For Lower-Income Students, Big Tech Internships Can Be Hard to Get

Jalaun Ross, a computer science major, applied for 200 internships but did not receive a single offer from tech firms. Credit. Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

Critics say the intern selection process often favors wealthier students, just like the admission process at some elite colleges.

By Natasha Singer, Reprinted from The New York Times

Jalaun Ross, a computer science major at Central Connecticut State University, knew it would be difficult to land an internship at a prominent tech company this summer.

He had chosen to attend an affordable local public university, not a top computing school, and he did not know anyone in the industry who could put in a good word for him with tech recruiters.

Last summer, while interning at a financial services company, Mr. Ross spent several hours every evening preparing for the coding tests that tech firms use to weed out candidates. He ultimately applied to more than 200 internships, he said, but he did not receive a single offer from tech firms.

“College itself is a huge workload, especially for minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status,” Mr. Ross said. “How can people who go to average state schools compete?”

Like attending an Ivy League university, obtaining a prestigious internship at a prominent tech company can confer lifelong advantages. Highly coveted software engineering internships at firms like Amazon or Google have been known to pay $24,000 or more for the summer, not including housing stipends. They can also offer compelling intellectual challenges, foster invaluable networking connections and lead to full-time job offers.

With sometimes more than 100,000 students applying for just thousands of slots, securing an elite tech internship can be as cutthroat as getting into Harvard.

Critics say the typical recruitment process at high-profile tech firms often gives an advantage to students at top computing colleges and those with industry connections — just like elite private universities that heavily recruit from top high schools and favor the children of alumni. Wealthier intern candidates may also have more time and opportunity to polish their portfolios and sharpen their test-taking skills.

“Assumptions of privilege are baked into the system,” said Ruthe Farmer, the founder and chief executive of the Last Mile Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps lower-income students in technical fields complete their college degrees. “It’s biased toward students who have more free time to devote to side projects, hackathons and studying for technical interviews — characteristics that conflate privilege with student potential.”

(Ms. Farmer’s nonprofit has received funding from Google, Microsoft and other tech firms.)

Ruthe Farmer, founder of Last Mile Education Fund, says Silicon Valley hiring practices often conflate privilege with student potential. Credit. Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

The intern selection process underscores longstanding inequities in Silicon Valley recruitment and hiring. This year, layoffs and cutbacks at leading tech companies have only narrowed intern opportunities, students say, exacerbating socioeconomic disparities. In response to a callout from The New York Times, nearly 300 people — students, recent graduates and software engineers — shared their experiences applying for tech internships and jobs, with some describing the process as “brutal,” “unfair” or “disheartening.”

To try to compete, dozens of students spent hours applying for more than 100 internships, practicing for internship coding tests or working on personal coding projects to try to impress recruiters, they said. More than half of the respondents said they had never heard back from the firms where they had applied for positions.

Some students at lesser-known public universities said they felt at a disadvantage compared with their peers at computer science powerhouses like Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. A few students said they had quit part-time jobs or neglected their course assignments to devote themselves to applying for tech internships — only to receive no offers.

Some college students at higher-ranked computing programs reported more successful outcomes. Kien Pham, a student at the University of Minnesota, said he had spent much of the summer and fall intensively applying to more than 300 internships.

That included preparing for an interview with Amazon, he said, by spending the better part of two weeks writing down episodes from his life that matched the company’s guiding values, known internally as leadership principles. He later accepted a software engineering internship offer from Amazon for this summer.

Some students noted socioeconomic disparities throughout the application process.

Tech companies like Microsoft and Google have internal referral systems in which employees may recommend candidates. Those referrals can help distinguish certain students among tens of thousands of applicants. But students at lesser-known schools often lack the kind of industry, family or elite university connections that can lead to employee referrals.

Another concern, Ms. Farmer said: The intern selection process may overlook or underestimate college students who have jobs.

Davita Bird, a computer science major at the Colorado School of Mines in the city of Golden, has studied half a dozen computer programming languages. In addition to her coursework, she has three part-time jobs: as a teaching assistant for a math course, as an instructor at a science and technology education program for girls and as a university event organizer.

Davita Bird, a computer science major at the Colorado School of Mines who has three part-time jobs, said she did not hear back from most of the tech companies where she applied for internships. Credit. Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Last semester, Ms. Bird devoted an hour every evening over two months to applying to 40 internships at Airbnb, Amazon, Google, Oracle and smaller firms. She did not hear back from a majority of them, she said.

“I am expected to be both a full-time student, work outside of class and spend about five hours a week doing a job search for an internship that can’t even employ me for five months,” Ms. Bird, who recently accepted a cloud computing internship at an electronics firm, wrote in comments to The Times. “I wish companies would at least give an email rejection.”

The process may seem opaque to some students because large tech companies rarely disclose their intern acceptance rates or publish lists of the universities from which they recruit the highest number of interns.

In a recent interview, Vaishali Sabhahit, global head of university talent at Adobe, said the company typically received applications from more than 100,000 candidates for its summer internship program in the United States and hired about 600 interns. This year, the company started a separate internship program in cybersecurity with Bowie State University, a historically Black university in Maryland.

Apple did not respond to questions about its internship program. Microsoft and Meta declined to provide responses for this article.

In an email, Keyon Young, director of Amazon’s student programs, said that the company took candidates’ education and work experiences into account, but that it focused most on student alignment with the company’s leadership principles. Last year, he said, Amazon hired the highest number of U.S. interns from top computing schools including Berkeley, Georgia Tech, the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University.

“Networking with current Amazonians is not a requirement for consideration,” Mr. Young added.

To try to broaden opportunities, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Meta, Amazon and other large tech companies have over the years set up a variety of introductory internship or mentorship programs for first- and second-year college students. These programs are intended to provide students from groups that are underrepresented in tech — including female, Black, Latino and lower-income students — with hands-on experience working on engineering projects.

Google’s effort, the Student Training in Engineering Program, is designed to prepare students for professional internships. The program hosted several hundred students last year from 143 universities. A similar effort at Amazon, the Propel Program, has extended return internship or full-time job offers to successful interns, Mr. Young said.

Wealthier students may also have advantages in preparing for coding tests and technical interviews. To gear up for the assessments, many students practice their skills on LeetCode, a free test prep site that offers coding and algorithmic problems, along with detailed solutions.

LeetCode, a test prep site for job seekers in tech, offers premium members access to coding and algorithmic problems that companies like Amazon and Google have asked candidates in the past, along with detailed solutions. Credit. LeetCode

The LeetCode site lists the number of problems it offers from each company. Credit. LeetCode

The LeetCode site lists the number of problems it offers from each company.Credit…LeetCode

The site also offers premium services. For $35 a month, it gives members access to specific problems that companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft previously used — and some continue to use — to assess applicants. To keep the questions up-to-date, the test prep service said, it regularly surveys members applying for tech positions.

Spending hours practicing on LeetCode, however, did not end up helping Mr. Ross at Central Connecticut State University. He described the experience of applying, and being rejected, for 200 technical internships as “heartbreaking.”

“It made me feel this field wasn’t for me,” he said, “despite me enjoying computer science.”

Still, Mr. Ross said he felt grateful for the opportunity to study and work in computing. He recently accepted a return internship offer from the financial services firm where he worked last summer.

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