An internship can be much more than just way to fulfill a requirement or pad your resume. It can be a gateway to the job of your dreams. (No, really!) But it has to be done right. You have to seek out the right opportunities and make the most of them, both during and after the internship. Here are some tips from experts on how to go beyond fetching coffee and make the most of your internship experience.
Why get an internship in the first place?
Some college programs require internships, or at least expect students to pursue them. But even if that’s not the case for you, it can prove worthwhile to get in the game.
“Securing valuable internships give students an incredible competitive advantage when they are seeking post-college opportunities like jobs, graduate/professional school admission, or additional internships, co-ops, and externships,” says college and career expert Zach Rinkins, author of I Am College Material!
“According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Rinkins adds, “students who secure paid internships with private, for-profit firms are more likely to secure job offers (72.2%), versus 36.5% of students without internships. Students with paid internships also earned higher starting salary offers.”
Internships also give students unique insight into what working in a certain industry is like. And if the internship is at a company the student hopes to work for someday, it can give them an early opportunity to understand the company culture.
“Students should look at internships as an opportunity to see firsthand if a field is a good fit and give them a purpose for studying in college,” says Greg Kaplan, college counselor and author of Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting into Highly Selective Colleges.
Know your internship goals
“When working with clients beginning the process of seeking out an internship, I always encourage them to analyze the experience they’d like to gain first and foremost,” says Shampaigne Graves, a certified success coach to students and young adults.
Ultimately, a good internship is one where a student learns valuable skills on the job. If the internship seems to consist mainly of menial tasks and/or observing from the sidelines, it may be best to steer clear.
“Students should discuss what they want to learn with the program manager and see if that matches up with what the internship offers,” adds David Lloyd, CEO of The Intern Group. “That way they’ll know if the program is worth it or not.”
Unpaid internships have come under fire in recent years for being an option only for wealthy, elite students. It makes sense, then, that Graves also stresses that it’s important for students to be clear about their financial needs before applying. Some internships only offer class credit instead of cash. (Or sometimes nothing at all.)
“When searching for the right internship program,” she says, “I always ask my clients to account for their financial situation. If a student can’t afford to work for free then they should only be looking for a paid internship or part-time intern positions that would allow them to keep a paid job.”
When should you start looking for an internship?
Experts give mixed answers as far as when a student should pursue their first internship: the summer after freshman year of college, or even junior or senior year of high school. But most agree there’s no reason to put it off.
“Students should start looking for an internship as early as possible,” says Lloyd, “especially for undecided majors. Often times internships help students focus their academic trajectory. Contrastingly,” he adds, “an internship might also show them exactly what they don’t want to do. In both situations, it’s best to know earlier rather than later.”
Rinkin adds that starting earlier allows more time for multiple internships. “Having several internships allows [students] to broaden their relationship base, evaluate more companies, and secure meaningful work experiences and skill sets,” he says.
Where should you look to find good internships?
Lots of websites exist that list internship opportunities such as WayUp.com, Internships.com, YouTern, and LinkedIn. Sites like these are great resources and worth exploring, but much like job hunting, for internships, networking can be key.
“Early on, students should join on- and off-campus associations, meet professionals in the field, find a mentor, and cultivate those relationships,” says Christopher K. Lee, MPH, CPHQ, Founder of and Career Consultant at PurposeRedeemed.com. “If they do this consistently, they will have an easier time landing internships when they want one. Often the internships will even find them — and often these will be greater learning opportunities.”
“Early on, students should join on- and off-campus associations, meet professionals in the field, find a mentor, and cultivate those relationships.”
Mark Beal, Rutgers professor and author of 101 Lessons They Never Taught You In College, suggests a similarly proactive approach: “Students should look everywhere for internships. They should start with family, friends, and neighbors and then proceed to professors and guest lectures, followed by the career advisors on campus. They should also launch their profile on LinkedIn no later than their freshman year and eventually, ultimately engage their professional network on LinkedIn for future internships. Finally, once they identify and target companies or organizations where they want to intern, they should visit each company’s career page, as internships are posted regularly.”
What makes a “good” internship?
“When looking for a great internship, I would recommend seeking out any position that provides hands-on experience,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO and head of the internship department at MyCorporation.com. “The internship itself should provide meaningful work that allows the intern to learn more about the business and its industry.”
Liz Wessel, CEO & Co-Founder of WayUp, agrees. “Internship programs should offer opportunities for mentorship (even if it’s casual with a buddy, or formal with a manager), and training (formal or informal). Even small businesses can bring in executives or outside speakers to do an informal training for 30 minutes each week.”
The bottom line? “If you think you’re going to learn, it’s probably worth it,” she says.
No matter where you are, cultivate your connections
Possibly the most valuable thing an internship does is expand your network, says Gina Estrada who’s offered many internships to the students at the Craig School of Business at California State University – Fresno.
“My best advice when looking for an internship is to look for those that will provide great connections for you once you graduate; ones that can help you land the perfect career/job in the future. The best thing you can do during your internship is network.”
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