Is taking a copywriting internship the best thing you can do for your burgeoning career or a complete waste of time?

I’d like to tell you that it’s a waste of time.

And that’s why I’m absolutely going to tell you that it’s a complete waste of time…

… right after I explain how it could be the best thing you do for your burgeoning career.

Also, what does burgeoning even mean?

Ha! Nice try.

Welcome to my guide to copywriting internships.

What’s The Appeal Of A Copywriting Internship?

Around once per week, a well-meaning reader emails me and asks if they can do a copywriting internship for me.

In most cases, what they are asking is, “If I work for you for free for a few months, will you teach me the secrets to succeeding in this business?”

The idea here is that there is insider information that can be transferred to them within a short period of time – information so valuable that it’s worth them investing months of their time without compensation.

This is the first reason that someone might pursue a copywriting internship: to connect with and learn directly from people with a ton of experience.

A second reason is simply to land a job.

Many large companies use internships like entry-level positions. If you are able to land an internship with a great brand, you have a strong chance of being offered a fulltime job. Even if you don’t end up getting an offer, having an internship with a strong brand on your resume can help you land a fulltime job with another great company.

The third reason is to gain hands-on experience.

The best way to learn is to work on real projects with real clients. But how do you get the chance to work on these projects as a beginner?

You can go out and land clients yourself as a freelancer — this is a great option — but the reality is that these clients aren’t going to be the best quality. It’s a great fit, because you aren’t really the best quality copywriter either, but you can still help them and give them a great value at what they are going to be able to pay.

But when you do a copywriting internship, you aren’t going to be limited to working with the clients that you personally can land. You get to work with the types of clients who work with large organizations, and when the internship is setup correctly, you’ll get a ton of super valuable experience working with high quality clients.

Those are the three reasons that people are drawn to a copywriting internship:

  1. Learn from experienced people
  2. Get setup for a great job
  3. Get hands-on experience

The question, however, is whether or not copywriting internships actually deliver on these promises.

To begin answering this questions, let’s look at the three main types of copywriting internships.

The Three Main Types of Copywriting Internships

Most copywriting internships fall into the following three categories:

  1. The “Shadow” internship
  2. The “Rising Star” internship
  3. The “Jack-Of-All-Trades” internship

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

1. The “Shadow” Internship

In this type of internship, your only responsibility is to follow a senior copywriter around and watch them do their thing. Alternatively, you might get rotated across a number of people in a marketing department and have the opportunity to watch all of them at work (probably even better).

Here’s an example “shadow” internship listing on ZipRecruiter. The job is posted by Blue Ridge Media and mentions that the internship is self-directed and that no experience is necessary. There’s also no listing of tasks — only a list of things the intern can potentially learn.

Screen Shot 2020 11 02 at 12.57.31 PM

The majority of these internships are primarily built around college credit. You aren’t responsible for completing any tasks for the company (allegedly), so you don’t get paid. The idea is that you can either sit through a random college class OR you can sit in and watch real professionals at work.

If you are in college, this sounds to me like a no-brainer. If you aren’t in college… it’s the other type  of no-brainer.

It’s possible that getting to follow someone successful around could be a good use of your time even if you aren’t getting paid, but in my experience, knowing WHAT other people are doing is a lot different than understanding HOW to do it yourself. Observation can be powerful… but it can also be superficial.

2. The “Rising Star” Internship

This type of internship is all about grooming specific people for needed fulltime roles. Companies that depend on a regular stream of new copywriting talent are more likely to offer these types of positions, and they tend to be more selective and more intentional than your average copywriting internship.

Here’s an example of this type of copywriting internship, offered by Film Daily.

Screen Shot 2020 11 02 at 12.17.45 PM

At face value, this seems like a pretty good gig if you can land it. If you look through the full listing, you’ll see a level of specificity not common on job listings. The idea here is that you are going to be intentionally trained to step into a fulltime role with this company.

Here’s why that’s not necessarily as good as it sounds.

When most young people think of being intentionally trained for an entry-level position, they wildly overestimate what that training is going to entail. Entry-level is all about raw output. It’s not about strategy or understanding. It’s not about advanced skills or complex client interaction.

The review above might not be the full picture on the brand’s internship experience, but the point I’m trying to make here is that in many cases, your “exclusive” internship is just going to teach you how to churn out an obscene amount of low-grade writing in the brand’s particular editorial style.

That’s not the worst thing in the world.

You’re still getting paid. You’re still practicing real writing for real clients.

But as we’ll discuss in a bit, there’s an opportunity cost to consider when investing your time in an internship like this.

3. The “Jack-Of-All-Trades” Internship

This is probably the most common type of internship, and it’s very much like an entry level job. You are supposedly going to come in and “assist” on a wide range of activities and responsibilities, allowing you to develop a range of skills while seeing firsthand how a copywriting or marketing business is run.

Here’s an example offered by Mintz+Hoke.

Screen Shot 2020 11 02 at 1.50.04 PM

These types of internships are advertised as “broad experience in a fast-paced environment”, but what they usually mean in practice is “come do all the stuff the important people don’t want to do”.

In many businesses that do regular internships, there is a specific subset of tasks that have become de facto intern responsibilities over the years, and full time staff are going to be much less interested in giving you a well-rounded learning experience than they are in having you take low-value tasks off their hands.

That’s not always true, and even when it is, you might still learn a lot.

All the internship reviews I could find on Mintz+Hoke look like this:

But it’s important to understand that for 9 out of 10 business, “helping the interns get a great learning experience” is not a top priority, while “having the interns we are paying do something useful” is the default.

Again, the issue here is less about whether or not you will learn anything and more about if there is a better use for your time.

So let’s talk about the cost.

The True Cost Of Doing A Copywriting Internship

The length of an internship can vary quite a bit, but from what I’ve seen, three months is a fairly standard timeline.

And that’s the cost of doing a copywriting internship.

Three months of your time.

So the question we need to be asking is, “What could you accomplish in three months if you weren’t spending that time on an internship?”

If your goal is to learn from people with experience, a direct mentorship is going to be a lot more powerful.

You’ll learn a lot more, get much better access to the people you want to learn from, and you don’t need to be a college student to find this sort of opportunity.

Here’s the problem.

The chances of finding a legitimate mentorship opportunity are incredibly low — most people you’d want to mentor you don’t have the time to mentor someone — but so is finding an internship where you are genuinely going to be getting hands-on training from a highly experienced copywriter.

If your goal is get a job, going straight for an entry-level position probably makes a lot more sense, assuming you are available to work full-time.

You will make more money as a full-time employee, and your training will be a much higher priority for the company than if you were a temporary intern. There are also thousands more entry-level jobs available than internships, so your odds of success are higher here anyway.

If your goal is to get hands-on experience, then building your own freelance copywriting business is likely to give you a much greater return in 3 months.

Nothing forces you to learn more than doing everything yourself, and you’ll learn far more about business from building one than you will from watching someone else work in one.

The caveat here is that many people don’t have the self-discipline to build a business.

Nobody is going to be watching you and telling you what to do. If you decide to spend all day browsing Instagram… you’ll just end up spending all day browsing Instagram.

Going out on your own is a higher risk, higher reward opportunity for many reasons, but if you can do it, you’ll get a lot more out of every day invested in that pursuit than you would in as a copywriting intern or entry level writer.

Okay, with all that said, let’s review the pros and cons.

Pros & Cons Of Being A Copywriting Intern

Now that we’ve had a more general discussion, let’s focus specifically on the upsides and downsides of being a copywriting intern.

Let’s start with the pros.

Pro #1: You’ll gain hands-on experience without needing to land clients first.

Not everyone has the audacity to just go out and sell themselves to real clients from Day #1.

In fact, very few people are able to do that, and that’s okay.

A copywriting internship will let you get hands-on experience without needing to go out and land clients first. It’s a much easier path to “learning by doing”, and I fully support that.

Pro #2: You can position yourself to get a great job while you’re still in school.

Not everyone is able to go grab a full-time, entry-level position… especially students aka the people for whom internships are primarily designed.

If you’re still in school, and you are looking for ways to make some money, gain some experience and position yourself to land a great entry-level copywriting job once you graduate, an internship is a no-brainer.

Pro #3: You might create valuable professional relationships.

Networking is an essential part of career building, whether you’re looking to work as a freelancer or to find a position as a copywriter. Internships can be a great way to network and connect with great people in the marketing and copywriting industry.

One of the best things about both internships and full-time positions is that networking is “baked in”. You don’t need to be particularly aggressive about pursuing new relationships, as they tend to come straight to you.

And while you’re not guaranteed to make lasting connections at any given internship, it’s an upside that needs to be mentioned, because a single connection can change your career.

Okay, time for the cons.

Con #1: You will make less money than most alternatives.

Copywriting internships range in pay from nothing to an hourly rate that rarely crosses $30/hour.

Most other scenarios, including trying to build your own business from scratch, will result in a higher payout than if you were to do an internship.

Now, listen.

I’m ALL about sacrificing short term earning potential at the beginning of your career in order to increase real practice and skills mastery, and IF you can find an internship that provides that, it’s absolutely worth the lower pay, BUT as we’ve discussed, that’s not often the case with most internships.

If your options are taking low pay to get coffee as a copywriting intern and taking slightly higher pay to get coffee as an entry-level employee, take the higher pay.

Con #2:  You will likely spend most of your time on boring, repetitive work.

There are really only two scenarios for the work you do as an intern.

The scenario that is positive for you as an intern involves you taking up the time and attention of expensive staff in order to work on projects that you will be unable to contribute to in a meaningful way.

The other scenario is that you do the boring, repetitive work that you can do effectively with no skills and end up contributing to the company.

While most internships are started with good intentions, the vast majority of companies will end up defaulting into that second scenario, and that means that regardless of what it says on the flyer, you are most likely to spend your internship doing boring, repetitive tasks that teach you nothing.

Con #3: You will likely invest more time than the opportunity is worth.

Time is your most precious and limited resource.

Any opportunity that comes at a heavy cost of your time needs to give you serious benefits in return, and in most cases, a copywriting internship will not fit the bill.

The average student who completes my comprehensive copywriting course is able to reach between $1,500-$3,000 per month in writing income by their third month, and they learn infinitely more going through the actual work of building a real business than you will learn in a three-month internship.

The Bottom Line On Copywriting Internships

Here’s the bottom line.

An internship CAN be a beneficial and even life-changing experience IF:

  1. You are still in college or unable to work fulltime hours
  2. You are able to find an internship where they care enough about sourcing talent to put alongside highly experienced staff.
  3. Freelancing/entrepreneurship isn’t your primary goal, or you aren’t willing to commit to learning sales.

Just understand that it’s incredibly rare to find a copywriting internship that fits these criteria.

You are a lot more likely to end up in an underpaid, undertrained afterthought of a position where you do busy work for three months with nothing to show for it but a mediocre footnote on a resume that’s unlikely to get you a great job in 2021 anyway.

If you really want to make the most out of the next 3 months, here are your two best options:

  1. Find an entry level copywriting position at a great company with great employee reviews.
  2. Build your own freelance copywriting business using the steps in this guide.

That’s all I got.

I hope you’ve found this guide to copywriting internships helpful!

If you have personal experience going through a copywriting internship, let me know how it went in the comments.

Written by Jacob McMillen and Mynah Marie.

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