ACA Blog

Ryan Thomas Neace
Jun 11, 2012

3 Reasons You Keep Getting Turned Down for Counseling Internships.

In my work with counselors-in-training, I see common mistakes in attempts to land internships. At my practice, I regularly receive undergraduate and graduate internship applications from 5 institutions within a 3-4 hour radius, and handful of applications from across the US. Also, I’m fortunate enough to be privy to the shared experiences of students in my care. Certainly, not all students (or programs) are created equally, but the kinds of mistakes I see in attempts to secure internships don’t discriminate – State vs. Private, Small vs. Large, Well-known vs. Obscure, etc. No matter from which kind of program counselors-in-training come, they’re mis-stepping to the beat of the same drum. Here are 3 of 10 reasons why you keep getting turned down for counseling internships:

1.Failure to Get Right-Sized.
Most counselors-in-training don’t get out of the starting blocks where they most desire to intern because their heads won’t fit through the door. Some others will get through the door and then float right out the window because they have no ego-strength whatsoever. Ideally, you’d like to land somewhere in the middle.

Here are the cold, hard facts. You have little or no experience. You will require more investment (investment = time = money) than your professional counterparts. You will tend to think you know what you are doing when you are blowing it royally. And it is your boss’s job to tell you each of these facts in an effort to help you grow. Yet, you are likely to resist this growth experience (if for no other reason) because resistance is part of the process.

On the other hand, you’re not being paid - that’s a plus. You may be exceptionally bright, and you may catch on quick. You may learn to ask lots of questions ahead of time and to come ‘fess up right away when you make a mistake or get in over your head. You may actually have very good clinical chops, and may not take yourself too seriously. You may just be an excellent, albeit inexperienced, counselor.

But if you get out of whack too far on either side, the investment in you may be too costly.

2.Underestimating Background Liability.
Related to the above, those attracted to counseling tend to be “people-persons”. We have a knack and love for relationships and helping, and we’ve tended to be involved with all manner of activities trying to help people long before we make it professional. Here’s a list of formerly held positions most would-be-counseling-interns might automatically believe help, but could be viewed by the discerning internship gatekeeper as a liability:
•Life Coaching
•Ministry – pastoring, preaching, youth ministry, Sunday School, etc.
•Social Work
•Case Management
•Drug and Alcohol Recovery Programs - AA/NA, Celebrate Recovery, etc.
•Human Resource Management
•Yoga Instruction
•Wellness Coaching
•Police/Emergency Services/Medical Tech positions
•Resident Assistant/Dormitory Supervision

For those upset by this list and noticing that it includes almost most every “related” background position a counseling-intern might have, congratulations! I hope you take my point – all background positions include liability. But it’s one thing when your background is waiting tables, or web design, or play-doh manufacturing. These positions leave little room for argument about counseling experience, and ironically, set a very clear position (i.e., the beginning) from which growth can occur.

On the other hand, if you come from a “counseling-ish” background, you are likely to suspect that you’re better than you really are. If that sounds harsh, I promise it comes from a breadth of experience. No matter how much our lack of brand integrity says otherwise, professional counseling is a unique discipline. It is not social work. It is not life coaching. It is not 12-step recovery. It is not pastoral ministry. It may include elements of all of these things and more, but there’s only so far you can get from counseling orthodoxy and orthopraxy and still call yourself a counselor – legally, ethically, and practically. So, even if you have and “ish” background, a wise step would be to simply acknowledge, outloud, “I’ve got some experience working with people, but I’m really just a beginner at professional counseling.”

3.Waiting Till the Last Minute.
The “Intern Zombie Parade” (as I’ve come to affectionately refer to it) startles me each year around spring. This is the time counselors-in-training are furiously calling and emailing trying to land that perfect counseling internship spot. It occurs with utter predictability, but what startles me is that so many counselors-in-training appear to have had absolutely no action on securing an internship prior to that point. Notice that the operative term is “action”. I meet counseling students all the time who hem and haw about what kind of internship they’d like or what clients they want to work with, but I meet precious few who’ve actually taken any concrete action steps to make their dreams a reality. Instead, I’m hit with a barrage of phone calls from anxious, somewhat entitled, and sometimes downright pushy individuals who are practically demanding a call back – yesterday. It makes sense – I’d be like that too! This is all the more reason you must start working in mental health sooner rather than later. From the time you start your degree you should be not only thinking about what internship you want, but taking practical steps to get there.

Want to know more? Want to be a part of an active, growing community of counselors and counselors in-training? Want help in securing internships and making the most of counseling internships once you’ve got them? In the next few months, I’m very excited to let you know that there will be an exciting new online community for counselors-in-training offering just these things! Please write me at if you’d like more information! I’ll be sure to submit a new blog post when it becomes a reality!!!

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group. More at

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