For early career professionals, an internship can play a significant role in landing that first job out of college.
“The value of internships in today’s job market is so, so important,” says Jeremy Fisher, director of the John P. Fahey Career Center at Creighton University in Nebraska. An internship, he says, can plug students into a professional network and help them develop industry contacts for when they begin a job search.
Students often intern as juniors or seniors, but experts say there are benefits to an early start.
“Doing (an internship) early in the process really give students a chance to see if they’re in the right major, and see if their initial career plans are really what they want,” says Dale McLennan, dean of the Internship and Career Center at Endicott College in Massachusetts.
Requirements may vary by major and school, but at Endicott College, students must complete three internship placements.
“To do multiple internships I think opens students’ eyes to what’s out there and also lets them see different (corporate) cultures … and helps them figure out not just what they want to do but kind of what type of environment they want to work in,” McLennan explains.
For Abigail Keim, a senior biology and psychology major at Endicott, internships have taught her how she works in teams, what incentivizes her and how she functions in a professional setting.
“I believe the personal insight and awareness I gained during my internships have been constructive when applying to medical school because I can talk about my strengths and weaknesses, provide examples of how I work with others, and present what I have learned about myself during real-life scenarios. Internships provided me the chance to get to know myself outside of the classroom, which in turn has helped me show others who I am and the type of physician I hope to be one day,” Keim wrote in an email.
When it comes to finding an internship in college, experts advise students to start looking for an opportunity early.
“Why not start looking as a freshman or sophomore? If you get one, you’re ahead of the game, and if you don’t, you at least understand that process and you’re prepared to do it next year,” Fisher says.
Experts also encourage students to start their internship search at the college’s career center, where they’ll find professional guidance and resources. Career centers can connect students with potential employers as well as help them craft a resume and cover letter.
“Start with the career advisers, let them know what you’re interested in, see what kind of connections they might have with organizations that might be a good fit for you, or just get their advice on steps that they might take. That is exactly why that resource exists at the college,” McLennan says.
Students should also look to their personal networks, alumni organizations and on-campus events such as job fairs, to find an internship opportunity.
One employer that students are already familiar with — their own school — may also offer placements for interns, Fisher notes.
A strong resume and cover letter, advisers say, can be the deciding factor.
Putting a resume and cover letter together is an essential starting point, but underclassmen are often unsure of what to highlight due to a lack of work experience, says Michelle Clare, senior director of career education at the University of Cincinnati.
“They all have something to put on their resume to show something about themselves; sometimes, it just takes a conversation to get there,” Clare says.
Advisers say all types of work experience is fair game as long as students can explain what they learned in that role, from customer service and cash handling skills at fast-food jobs to oversight responsibilities a student learned as a summer camp counselor.
“When we’re looking at an application and a student candidate, we’re looking at the total story,” says Bryan Kaminski, who oversees the internship program for Under Armour, which hires 100 interns each summer out of a pool of up to 20,000 applicants.
A good resume, he says, shows impact, not just job descriptions.
Ditto for Dell Technologies, which hires up to 800 interns a year in North America alone, says Jennifer Jones Newbill, director of university relations and recruitment.
“We really like people who are active on their campus,” Newbill says, noting that students can demonstrate leadership skills in student organizations or through past work experiences. “That’s character building. It builds leadership skills early.”
And while it helps for a student to have completed a past internship, Newbill notes “that’s attractive but not a requirement.”
Grade-point average is also a factor, but not a decisive one, according to Kaminski and Newbill. While both of their companies consider GPA, it isn’t the top priority.
“We really think that people’s totality of their experiences tend to be more illustrative of their ability to perform than one particular number that is at the top of the resume,” Kaminski says.
Advisers and employers alike say that students will learn many valuable skills over the course of an internship. That can range from finding out what a profession is like to the individual tasks graduates will be asked to carry out daily when they launch their careers.
“It’s not fetching coffee, it’s not making copies; we want to give people a real challenge and have them learn something,” Newbill says.
Kaminski adds that students should use the opportunity to build fans, develop connections and make people want to work with them.
Some employers offer internships during the semester while others may focus on the summer.
“You have a lot of large organizations that specifically only have summer programs, so you do find a lot of opportunities in the summer that you might not find other times of the year,” Clare says.
McLennan notes that with the popularity of summer internships, there may be more competition for those positions.
For high school students looking to gain an edge in competitive internship programs before they get to college, experts advise them to rack up relevant experiences: join student clubs, work a part-time job, network with alumni groups and be active in organizations that relate to career goals.
“A lot of those basic skills that you can learn in high school level positions can go a long way,” Fisher says.
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