Want on-the-job experience while you’re still in school? An internship might give you a valuable edge in the job market after you graduate. Here are some things to consider if you’re looking for an internship and tips on how to find the right match.
Is a college internship worth it?
You know how job descriptions always ask for experience—but how can you get experience if you’re just coming out of school? Well, according to the National Association of College and Employers, “more than half of internships lead to full-time jobs.” Internships may be paid or unpaid, depending on where you’re looking. Corporate internships are often paid positions; social service, non-profit, or government agencies often are not. Some schools will give you credits toward your degree. But even without a salary or college credits, the real-world experience you get can be a valuable way to see if your future career is something you like. And if you find it’s not what you wanted, well, that’s valuable information too. Either way, the feedback and experience you get from an internship can help you in your job search.
College internship requirements
Before you start thinking about an internship check with your school to see if they have any special policies. Hoping to get college credits for it? You may have to submit a form or have the internship approved by your advisor. There may be an internship course that you have to take (and pay for). And you might need to submit some sort of report or project to get credits after the internship ends. Better to find out before you start than to find out the internship won’t count for credits after you’ve spent time there.
Pros and cons of internships
Like anything, there are good things and considerations to internships:
- You get real-world experience and build up your skills
- The salary can help you pay for school expenses
- You can make contacts to help you after graduation
- An internship can help you land a job after school
- You get to see if you really like that kind of work
- If it’s unpaid, you’ve got to get living expenses somewhere
- You may not get employee benefits like paid days off, health insurance, etc.
- If you’re still taking any classes you have to balance work/school life
- You might not get to do much other than office chores
Tips for getting your best internship
- Don’t wait. The good opportunities fill up quickly.
- Get specific. There are different choices you need to make, like summer vs semester, industry/field, location, and paid/unpaid (can you afford an unpaid internship?).
- Do your research. Learn about the major companies in the field, and if you can, find out about their culture. Is pulling an all-nighter a regular requirement? Have other interns enjoyed it? Will this fit with what you’re looking for? Use your college career services—are there any alumni who work there? This can be a great way to get an inside contact.
- Put yourself out there. Set up a profile on LinkedIn if you don’t already have one. Connect with everyone who is an acquaintance to start building your network. And notice if any of them have connections within the companies you’re interested in.
- Create an online resume. List any other paid or volunteer work you’ve done and highlight your technical and other skills.
- Don’t be shy about networking. Companies won’t just call you…but if you have a friend, friend-of-a-friend, or contact who works at a company you’re interested in, you’ll have an advantage over an unknown applicant. Ask EVERYONE if they know anyone who works at your target companies—friends’ parents, your parents, clergy, doctors/dentists, former high school teachers. And, if you’ve got a work-study position, see if you can leverage any contacts there to find out about internships.
How to ace your internship interview
So, you’ve been lucky enough to get an onsite or virtual interview for an internship—great! But don’t go in unprepared. This is your chance to stand out from other applicants. Before your interview, learn all you can about the company/organization: what they do, what their industry is like, and how they see themselves. (“About Us” sections on their website can offer great insights.)
An interview can be intimidating, so it’s important to practice beforehand. See if your school’s career services department offers help with this. If not, practice with family or friends.
When you’re in the interview, make sure you look and sound enthusiastic about the opportunity. Dress for the occasion (jeans work for college but not for making a first impression). And have some questions ready that you’ve written up beforehand (there are examples online). Ask about the role that the department plays in the company’s success, the kind of work you’ll be doing, who you’ll be working with, and anything special that you should know. Remember, they’re looking to see if you’re a good fit…and you’re doing the same. Don’t forget to shoot a thank you email after the interview.
Alternatives if you can’t get an internship
- Try for a summer job. It may be easier to get one and you might be able to upgrade it into an internship. This happened to someone I know…ok, it was me. I was trying to get an internship at an ad agency, with no success. Finally, one said that they’d hire me for the summer only. I got coffee, organized the media library, and refilled postage meters. But I got to see how the agency worked and they had a chance to see what I could do. At the end of the summer, they offered me a paid internship for the next semester, which led to my first full-time job after college.
- Volunteer for a charity or organization. This can help you get new skills and will look good on your resume. Who knows? It could lead to a whole new career that you never considered.
- Keep in touch with the career services office to see if there are any late-breaking opportunities. Or maybe a professor needs help for a few hours a week.
- Set up informational interviews. This is different than an internship interview because you’re not asking for a job. You’re only asking someone in the field for information on what it’s like. It’s important not to use this type of interview to ask for a job; it’s for information only. And that contact may give you the name of someone else to contact. And remember to send thank-you emails; if there was some new piece of information that helped you clarify your search, share that with them.
Jumpstart your future career
A summer or semester internship can teach you things you won’t learn in college—valuable job search skills, an inside look at the field you think you want, experience in office life, and, possibly, a chance to plan and carry out a project of your own that can be part of your portfolio.
It does take work to explore, apply for, and land an internship, but the experience you’ll gain can help you begin your working career.