills, so you can find ways to gain those skills and get them front and center on your resume.

2. Look for networking opportunities

Many industries have open networking events, especially for upcoming or recent grads. Social media, college job boards/career offices, and industry publications are good resources for upcoming events online or in your area. And while it may be not much more than schmoozing with some free punch and cookies (or an awkward Zoom with a bunch of strangers), it’s still a good way to meet people who can give you more information, or become part of your burgeoning professional network.

3. Consider part-time or freelance work

If full-time entry-level jobs are hard to come by in your industry, are there part-time, temporary, or freelance opportunities? While not necessarily your long-term plan, starting with a paying role of any kind can help you build experience and those resume points. If you’re looking to build a portfolio of work, this is a great way to start doing that.

4. Look for non-traditional or remote internships

The workplace has changed greatly over the past few years, fueled largely in part by COVID pandemic-era changes in virtually every industry. And as more jobs go remote, many companies are adapting their internship programs as well. Internships that are remote or more flexible might help you work an internship around your other, paying work more easily than a 9-to-5 internship in an office would allow you to do.

5. Build your skills with classes or training opportunities

If you’re just finishing a degree, it’s possible that the last thing you want to do is take more classes. But finding online courses, trainings, or bootcamps can help you bridge the gap between student and employee by helping you build specific skills. They don’t necessarily provide on-the-job experience, but you can bolster a thin resume with courses and skills.

If you’re not sure what would help you drill down to the specific skills or training you’d need, start scouring job descriptions in your field. What’s involved in these jobs? Are there specific programs, apps, or skills outlined in the job description? Aside from specific timed experience, what are these companies asking for? Even if you’re not ready to apply to these kinds of jobs, they can still help you figure out what you need to do to get there.

If an unpaid internship just isn’t in the cards for you, don’t worry—you’re not blowing up your career before it even starts. A little hustle and thoughtful attention to creating (and tending) your roots in your field can help you find knowledge and open doors similar to what you’d get by paying your dues in an office. Good luck!

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.