How to Know When You’ve Found the Right Internship

Don’t let fancy job descriptions trick you into thinking you’ve hit an internship gold mine. Use this advice to help you discern the right professional opportunity to develop your skills and advance your career goals.

You’ve heard it from your parents, your counselors, your mentors, and your friends: Internships are important. But how do you ensure that you find a good one?

A poor quality internship will typically include a series of menial tasks disguised as workforce experience. By contrast, a solid internship consists of experiential education opportunities that help students transition from college to career. Meaningful internships often result in a pipeline for references, hands-on experience, and deep understanding of how businesses and offices operate on a day-to-day basis. Ideally, they also lead to future full time employment.

In this article, I outline six guidelines that will help you identify a quality internship as you explore your options.

Compensation (or Lack Thereof) Should be Clear From the Beginning

Paid positions are a student’s first choice. However, because unpaid internships have become increasingly common — especially in the media, entertainment, and fashion industries — more students are taking this route. If you find yourself gravitating towards unpaid internships, remember the following:

  • Is there an opportunity for the internship to be used for college credit? If so, which contacts at your school or the company will help make this happen? Does your college charge a fee for the credits it awards, as many do?

  • What kinds of training or educational experiences are offered? The Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71 outlines six key criteria for unpaid internships. The DOL says, “The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”

  • Fill in the blank: I would like to leave this internship with _ (long-term contact, training materials, a recommendation letter, an understanding of my areas of strength and weaknesses). This may sound cliché, but the primary benefit of an internship is rarely the money; rather, it is the investment you’re making in your long-term career goals and growth. Whether it’s paid, unpaid, or for college credit, be clear from the beginning about the goals you want to achieve and invest your time accordingly.

Go Where the Action is, but Don’t Belittle the Assists

Managing expectations (both your own and others) is critical to workforce success. Administrative and support tasks are central to understanding and learning the nuts and bolts of an industry or office, but they should not be the entirety of your internship experience. Anthony Grullon, former Strategic Partnerships Intern at Product RED, wants aspiring interns to know that the more mundane tasks are important for helping you automate processes and to build trust with your colleagues. “The more you have a firm grasp on the small details, the more you can make bigger decisions. It’s like building a house — you need a foundation first. Once a supervisor sees that you can be trusted with the small things, the more likely you will be to be given bigger assignments.”

Consider the following:

  • Is there a balance between administrative tasks (see words: “assist,” “support,” and “research”) and action outcomes (see words: “build,” “formulate,” and “collaborate”) in the responsibilities description of the internship? As Clint Sevilla, former UBS Operations Intern says, “You want an internship that allows you to be proactive in seeking responsibility, not in just being delegated responsibility.” While interns seldom make C-suite level decisions, you should still feel as if your contributions count.

  • What companies do I think are doing really cool work right now? Administrative tasks are expected at any internship, but working for a company that’s creating products, producing ideas, and innovating in ways you admire will make doing the small stuff that much easier.

  • How would this experience translate on my resume? Resumes are designed to show — not tell — your professional accomplishments. If the internship won’t make it possible for you to use achievement-oriented language on your resume, you may want to reconsider.

What the Company Says About the Internship is a Reflection of Its Values

Every posting has it — the company dating ad-esque description of their ideal intern. It starts with “passionate about,” “ideally,” “seeking,” “has excellent,” and “needs to be able to.” Candidates read these words and think, “That’s me!” — and while that language refers to the employee, it’s also a reflection of the employer. Internships, like all professional roles, are mutually beneficial relationships. Companies hire candidates who like what they like, who celebrate what they celebrate, and who can seamlessly collaborate with the team. How well you fit is just as important as your qualifications.

Consider the following:

  • How much thought has the company given to describing an ideal intern? Is it based on general qualifications like age, major, hourly commitment, or does it describe specific interests and characteristics?

  • What’s the company’s mission and biography? Who is its audience? Does it donate time and money to a charity? Each of these questions will tell you something about a company’s mission — the same mission that will define your work experience.

  • What kind of company culture would you like to work in? This includes dress code, weekly team meetings, office structure (layout and hierarchy), office perks, and more. Understanding your preferences will help you pick out companies whose culture mirrors your own.

The Right Time to Start Looking is Always Now

Two key things to remember:

  1. There are internships opportunities all-year round. Internships are no longer limited to just the summer.

  2. Finding the right opportunity takes time. Securing an internship can take several months, and many companies begin looking for summer interns as early as fall of the prior year.

As you start your internship search, ask yourself:

  • Do I have a flexible enough schedule during the fall and spring to do a part time or full time internship?

  • Do I know anyone who can help me with my resume and cover letter? Who can I ask to serve as a reference?

  • Don’t be afraid to follow up: What are the next steps after submitting my application? How long before I hear an update about the status of my application? Who should I contact to find out where we are in the process? These questions are important because they show interest and initiative.

Look for a Connection, but Don’t be Afraid to Connect Directly

Use your networks for insight into available opportunities and experience. Go to career fairs and ask for business cards from company representatives. Go to your career center and ask your counselor about companies with long-standing partnerships with the school. Or ask your parents, mentors, and friends if they know anyone who is hiring.

Networking matters to the employer because it is always better to interview someone who is recommended. But networking also matters to the intern because the people you meet will often provide insight into the company.

Consider this:

  • Ask about opportunities based on your interests, not necessarily based on working in a particular industry. This will help you assess your skill and fit in the workforce, as well as help you focus on developing new skills to pursue future goals once the internship is over.

  • See if you can connect (LinkedIn, Twitter, email) with former or present interns in this role. They can offer you insights and let you know how to stand out during the application process.

  • Don’t have any warm leads? Try informational interviews. Reach out to professionals who work in the career you're interested in, and invite them for coffee. When you first contact them, make it clear that you just want to learn more about their career trajectory, education background, and any advice they can offer for your career goals. If they accept your invitation, come with some questions in mind, but keep things natural. And remember that this is not the time to ask for a job interview!

Find Your Team

Today’s workplaces are team-oriented and collaborative. Internships that fail to provide opportunities for you to contribute to group projects aren’t doing their part to ensure your full engagement and growth.

How much interaction you have with the team is critical for developing your skills. Walker Berning, a former Studio One, UBS, and Caffey Group intern says,

“[My] relationships with colleagues proved immensely helpful. These relationships allowed the opportunity to be more involved on challenging tasks, and enabled both dialogue along the way and afterwards that, as an intern, helped me learn about each company's business and their industry and feedback on my performance.”

Ensuring interaction with the group not only helps you navigate potentially awkward office moments, but also builds your informal network. Even if you don’t complete the internship with your supervisor acting as a professional mentor, you will at least have made connections that can provide a foundation for long-term career relationships.

Bonus Tip: Fellowships, Externships, and Job Shadowing are Great Ways to Gain Experience Too

Fellowships usually imply academic research or credit, and can be found in the fields of journalism, psychology, or — in the case of Alejandra Bolanos — medicine. Bolanos took part in the Weill Cornell Medical Center Fellowship in New York City, where she worked with doctors, conducted research, and attended lectures.

Externships offer similar experiences as internships, but they are offered for a much shorter time. (For example, in college I had an externship for one week.)

Job shadowing is also a short-term opportunity. This professional development is more observational, but students leave with great insight into the daily operations, behaviors, and skill sets necessary to succeed in a profession or at a particular company.

Sources:

U.S. Department of Labor - Wage and Hour Division (WHD) - Fact Sheet. (2010, April 1). Retrieved January 22, 2015, from U.S. Department of Labor.

Zach, S. (2014, February 17). Internships Where You Do Real Work for Free Are Illegal, but Colleges Haven't Treated Them That Way. Retrieved January 22, 2015, from Newsweek.

185 Powerful Verbs That Will Make Your Resume Awesome. (2014, January 14). Retrieved January 22, 2015, from The Muse.

When Should I Apply for Summer Internships? (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2015, from Internships.

Smith, J. (2013, May 30). Externships: What They Are And Why They're Important. Retrieved January 22, 2015, from Forbes.

Bindley, K. (2014, November 23). Fellowship or Internship? In Media, the Definition Has Become Fluid. Retrieved January 22, 2015, from The New York Times.

2015 Internships in New York, NY. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2015, from InternMatch.

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