Have you ever been enticed by the idea of spending a summer at a well-renowned university, getting familiar with life as a researcher and experiencing campus life abroad? Then this is not the guide for you. If not, I suggest you continue reading, because I have 20/20 hindsight and I enjoy giving advice.

1. Explore your options as late as possible

When is the best time to start diving into the deep sea of university subpages and information material about internships of your interest? As late as possible.

As an undergraduate student of Data Science at the IT University of Copenhagen, I am absolutely dumbfounded by the academic and cultural impact of Stanford University within my field. I visited the university’s stunning campus in Silicon Valley in late January and immediately rushed to look for opportunities to spend more time there during the summer. It turned out that I had already missed most of these opportunities for the simple reason that most positions had deadlines 1-2 months prior. A good portion of university departments – Stanford and elsewhere – even recommend that you reach out to the individual researchers to find out if there’s a possible match between what you can offer and what they’re looking for in a research assistant.

It should come to no people’s surprise that you cannot always expect the world’s leading researchers to respond to your requests within minutes. So instead of anxiously manhandling your Send/Receive button, start early and take a moment to recognize that this is exactly how your mother is feeling when you do not respond to her text asking if you are joining for dinner tonight.

2. Assume that you’re applying for a job

Break out one of the fancy word resumé templates and add a URL to your LinkedIn profile consisting of family members and over-ambitious high school friends. Add a black/white headshot on a nondescript background for extra effect. That is what the Ivy Leagues want. Right?

I managed to find the research internship position of my dreams, and I was fortunate enough that applications were still open in late January. Having some experience with job application in Denmark, I wrote up a motivational letter and a resumé.

On the day of the application deadline I went to an NSAC workshop on applying for master’s degrees in the UK and US. These were my three main takeaways:

  1. The schools are not looking for a resumé.
  2. Rather than a motivational letter, universities will often ask specific essay questions related to the area of study/research.
  3. US and UK universities demand recommendations, preferably academic and often more than one.

I was 3/3 on failing to meet these requirements with only 7 hours to deadline. One of my last-minute solutions was to enter a manager at my part-time job as a source for a recommendation, without knowing or asking if he would provide one. If your employer likes unprofessionalism and anxiety, this approach is highly recommended.

3. Grossly underestimate the practical and legal components

Understanding and fulfilling the prerequisites for a visa application to the United States is surprisingly easy – Probably no one.

Despite making my best efforts to have my application rejected, I was accepted into the internship. Immediately, I started looking for plane tickets and housing options – and obviously I took every opportunity available to casually slip the fact that I was going to Stanford into conversation.

After several months, one victim of the above-mentioned conversations asked me how it was going with my visa application. I planned to enter through the 90-day tourist ESTA visa waiver I have used numerous times before. She let me know that participating in an internship or paying for most types of education in the US would require a visa, even when it is fewer than 90 days. I was completely oblivious to that fact. It was the university department that had invited me.

What followed was weeks of stressful communication between me and several academic and administrative university departments, all of whom would need to make a range of exceptions considering there was only about one month to the start of the internship. Finally, it was concluded that it would not be possible in due time. Safe to say it’s a lot more fun telling people you are going to Stanford than saying you are not!

Warning: Shameless NSAC plug approaching.

I sincerely hope that this experience does not discourage anyone considering applying for universities abroad. On the contrary, I hope you learned just a little bit more about what not to do. If you ever strive to learn more from people who have a lot more experience in this field than myself, I highly recommend joining NSAC and participating in our excellent workshops!

Written by Lasse Alsbirk