Four diverse interns working at a desk surrounding a computer smiling

Externships and internships are great options for exposure in your chosen field when you’re a student or a new grad. We’ll explore externships vs. internships and the benefits of each one to help you decide which is the best option for you.  

What is an internship?

An internship is a structured program through which students and young professionals gain hands-on experience in a specific role. Internships are typically paid experiences that run for a set length of time, usually lasting for several months and aligning with a school semester. 

Interns complete project-based tasks that are similar to what a full-time employee might work on as an employee of the company. They participate in staff meetings, work as a team with other interns, and accompany employees out into the field. 

Being an intern allows you to be a fly on the wall observing the company’s internal operations and learning more about how the company is structured and how things work in the industry. An internship is a valuable opportunity to forge long-term connections that can help you land your first job or advance your career. 

Enhance your internship cover letter and internship resume with these helpful tips and examples!

What is an externship?

An externship is a short program that helps students learn more about a job, company, or field. During an externship, students spend anywhere from a full day to a few weeks shadowing one or more company employees. Externships are unpaid and don’t include any work on the part of participants. 

Activities that are part of an externship might include observing professionals in their day-to-day duties, taking a tour of the facility, learning more about the company’s operations, sitting in on meetings, or having a chance to conduct informational interviews with various team members. 

An externship allows you to quickly learn more about a job you’re interested in without the long-term commitment of a formal internship. 

Learn how to create an externship cover letter with this step-by-step guide.

Externship vs. internship: key differences


Externships are short, running just a few days or a couple of weeks. An internship is a longer program lasting anywhere from six weeks to an entire year. Most internships coincide with a college’s semesters, i.e. a spring or summer internship. 


During an externship, you may observe a wide range of people and job types within a company. An internship is more narrowly focused and limited to a specific role or department. 


An externship is an informational experience; you’ll spend most of the time observing others. An internship is a very hands-on experience with a well-defined set of duties. You’ll have clearly outlined goals to work toward and deadlines that you’re expected to meet. You may even have regular check-ins where you report your progress to an intern coordinator and receive feedback.


Most internships are paid experiences via an hourly wage or a program-long stipend. Interns may have access to subsidized housing or perks like company discounts, gym memberships, and other benefits that full-time employees enjoy. Some internship programs provide college credit. Externships, on the other hand, are unpaid experiences. 

Job opportunities

Both internships and externships can lead to job opportunities. Because internships happen over a longer time frame, they give hiring managers a chance to gain a thorough understanding of your skills. This can put you on the shortlist for future positions. Externships allow you to meet people within a company in your chosen field, which can help you build your network and make it more likely that you’ll learn about upcoming job openings. 

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Benefits of externships


An externship lets you quickly get acquainted with a job, company, or industry. It’s a great option to learn more about different roles if you’re unsure what you want to do or are stuck between several different career paths. Taking part in an externship can help you decide that you’re ready to take the next step in pursuing a certain job. 

Low commitment

Maybe you’re not ready to invest an entire semester into an internship or have other obligations like a job outside of your schoolwork. An externship can be done in a single day or on a break in your school schedule, like during winter or spring break, allowing you to gain on-the-job knowledge while upholding your other commitments. 


Externships are a more practical option for some students. Because of their shorter, low-pressure nature, it’s easier to complete more than one externship over a short time frame. You could also take part in an externship while simultaneously holding down a part-time job or taking a normal college course load. 

Industry knowledge

Although externships don’t allow you to complete actual assignments, they equip you with valuable background knowledge. If you have one or more externships on your resume when you start applying for jobs, it could give you the edge over a similar candidate with no inside knowledge of the field. 


An externship puts you face-to-face with professionals in your desired line of work. If you make a good impression on them, you may open the door to long-term connections. Building your professional network is key to getting referrals for jobs and learning about opportunities that will advance your career, both in the near term and years into the future. 

Benefits of internships

Hands-on experience

An internship is typically a full-time commitment, which gives you ample opportunity to gain new skills by doing the kind of work you’d be doing in an actual job. You’ll work on projects that you can use in your portfolio and accomplish achievements that you can add to your resume. 

You’ll also pick up valuable professional know-how like meeting etiquette and email correspondence. Plus, you’ll get a taste of what it’s like to have a real 9-to-5 job, which can better prepare you for the workforce.  

Deep career understanding

When you’re a college student, you spend most of your time in the classroom. Even though you might already know what job you want, you probably don’t have a very good idea of what an actual day in life looks like for someone with that career. 

Participating in an internship for several weeks or months will enable you to really understand what a person in your desired role does, which can help you make smarter choices when determining your career path. 

Earn money

Many college students don’t have the luxury of a full scholarship or financial support from back home. A paid internship lets you earn money while you hone your skills, which is key for students who need to cover food, housing, tuition, and other costs. 


Interning gives you the chance to connect with prospective mentors. A mentor is a more experienced person in your field who is an objective resource for feedback, coaching, and career advice. 

Having a mentor can be an invaluable tool for growing as a professional. Many people remain in contact with mentors they met during internships when they’re well into their careers. 

Entry path into workforce

While there’s no guarantee you’ll leave an internship with a job offer, if you work hard, do a good job, and the timing’s right, getting a full-time job out of it is a strong possibility. Internships can help you break into highly competitive fields where you might not otherwise have a path of entry. 

So, should you apply for an internship or an externship? Nothing stops you from pursuing one or both, depending on the timing and circumstances. Either one can be an incredible learning experience that cements your interest in a field and gives you clarity on the next steps to take to achieve your career goals. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn