College Internship: What To Look For and How To Make It Work for You

Last Updated on May 25, 2023

Young African American college student using a tablet computer at her first internship.As getting a college degree is increasingly becoming the expectation for entering the workplace, you're going to need to stand out from the crowd. One of the best ways to get exposure, learn hands-on skills, and get a head start on your resume is taking advantage of internships. But you need to be strategic about your internship and make sure it's working for you… otherwise, you're just providing free labor! Be smart and formulate a plan for your internship using these tips.

Plan ahead and start strategizing your applications at least six months in advance.

Many of the best will offer structured programs that only accept applicants within certain timeframes and you don't want to wait until the last minute to find out that you don't have the time to wait for the new round of applications. Ideally, their applicant pool will align with your school's semester breakdown, but if it doesn't, this gives you time to talk to your academic advisor and figure it out together

Start at the most prestigious in your field.

Journalism major? Check out the requirements for the New York Times. Entertainment? All the major studios, agencies, networks, and production houses have internships. NASA, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Google, and the ACLU all have world-class internship programs. Of course, these programs are fiercely competitive, but you're risking nothing by applying. Be mindful that you're adhering to their application rules, do your best, and give yourself time to re-apply if you don't get in. You can work your way down from there, but give yourself the benefit of at least trying for the top. And keep notes of where you feel deficient: if the internship of your dreams is asking you about a skill you don't have, make a goal to learn it over the next application period.

Summer is the best, and the most competitive, time for internships.

There are several reasons why summer is the idea time for internships: you don't have the added stress of your other course load, you have fewer family obligations, and you have more energy to devote to a strenuous internship. It's also a time when many industries see a slower pace, meaning that you'll have more one-on-one attention and “downtime” to tag along for the stuff that's actually educational. If you're traveling for your internship, you're more likely to find a sublet and, if needed, a seasonal part-time job in your temporary city.

Do you stay or do you go?

Take a realistic look at how your internship can best suit your needs. Is it beneficial to travel for it? Take an honest look at your field of choice. If you're majoring in theater, the experience you'll gain from New York or Chicago is invaluable. If you have your heart set on politics, there's nothing like the immersive environment of Washington, D.C. It's definitely an added expense, but for the right program and connections, you may be doing yourself a huge favor down the road. Plan ahead and talk to your academic advisor and financial services advisor about any support structures or scholarships in place for students taking a summer internship out-of-state.

Work as many internship hours as you possibly can.

If you're planning fewer than 10 hours a week, take a good, hard look at whether or not this is really going to benefit you. Of course, it all depends on your industry, but for most, your internship should be the top priority for your extra time commitment. This is especially important if what you hope to take away from it is a recommendation, future connections, or the offer of a job after graduation. The more hours you're there, the more responsibility you'll get and the more you'll be able to prove why you're a valuable newcomer in your field.

Set expectations from the get-go.

The whole idea of a successful internship is to be able to walk away with a glowing recommendation and the best possible insight into your chosen field. To make sure this happens, go into it with clear expectations. On your first day, ask for a time to meet with your contact person for your internship. (Having a contact person is very important– make sure it's very clear that you expect someone to be responsible for your time.) Set a timeframe and frequency of your internship with your contact person; don't leave it open-ended, as this creates a need for you to be “fired” or “quit,” which ends your internship on negative connotations. Set goals with your contact person if possible, or at the very least, set weekly check-in meetings where you can discuss ways to make your internship meet your goals.

Maintain a careful balance between education and usefulness.

This one is so tricky. If you have a great internship, you should approach it with a can-do attitude. You should be the first to offer to do a Starbucks run, take notes at a meeting, or run an annoying errand. At the same time, make sure you're weighing the menial tasks against what you hope to get out of it. Again, it all depends on the company and your chosen field. If you're interning for an amazing top-tier company, it's okay if you aren't privy to the inner workings of the company. But be wary of less prestigious companies using you for free labor. If it's been several weeks and you don't feel like you've gained any career insight, ask to set a meeting with your contact person to strategize the internship so it's worth your while.

Ask for a recommendation letter toward the end of your internship.

Don't wait until you need a recommendation letter to ask for it. You don't want to run the risk of your contact person leaving the company or just spacing on your request. Instead, ask for an evergreen letter of recommendation. If at all possible, ask for it via email so you can list exactly what you'd like your letter to include. This isn't being uppity; you're essentially just doing the heavy lifting for the letter writer. Ask that it be on printed on office stationary and make sure to scan it and save it as soon as possible.

Be on alert for scams.

Applying for internships with application fees? Approach with extreme caution. A very highly regimented internship program may have a fee attached, but those should be the utmost exceptions. Less black-and-white is maintaining an internship that falls in line with the Fair Labor Standards Act which stipulates that an unpaid internship cannot take the place of a regular employee. And while grunt work like photocopying and filing is standard practice for an internship, the company is legally bound not to get “immediate advantage” from their intern. Meaning that you are well within your right to speak up and make sure that your internship is worth your time.

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