Completing an internship

They used to be an added benefit, these days they are mandatory: students complete an average of two to three internships during their course. How do I find the right internship?

Without previous job experience it is difficult to get your foot in the door at companies. An internship is also a fantastic opportunity for international students: they learn about everyday working life in Germany, gain experience and establish contacts with potential employers.

Ideally, this represents a win-win situation: interns learn about preparing for entry into professional life. Companies receive support in completing their activities. At least, that's the theory. It is sometimes different in practice. So, it's important to ask other interns and use the job interview to clarify whether some important requirements are met.

Five criteria for a good internship

There are five key criteria that define a good internship. If you want to avoid disappointment, you should check how well you 'fit' with the specific internship in advance:

  • Challenging activities: the tasks should be complex and challenging, to give you the chance to learn, ideally as part of an independent project. While monotonous and repetitive tasks are all part of the deal, you should not have to spend the entire time filing or making coffee.
  • Autonomous activities: after an introductory phase, you should be able to independently and autonomously manage your project, even if occasional assistance is provided. Confidently completing the assigned tasks is sure to impress the company.
  • Appropriate duration: an internship should last long enough to take on complex tasks. Two to three months are generally sufficient. Unpaid internships that last for more than six months should be assessed very critically.
  • Single contact: a single contact should be provided for the duration of the internship to allow a regular exchange of ideas.
  • Fair payment: some companies pay interns 800 euros a month, others pay nothing. Many companies pay between 300 and 500 euros. If the benefits of the practical experience outweigh earning money, then you might consider accepting the internship.

Different types of internships

Different types of internships are available. Voluntary internships can be completed out of personal interest. For these internships, labour law provisions apply in the same manner as for part-time student jobs. Compulsory internships are a required part of many academic courses. For some courses you have to complete an internship before starting the course itself in order to be granted admission. In other courses, such as engineering, students have to complete practical semesters. You can also choose to complete an internship without taking a course, or after completing a course. Anyone from outside the EU or the EEA will need a permit from the International Placement Services of the Federal Employment Agency (ZAV). You can find more information here.

Finding the right internship

Anyone looking for an internship should first decide the direction that they would like their professional career to take. An internship gives you the chance to find out whether the course and the desired job actually match – and put the interests, knowledge and skills from your course to a practical test in a specific profession. Formulating a career vision may help, for example: "I want to be an engineer for car maker XY." You can then compare the relevant careers and companies against your own goals, as well as looking through online portals. Many universities also offer internal internship portals. It is also important to note that smaller companies also offer internships, frequently with greater freedoms and responsibility for independent projects than larger companies.

Applying for an internship

You should establish contact with the company before applying. A quick call to the Technical or Human Resources department can be helpful. This lets you clarify a couple of important questions: Where will the interns be working? How is the application process structured? What should interns expect? This helps you prepare a more targeted application and you may already have introduced yourself to an important contact.

At the very least, your application folder must include:

  • a personalised cover letter to a specific contact
  • a clear and compelling CV
  • evidence of schooling and studies
  • work references
  • any work samples
  • any letters of recommendation

Ensuring a successful job interview

If your application documents are convincing, you will receive an invitation to a job interview. The aim of this interview is to find out whether the company's requirements match the intern's expectations. You should take some time to think through this interview beforehand: Why do I want to complete my internship with this company? What are my assets? What are my expectations? If you pass the job interview, you have a good chance of being awarded the internship.