Five Elements of a Great College Internship

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By Brian O'Connell

January 25, 2019

College internships have long been viewed by colleges, students and employers as a “win-win-win” proposition.

  • For colleges and universities, internships give schools some extra marketing luster, as companies rely on academia as a rich source of brain power and talent, giving young students an added reason to go to college.
  • For college students, internships give them seasoned professional training, access to attractive, high-paying companies and, in the case of overseas internships, a chance to see the world.
  • For companies, internships provide easy access to shining, inexpensive and bright young talent – talent they can use to stock their employment rolls and bring new innovators and idealists into their business.

That helps explain why internships were up across the board in 2018, and why that scenario is expected to continue.

Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that the number of internships was up by 1.7% in 2018, while salaries inched up by 3.7% to an average of $18.73 per hour.

Five Key Elements to a Successful College Internship

For students looking to maximize their internship experience, job one is to lay out a blueprint for obtaining the internship post that promises the most benefits, financially, emotionally and professionally.

That process begins with a thorough inventory of the ingredients that contribute to the best internship experience.

These elements are at the top of the “best internship possible” list:

The ability to put your college training to real-world use. The annals of internship history are filled with tales of economics majors licking envelopes and journalism majors getting coffee for newsroom staff. Some of it might be hyperbole, but there’s no doubt a high priority for any intern is apply their academic training to the business world.

After all, classroom learning is fine, but the ability to test those classroom skills in the big leagues should be a priority for would-be interns. How else can collegians explore various career paths without putting their skills to the test in a real-world setting? That’s exactly what a good internship should accomplish.

Consequently, if you’re not doing the work you’ve been trained to do, it’s not the right internship. Nip that issue in the bud with a candid discussion with any company decision-maker to see exactly what you’ll be doing as an on-board intern.

Make sure you’re doing worthwhile work, but be realistic. There may be days when you’re sent out for coffee.

Make yourself more marketable. Internships should provide a marketing opportunity for college students. An internship in your chosen field should give you a leg up in the professional job hunt when you graduate.

Just as importantly, a good internship can provide you with the advanced training and confidence to sprint out of the blocks with a good job and a bright outlook once you enter the professional ranks.

When going into an internship opportunity, keep an eye out for resume-enhancers and selling points like good recommendations, new skills you’ve learned and applied, and new projects you’re working on that boost your career profile.

The ability to intern – and maybe grab a mentor. The reality is that companies prefer to hire a candidate they know – or one that’s referred to them by someone they know. That’s where networking becomes so important to college interns.

Making connections, engaging with high-level professionals (or staff who are on the upward glide path to becoming a high-level executive) and building the bonds needed to get you on a company’s radar screen and get you on the inside track to a great job.

A bonus – you may also engage with an older career professional in your line of work, and build a mentorship arrangement which can prove invaluable as you navigate the tricky landscape of the corporate world.

Another bonus – you may forge bonds with other interns, who’ll move on to other companies, where openings arise and your name comes up for the position from a fellow college intern now working at the company.

Learn from a lousy internship. Hey, failure happens all the time in the working world. The only real failure on a weak or toxic internship is not learning from it.

Learning what works for you and what doesn’t is a valuable lesson. It’s one you can get only by actually being inside a living and breathing company. The reality is that figuring out what kind of job you don’t want is just as important as figuring out what kind of job you do want.

An internship experience – no matter what the outcome – can help you do just that.

The ability to make a buck. Okay, we saved this one for last, as getting a paycheck isn’t the only perk related to an internship, but it sure does help.

Income is the economic lubricant that makes the working world’s engine go. So, you might as well get paid, recognize your potential workplace worth, and even learn how to negotiate a salary when lining up an intern post.

Plus, the reality is that $10 to $25 an hour is better than a pat on the back from an executive who may or may not remember your name six months from now. If nothing else, you’ll get the dignity of a paycheck from your interning experience.

A good place to start:

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