Your Guide to Internships

As the global job market becomes increasingly competitive, employees need to acquire as many skills and as much experience as possible. Internships represent temporary positions that college students often pursue to set themselves apart from the rest of the job candidate pool. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that more than 91% of employers prefer applicants with work experience. Of this group, 56% state they prefer industry-specific internships over volunteer work.

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Colleges and universities understand the value of relevant work experience to employers and graduate schools. They provide dedicated resources such as career counselors and internship placement programs and often require students to complete an internship as part of their degree plan. Internships offer invaluable hands-on training in a real-world setting and provide opportunities to build professional relationships with peers, industry experts, and potential employers.

This guide contains information to help you obtain and complete internships. You will gain insight into the application process and common intern responsibilities. The guide also provides strategies for maximizing the benefits of working as an intern.

Benefits of Internships

Although the U.S. job market has recovered significantly from the Great Recession of the mid-to-late 2000s, many college graduates still find it difficult to obtain positions in their fields. The Economic Policy Institute reported that the underemployment rate -- which includes part-time workers who would prefer full-time employment and workers whose qualifications exceed the requirements of their current position -- sat at 11.1% in 2018. For perspective, the rate was 9.4% in 2007 and 6.9% in 2000.

Whether you pursue paid or unpaid internships, these experiences will bolster your resume/CV to help you obtain a position that pays well and is relevant to your degree. The following sections detail four major internship benefits.

Gain Industry Experience

The most obvious benefit to an internship is gaining industry experience. You might occupy an administrative position and handle routine office duties or help company leadership plan events and develop special projects. If your degree program is in the sciences, an internship is a great way to develop research competencies. You can work with experienced scientists in the field or in a laboratory to gather test samples, analyze data, and prepare reports. Organizations detail the specific requirements and duties of an internship up front, but you should expect the responsibilities to change throughout the course of your training.

In addition to providing industry-specific skills, an internship can help you develop soft skills in areas like communication, teamwork, social media, and relationship building.

Test Out a Career Path

Students often pursue multiple internships throughout their college careers and after graduation to explore different industries. You can effectively test out a career and assess if it aligns with your personal interests, professional goals, and financial needs. You also can gain an intimate perspective on working with colleagues on a set schedule under the guidance of managers. These daily realities may help you assess your motivations and recalibrate your expectations.

The training experience can fuel your desire to work in a field, perhaps for a specific organization. Alternatively, an internship can demonstrate that a vocation has unanticipated long-term responsibilities and drawbacks. In this latter instance, your payback for a less-than-positive experience is learning which positions to avoid and which career paths warrant your attention and dedication.

Expand Your Professional Network

Companies often coordinate interns in groups, enabling candidates to collaborate with their peers and develop teamwork and leadership skills. By going through day-to-day training with a group, you'll develop personal and professional bonds that can provide support when conducting job searches and seeking career advancement opportunities.

At their core, internships are educational opportunities. You work with experienced practitioners to learn the job responsibilities and, by asking the right questions, gain strategies for career entry. You may even gain a personal mentor who acts as a resume contact and industry resource. Regardless of the field, successful college interns build a vast network of contacts across multiple organizations and countries that they can tap into for information. Interns who work with a company's clients can foster external relationships that lead to other internships or job opportunities.

Secure a Job

Internships usually span a summer or a semester but can last up to a year. Depending on your performance, you may be asked to return for another training cycle. In addition to providing additional skill development and networking opportunities, this follow-up internship typically leads to job placement. According to a 2015 study conducted by NACE, approximately 90% of returning interns receive offers for permanent positions. In contrast, only 43.5% of first-time interns obtain job offers.

Some companies operate internships as dedicated vetting processes to yield new hires. They may even advertise this aspect of the experience as an incentive to applicants. Other employers simply prefer to hire former interns because they possess firsthand knowledge of each person's professional capabilities, worth ethic, and personality.

Even if an internship does not directly lead to a full-time position, you still gain a resume-builder that adds to your demonstrable skills and experience -- invaluable when drafting cover letters and going through interview and hiring processes.

What to Consider When Searching for Internships

Before you apply for internships, define the type of experience you want. Multiple internship structures exist including paid and unpaid positions as well as semester-based and summer programs, with some providing college credit. Hands-on training programs that are required for degree completion are often called practicums. Short professional experiences centered on job shadowing are known as externships. Finally, you may engage in cooperative educational experiences that span multiple years. During co-ops, you attend class and work with the partner company simultaneously.

The following sections cover additional attributes you should factor into your internship search.

Internship Goals

To make positive professional impressions and maximize the benefits of an internship, you should establish goals far in advance. First-time interns might see the experience as a way to gain an understanding of their own work style. Students who have already completed multiple internships might see this opportunity as a way to develop a specific skill or decide between two career tracks.

Regardless of your motivations and objectives, be sure that your internship goals are ambitious but also under your control. An effective goal should also be measurable; employers value candidates who possess demonstrable skills and achievements. Additionally, you should strive to gain confidence in your ability to work with colleagues, communicate with supervisors, and complete designated tasks.

Ideally, an internship experience benefits both you and your employer. By aligning your goals with an organization's objectives, you ensure your work contributes to the company's success. By making yourself valuable, you enhance the likelihood of getting professional references, career guidance, and job offers.

Time Commitment

On top of setting concrete goals, you need to account for the time commitment of an internship. Companies and organizations generally publish such practical requirements to let students adjust their schedules as necessary. Ultimately, an internship should complement your education. If a position hinders your ability to succeed in school or maintain personal responsibilities, then it will not yield positive results. You won't be an effective intern if you stretch yourself too thin.

In general, semester-based internships require a part-time commitment of no more than 20 hours per week. To obtain college credits for an internship, students usually complete at least 150 hours of work during the term. Internships that span the summer months usually necessitate a full-time work schedule. These opportunities are more likely to come with monetary compensation. You can also pursue summer internships abroad to gain a global perspective and explore career options in other countries.

Compensation

Whether paid or unpaid, for-credit or non-credit, internships should benefit learners in significant ways. Though some companies take advantage of college students, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) maintains regulatory protections. Interns who work in the for-profit/private sector and fulfill responsibilities that match a paid employee's job description legally qualify for the federal minimum hourly wage. The DOL also establishes six standards for unpaid internships, including discernable educational and professional results for the student.

As a prospective intern, you should carefully consider your financial situation. Unpaid internships can result in skill development, networking opportunities, and job offers. Yet they may pose a serious fiscal burden and detract from school and work obligations. In general, you are better off engaging in unpaid internships during the school year on a part-time basis so you can still take full advantage of your college's resources.

Paid vs. Unpaid Internships

The earnings you receive for a paid internship vary, but they usually exceed federal or state minimum wage thresholds. As just mentioned, you should strongly consider completing unpaid internships during the school year and/or while working a paid job.

Unpaid internships, particularly programs facilitated by nonprofit organizations, operate under strict government and university guidelines. You typically will find it easier to receive college credit for unpaid internships. Small companies who cannot pay their interns tend to compensate by providing greater degrees of professional guidance and hands-on training.

College Credit

Students who complete internships as part of their college curriculum automatically receive 3-12 credits, depending on the hours worked. Program-facilitated internships offer structured training experiences that align with degree outcomes and university standards. As part of their intern responsibilities, students provide weekly reflections and routinely check in with the site supervisor and their faculty mentor.

Degree candidates who pursue internships outside of their programs can receive elective or independent study credits if they coordinate with their departments beforehand. To gain approval for this type of program, you must demonstrate that the internship benefits your academic and professional growth in ways that support programmatic outcomes. You will also need to enlist the official support of a professor or university administrator.

Local vs. Remote Internships

Local and in-person training experiences represent the standard for most interns. However, with the expansion of collaborative software and telecommunication platforms, remote internships are growing in popularity. Like the name suggests, remote interns work through a company's virtual platform and connect with colleagues and supervisors through email, phone calls, and conferencing applications like Google Hangouts, Slack, and Skype.

Remote internships allow you to gain professional experience and develop career-relevant skills without leaving your community. This means you won't need to pay for accommodations or travel as with an in-person internship. Remote experiences often involve flexible schedules that allow you to keep up with other responsibilities. Furthermore, you can cultivate integrative, multimedia communication skills that employers greatly value in a globalized economy.

Drawbacks of remote internships include the potential for lack of work and community. The latter is a major pitfall since many of the benefits of an internship center on networking and relationship building. You can combat a sense of solitude by cultivating a sense of community with your online peers.

Where to Search for Internships

You should begin your search early and use every resource to find the perfect internship. Seek the support of friends, peers, mentors, and family. Colleges and universities provide ample resources including counseling services and internship fairs. Websites represent another major source for internships, particularly remote positions and international opportunities. The following sections explore these internship search tools in greater detail.

Your College Career Center

Every college and university operates a career center that provides job counseling, application tips, and resources for internship seekers. By finding an internship through your school's career center, you can rest assured the experience meets university standards for skill development and employee safety. You also stand a better chance of translating internship hours into course credit. Furthermore, by enlisting the assistance of an academic counselor, you can better negotiate compensation and flexible schedules.

Your Local Community

By completing internships locally, you not only save money on housing and travel but also cultivate lasting relationships with community associations and local employers. If you know the field of work or the kind of position you wish to pursue, inquire with relevant businesses, organizations, and government agencies. Some companies advertise internship positions on their websites while others prefer to offer work to candidates who seek them out. You can explore diverse possibilities by asking for the guidance of nonprofits and through public libraries.

Your Network

Be sure to talk to friends and family members with similar career interests for potential internship leads. Former employers, mentors, and coaches can also provide valuable advice since they know you on a professional level and can vouch for your character and work ethic. University faculty and departmental administrators often possess in-depth knowledge of the field you want to work in and can provide guidance and connections.

Online Resources

You can find internships that match your short- and long-term career goals through Internships.com and InternshipFinder. Websites like Indeed, LinkedIn, and WayUp can help you find remote internships. You can search for government-sponsored positions through Go Government and internships centered on sustainability through Green America. Idealist.org publishes internship positions in the nonprofit sector. Learn4Good enables you to search for internships based on relevant academic majors. Websites like The Washington Center, SmartIntern China, GoAbroad, and International Internships LLC focus on opportunities in specific geographic regions.

Networking Events

Networking events, whether in-person or virtual, offer valuable opportunities for finding internships. Inquire with your school's career center and academic departments about upcoming social gatherings and internship fairs. You can seek out events in your community through websites like Eventbrite and National Career Fairs. Academic associations (like honor societies) and professional organizations also facilitate networking events for members and, occasionally, the general public. You can learn how to cultivate relationships with colleagues and mentors by accessing this networking guide.

Internship Application Tips

As with any other job, acquiring an internship requires you to plan and navigate the application process carefully. The following four sections offer information on how and when to apply. You'll also learn about strengthening your resume, cover letters, and professional portfolio by highlighting transferable skills and relevant accomplishments. These aspects are particularly important to first-time interns who may not possess industry-specific competencies and experiences. Lastly, you'll gain insight into the interview process.

Apply Early and Widely

Apply early to a diverse array of positions -- but only after you have clearly identified your internship goals and interests. While it may seem overwhelming to juggle numerous requirements and deadlines, a well-organized spreadsheet and automated email/SMS reminders go a long way in helping you manage this process.

April and May are the busiest months for internship applications because many candidates seek summer positions. If possible, submit your documents as soon as a position opens. Many organizations start accepting summer internship applications in the fall and notify candidates over winter break. Year-round internships with rolling admissions offer an alternative to the highly competitive summer positions.

Strengthen Your Resume and Cover Letter

Your resume and cover letter are essential components of a successful internship application. You can and should use templates to help craft these documents. However, be sure to personalize each resume and cover letter for the position to which you are applying. Employers often reject candidates if they spot generic application materials, since this indicates a general lack of effort.

When writing your resume, place the most relevant skills and academic and professional experiences at the top. First-time interns should focus on transferable knowledge and skills, specific coursework, and extracurricular achievements that, although unrelated, nonetheless add value to the position and can facilitate organizational success. Expound on these points in your cover letter and during the interview. For additional tips, visit this resume and cover letter guide.

Attach a Portfolio (as Appropriate)

A portfolio is a collection of your projects and deliverables. Depending on your field of study, a portfolio may be a required component of an internship application. For example, graphic design interns are usually asked to present their best works in paper and digital formats. Companies may ask business-oriented students to present marketing campaigns, statistical research reports, and strategic plans. Journalism internships typically require candidates to submit articles or features. Even when not required by the organization, your portfolio should reflect your best work that relates to the internship.

Preparing for an Interview

One of the best ways to prepare for an interview is to submit a detailed and honest resume. Employers who discover that a student lied on an application can justifiably end the interview or terminate a position.

Be sure you understand the dress code for the organization and industry, and dress appropriately for the interview. Research the position thoroughly. This will empower you to provide detailed answers and ask the right questions. Demonstrate your passion for and knowledge of the internship position; the company's products, services, and mission; and pertinent trends in the industry. To gain additional insight into this step, visit the interview guide.

How to Succeed as an Intern

While internships should predominantly benefit students, the experience also needs to yield value for employers. The remaining sections delve into strategies you can implement to maximize your performance and build a foundation for future opportunities.

Before the internship begins in earnest, you should take advantage of the transition period to become familiar with company policy and culture. Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Friendly competition exists in all work settings, but supervisors, personnel, and other interns typically welcome inquiries and offer guidance where they can.

Be Professional

Treat your internships, whether paid or unpaid, as actual jobs with expectations for professional conduct and personal behavior. Dress appropriately and show up on time. During work hours, maintain a friendly, professional demeanor. Greet co-workers and engage in conversation, but avoid gossip and office politics.

In the age of social media, where individuals face backlash and lose jobs over incendiary tweets, you must cultivate a businesslike online presence. Clean up your Facebook and Twitter profiles and update your LinkedIn information. Being professional also means staying off your phone while on the job, unless a task explicitly requires it.

Fulfill Your Responsibilities … and Go Beyond

In return for valuable training and real-world experiences, companies expect interns to perform menial tasks. Successful interns handle grunt work with enthusiasm. By demonstrating that they can successfully complete the most basic duties, interns gain access to more important responsibilities.

To cultivate work relationships, you should go out of your way to assist colleagues. Ask your supervisor to schedule regular meetings to clarify expectations and confirm deadlines. Volunteer for additional work within reason, but be sure to complete assignments correctly and on time. Lastly, the best interns ask for feedback from superiors and colleagues. Receive any criticism with grace and apply the lessons in future assignments.

Soak Up Knowledge

Internships are learning experiences that allow students to soak up as much knowledge and practical skills as they can. You should not shy away from asking specific and appropriate questions of your colleagues and supervisors. They may not always provide helpful answers, but at the very least, the act of asking signals to the company's leaders that an intern possesses the drive to grow and succeed.

Effective interns cultivate skills and knowledge beyond their immediate role. They keep updated on industry trends by exploring online platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit. Students can also learn about pertinent issues in their field by reading professional magazines and research journals.

Socialize and Network

In addition to engaging in formal introductions, you should socialize as appropriate with your colleagues to build camaraderie. Work friendships can help you succeed in your internship and build the groundwork for career entry and advancement later on. You can forge work friendships by completing your own tasks and assisting others with their duties. At the same time, you'll be viewed by co-workers as helpful, hardworking, and trustworthy.

Try to attend every social and networking event your organization facilitates. Pursue mentorships, which often grow out of the working relationships between interns and their colleagues/supervisors. Focus your attention on the individuals who take a concerted interest in your success. Ask potential mentors out for coffee or lunch (while maintaining workplace propriety). For more tips on cultivating a lasting mentorship, check out this networking guide.