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What Is an Externship (and How to Get One)?

student in an externship looking at whiteboard with professional

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Choosing a career path can be difficult and even nerve-racking when you  don’t even know what a day in the role would look like. Externships, typically short programs where you shadow a professional in the workplace, can help give you an inside view of a career before you apply — as well as valuable skills to add to your resume.

These learning opportunities are a little more elusive than internships, and therefore harder to know what they’re all about and how to find them. Here’s your go-to guide.

Externship Meaning

What is an externship? An externship is an experiential learning opportunity that usually involves shadowing someone during their typical workday.

  • Experiential learning: learning by doing; a hands-on learning experience
  • Shadowing: observing an employee doing their job 

Externships are usually short programs that give you an inside view of what it’s like to work in a specific professional role at a company — without necessarily having to do entry-level work for the company as you might in an internship.

“Externships are a great way to test drive an emerging interest without a longer commitment,” Sharon Belden Castonguay, executive director of Wesleyan University’s career center, says. “These types of experiences allow you to get brief exposure to an organization, industry, or functional area.”

Day In the Life of an Extern

You can do externships in a variety of fields. They’re often common in graduate schools, specifically medical and law schools. So while all externs shadow professionals in their everyday work environment, an externship can vary greatly between different fields. For example, a health care extern might shadow a nurse around a hospital, while a theater extern might go backstage before a show. Some examples of basic tasks an extern might do include: 

  • Help a professional perform their everyday work tasks
  • Conduct administrative tasks for that professional, like note-taking or scheduling
  • Sit in on a team meetings
  • Listen to a professional as they speak with a client or customer
  • Meet team members that professional works with on a consistent basis
  • Tour the company and learn about key leaders
  • Participate in company or team trainings

Instead of doing the actual work that a professional does — but at a junior level, like in an internship — an extern typically watches what they do. The point is to get an understanding of what that person’s day to day role is like.

Externship vs. Internship

If you saw “externship” and thought we’d misspelled the beginning of “internship,” it wouldn’t be surprising — internships are a much more popular work experience for students. Externships and internships are similar because they give early professionals real-life working experience. Both externships and internships help students build job skills, network, and grow professionally.

The biggest difference between an externship vs. internship is the type of work an extern or intern does. Externs aren’t necessarily completing independent work, but rather following a professional for a trial, observatory period to understand what everyday life is like in that role. On the other hand, internships are typically more in-depth, longer programs that require you to perform entry-level tasks for a company and work alongside company members.

Differences between an externship vs. internship include:

PurposeExperience a day or a few weeks in the life of a professional.Complete real-world work tasks at an entry-level. 
Day-to-dayShadow a professional, following them to meetings and in their day-to-day responsibilities.Help out a team with entry-level tasks, attend team meetings, and participate in growth and development activities.
DurationAnywhere from a day to a few weeks.Typically 3-4 months, or 10-12 weeks. 
PayUnpaid; often eligible for school credit.A majority (60%) of internships are paid.

>>MORE: Internship vs. Externship: What’s the Difference?

How Long Do Externships Last?

Depending on the program, externships can last anywhere from one day to weeks. They’re typically shorter programs that can be done over a short school break, like winter or spring break, rather than multi-month programs like internships. However, some externships for college or university credit may last longer as you work to complete your degree.

>>RELATED: How Long Does an Internship Last?

Are Externships Paid?

Unfortunately, no, most externships aren’t paid, often because you aren’t doing work for the company. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, students working for for-profit employers don’t legally receive payment if:

  • There’s no promise of compensation
  • The training is similar to an educational environment
  • You receive academic credit (which many schools offer for externships)
  • The opportunity accommodates the student’s academic commitments
  • The opportunity ends once the student has received “beneficial learning”
  • The student’s work doesn’t displace paid employees’ work, but complements it
  • The student knows they’re not entitled to a paid role after the opportunity has ended

Externships do not typically meet the requirements for payment. Instead, these are primarily learning, not work-based opportunities, and you may be able to receive school credit.

Are Externships Worth It?

Externships are a great way to get an “inside look” at a role, company, and industry without much of a time commitment. Some of the main benefits of externships include:

When Should You Do an Externship?

Externships are a great opportunity for students looking to get an understanding of what a role is like without committing to a long internship. The best time to do an externship is early in your career search, typically when you’re a freshman or sophomore in college. These are the best years to do externships because many companies don’t open their formal internship programs until students have completed their sophomore year. You’ll not only have the time to do an externship program, but doing one earlier on can then help you decide what type of internship you might want to do later.

Of course, there’s no wrong time to do an externship — even people who have been in the workforce for years can benefit from one if they’re looking to change careers. 

Where Should You Do an Externship?

You should do an externship in any industry or role you’re interested in. Not sure where to start? Here are some common interests, where you might want to extern, and a Forage job simulation if you want to see if it’s right for you — before you set up the externship.

Interest(s)Externship FieldJob Simulation
Data analysisMarketingLululemon Merchandising
DesignUX DesignAccenture UX Design
Creative thinkingConsultingBCG Introduction to Strategy Consulting
ProgrammingSoftware EngineeringAccenture North America Coding: Development & Advanced Engineering
Public speakingSalesCisco IT Sales
Writing and researchLawIntroduction to Commercial Law

>>MORE: Explore Forage job simulations in dozens of industries and learn what careers you like — and which ones you don’t. 

Can You Add an Externship to Your Resume?

Yes, you can add an externship to your resume — and you should! While externships may not be as long or in-depth as internships, that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable learning experiences that teach you skills and industry knowledge. Adding an externship to your resume can signal to employers that you’re interested in the field and have experience working with professionals in the industry.

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How to Include an Externship on Your Resume

You can list your externship on your resume under your “work experience” section with the company’s name, your title (“_____ extern”), and the month(s) you completed the externship.

Underneath this line, briefly describe what you did during the externship. Unlike an internship or longer work experience, you might not have made as much of an impact in a shorter time, especially if the externship was just a few days. That’s OK — it’s the nature of an externship. Try to quantify what you did as best you can, and focus on including any hard or soft skills you built and programs or tools you used. Did you use Microsoft PowerPoint and soft skills like communication and analytical skills to help prepare for a client meeting? Did you use hard skills to make an impact, and work with a senior software engineer to reduce the time it took to debug a software issue by 30%? 

>>MORE: How to Write a Resume With No Work Experience

Can I Get Hired From an Externship?

“It depends on the site,” Teri Shigeno, assistant professor who oversees externship programs at Adler University, says. “One of our sites hired a former student as a part-time director of mental performance.”

Typically, interns are more likely to get hired than externs, given the nature of the different roles. Interns already have experience working on entry-level tasks at the company, which makes it easier for an employer to understand whether an intern would succeed there. An extern is still learning valuable skills and gaining connections, but hasn’t necessarily done the work required in an entry-level role. 

While an internship can boost your chances of getting hired at that company — nearly 70% of interns receive an offer from a company they’ve interned for — an externship can still help you get hired overall. You’ll hopefully have a better understanding of how an industry works, have built professional skills, and gained connections that might provide you with job opportunities at that or another company.

How to Get An Externship

Two main ways to get an externship are applying for a program or asking your network.

Apply for a Program

Many schools offer their own externships where students can shadow alumni. Some companies may offer externships, too. Do your research at your school’s career center and on company websites to find out if there are any available opportunities, and when. While summer is usually the most popular season for internships, externships don’t always follow the same schedule. For example, many externships happen during the winter months when schools typically have a break between semesters.

Usually, the application process for these programs is much less rigorous than for internship programs. This is because you’re not expected to do the in-depth work an intern might do. 

“For our clinical internships, students interview at sites,” Shigeno says. “This is not the case for our externship program.”

When applying for an externship, make sure you review all the requirements. For example, some might be only for students in specific class years (e.g., fourth-year student for a nursing externship). Others might involve specific off-hours for shadowing. 

Make a Connection

Because externships are less formal than internships, you can also get one by making a connection and asking to shadow someone. Use your network to find other industry professionals. That might mean asking a friend to connect you with their aunt who works at a company you’re interested in or your professor if they know anyone in the field who might let you shadow them. 

If you make a connection, send a message (either via LinkedIn or email) focusing on learning more about their work before asking about externship opportunities. 

For example:

Hello Rebecca, it’s so nice to meet you! I’m Sophie, a student at the University of Phoenix studying arts management. My professor, Professor Cunningham, recommended I contact you to learn more about your role at the Polar Theater. I’m passionate about community theater outreach and mission-driven productions and would love to hear more about your work. Are you available to connect Monday or Wednesday this week? I’ve attached my resume for reference. Thank you!

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Because externships aren’t as popular as internships, the person you reach out to might not even be familiar with the term! It’s okay to ask to shadow them and provide the hours you’re available. The worst someone can say is no — hopefully, you’ll still make a valuable connection along the way.

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Image credit: Christina Morillo / Pexels

Zoe Kaplan is a Senior Writer at Forage. Prior to joining Forage, she wrote and edited career and workplace content for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women.

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