International Student Guide to Securing Summer Internships

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November 24, 2015

by Lydia Paver
'17, On-the-Job Training Fellow for Internship Support

Navigating the world of work in the U.S. can be overwhelmingly daunting for foreign students. Visa restrictions, securing OPT and the internship application process itself can turn even the most organized foreign Felsian into a ball of stress! With the search for summer internships on the horizon, here are some of my top tips to help you secure stellar work experience:

Applying for OPT

Although this is not necessarily the first stage in securing an internship, it is necessary for you to comprehend the process and to receive approval for OPT before the start of your internship.

There are two types of OPT- for work during the summer between your first and second year at Fels, you should apply for what is known as “pre-completion OPT”.

You do not need to have secured a job before you apply for OPT. In fact, students may file their OPT application with USCIS up to 90 days before being enrolled full-time for one academic year. When applying for pre-completion OPT, whether you’ve secured an internship or not, you must list the dates you actually intend to work (to be safe, your start date should be the earliest date that you could possibly begin work, and your end date should be the latest day that you could possibly work.) The first stage of applying to OPT is submitting the OPT I-20 Request Form on iPenn ( After an ISSS advisor has assessed the documents you submitted to the iPenn page, an I-20 document recommending OPT will be prepared for you. This recommendation will appear on the third page of your I-20. Once this document is ready for collection, ISSS will email you with details on how/when you should pick it up from the ISSS office. You must then mail this I-20 as part of your complete OPT request to USCIS within 30 days of its issuance. A checklist of what constitutes a complete request can be found here. Remember that you are required to report any change in name, address or interruption to employment to ISSS within 10 days in order to remain in status! 

The search: 

Simply searching for opportunities can be difficult. My advice is to start your search early, know what to look for, and know where to look.

Starting your search early has several advantages. Not only do popular internship programs have early deadlines, but you may also find the whole process takes far more time than you first anticipated. The earlier you begin your search, the more polished you applications will be, and the greater chance you have of finding everything out there that interests you.

What to look for in the job description

Some organizations will outwardly state whether they accept applications from non-residents/citizens. Generally, foreign nationals cannot work for U.S. Federal Departments or Agencies (such as HUD or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), at the White House. If you’re not sure if the organization you’re interested in is a government agency, a helpful list can be found here.

Whilst these restrictions limit the opportunities available to international students seeking public service internships, some city governments, Congressional offices, as well as most private and international organizations, are willing to take interns studying on an F1 visa. If the internship posting does not stipulate, it’s best to double check with the employer. The last thing you want to happen is to secure your dream internship only to find you can’t actually work there! 

Know where to look

As you think about where you’d like to work over the summer, remember that international students here at Penn have access to funding through both the PLAS and Wharton Public Policy programs. Being fully funded throughout the summer months allows students to work for organizations that don’t offer pay without experiencing financial hardship- so don’t rule unpaid internships out from your search!

Bearing in mind that OPT is limited to 12 months, you want to ensure your summer internship experience will contribute to your future goals. Be specific about the field you want to pursue and the things you hope to get out of the internship- you don’t want to use 2-3 months of your OPT doing something that doesn’t fully interest you or falls short in giving you the kind of valuable skills and professional connections that will advance your career! While our bi-weekly email updates are full of fantastic opportunities, not all are open to non-U.S. citizens. Attending on-campus information sessions may be of help if it is your first time searching for an internship, and once you know what you’re looking for, popular websites such as and can be a good starting point. Another way to go about this is to research specific organizations within your field of interest. Once you have a sizable list, seek out the company’s websites to discover if internship opportunities exist, as most non-profits and private organizations display any openings on their websites.

Application Process:

So you’ve found your perfect internship and requested OPT, now what? All application processes are different, but here are the general components broken down:

Cover Letter

A letter stating, generally, which internship you’re applying for, why you are interested in the position, what previous work experience you have that qualifies you, and what skills you hope to gain from the experience. I would advise that international students begin their cover letters by explaining their immigration status- a line such as ‘I am a graduate student studying Public Administration at the University of Pennsylvania on an F1 visa, which allows me to work off campus as part of my Optional Practical Training.” Letting your potential employer know your situation from the get-go is recommended, so they know that some additional paperwork will be required of them, should they hire you.  Both Lauren Cristella and the Career Services team are both great resources on hand to check over your completed cover letters.


Your resume is a document that displays all of your education, employment, and extra-curricular history, as well as any awards or certifications. There are many resume templates available online, and Penn career services and Lauren Cristella can help you with further organization and formatting.

References/Recommendations and Writing Samples

Most organizations require some sort of reference from a professional source. As you’re conducting your search, it’s good to think about who you could ask for references from. Professors, Fels staff, and former/current employers are all good sources for recommendations. Be sure to confirm that the people you list as references are happy to speak positively about you, and give your references a heads up that they could possibly be contacted. If a written recommendation is required, make sure you ask your references a fair amount of time before the deadline. Also, providing them with additional information about the position, your interests, and your skills from previous experiences can be of help as they formulate their recommendation.

Some internship programs require a writing sample as part of your application packet. You do not have to submit something completely new- your sample could be composed of a short academic paper, an article, a report, or a section of a longer paper that you have previously written. Most application guidelines state how many pages they are looking for (usually 2-3), but in case it is not defined, I would say no more than 3 pages of good quality writing is appropriate. Your writing sample, especially as an international student, gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your grasp with the English language and to prove you’re a skilled writer. 

The Interview

The interview process gives your employer the chance to engage with you in person, and is also an opportunity for you to make a good impression on your (hopefully) future bosses! Of course, remember to dress smartly, arrive on time, research the organization, department and position you are interviewing for, ask appropriate questions, and be prepared to expand more upon your visa status. Finally, especially if this is your first interview experience in the U.S., make the effort to arrange for a mock interview session with a career services representative. This really is the best way to prepare you for the real thing!

How to get the most out of your internship

Your internship will provide you with hands-on experience in a new work environment. Many larger organizations employ a significant number of interns, while in smaller offices you may be 

the only intern within your department. In both instances, work to develop professional relationships with those you work alongside and those you work for. Be prepared to work hard. Any effort you make to go above and beyond the job description will be noticed, and may increase the likelihood of the organization hiring you- or providing you with a stellar reference- in the future.

Take every opportunity presented to yougo to any and every event that your organization hosts, make connections with those in your field, and put yourself forward to complete tasks such as blog posts and memo writing. Offering to help out other departments, where appropriate and necessary, or taking on research projects of interest to you are also further ways to demonstrate initiative and your work ethic. 

Most of allbe sure to enjoy your time at your American workplace!

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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