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5 ways to nail your summer internship

female intern at office

With the job market still tight for new graduates, finding the right internship and making your time there count is absolutely crucial. Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that seniors in the Class of 2013 who completed at least one internship while in school were nearly twice as likely to receive a job offer before graduation than those who didn't. Students who took paid internships also had more of a bargaining chip with their new bosses. In addition, those who completed paid internships had starting salaries that were nearly $15,000 higher, on average, than grads without intern experience. Unpaid internships, however, did not translate to higher starting salaries.

To really get the most out of an internship, you've got to go in with a plan. Here are five strategies for making your summer internship count.

1. Find the right opportunity

"The students that we spoke with that had the best experiences had bosses that were quite hands-on and gave them work that mirrored what they were learning in the classroom," says Blair Hickman, community editor at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization that's done extensive research on intern experiences. "If you were a journalism student, you actually got to write stories that got edited and published."

Unfortunately, there is a sea of terrible internship programs out there that will have you doing little more than getting coffee and making copies. The first step in having a positive internship experience is finding a program that provides a real-world education, a crash course in the industry and opportunities to meet employees across multiple departments.

Hickman advises students to start the internship hunt through their college since many institutions keep tabs on where students have had the best -- and worst -- internship experiences.

If your school doesn't track that information, you can call an internship program directly and ask about what responsibilities interns there have and what sort of networking or mentorship opportunities are available.

2. Take it seriously

Once you've got an internship, doing the best job possible is the fastest ticket to landing a job offer. This year, nearly 65 percent of interns received offers for full-time positions, according to a separate survey by NACE.

"[Students] should treat their internship like a real job because it is a job," says Claudia Allen, editor for the National Association of Colleges and Employers. "They should be on time. … They should always be learning while they're working [and] asking questions."

In addition to getting an on-the-job education, students can also use their internships as time to develop soft skills they may not be able to quantify with strictly academic work. A survey of approximately 700 employers by "The Chronicle of Higher Education" and "Marketplace" found that recent grads are most lacking in communication skills, managing multiple priorities and problem solving. Those who can prove that they've developed those specific skills through an internship or other work experience are bound to have a leg up in the job market.

3. Create networking opportunities

Aside from performing well, chatting with employees across different departments about their roles and careers is important too says Robin Reshwan, founder of Collegial Services, a placement and career consulting firm that helps college students and new grads find jobs. Just make sure to check with your manager first to find out if and when it would be appropriate.

"If you use [the internship] as an opportunity to network at lunchtime or before work, or when people are on breaks or at company events and really learn a lot about that employer, more than one department may take an interest in you and say, 'That person was really bright so maybe we'll have something [for them] next summer,'" she says.

4. Ask for a review

The best way to know exactly how well you're doing on the job is to ask, Reshwan adds.

"A lot of employers are hesitant to do any form of reviews, so the intern themselves can ask, 'Mr. or Mrs. Supervisor, would you, next Friday, have 15 minutes? I'd love to walk back through my job description and see how I'm doing,'" Reshwan says. "If you can get them talking about how you're doing and other things you can do to improve, then you have a chance of doing a great job and you know the feedback firsthand."

Requesting a review partway through the internship not only gives you time to improve your performance, it also shows that you care about the job and keeps you fresh in a hiring manager's mind.

5. Declare your intentions

"At the end of the internship, [interns should] sit down with their immediate supervisor, maybe sit down with a hiring manager, and talk about how interested they are in the job and see what there is for them," says Claudia Allen.

Even if your internship employer isn't immediately hiring for full-time positions, letting them know that you're interested in a position can keep you on their HR radar for future opportunities.

Sources:

  1. Claudia Allen, Editor for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Interviewed by the author, May 22, 2014
  2. "The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions," The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2012, page 12,
    http://chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/Employers%20Survey.pdf
  3. "A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More," Karin Fischer, The Employment Mismatch Report for The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2013,
    http://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625/#id=overview
  4. Blair Hickman, Community editor at ProPublica, Interviewed by the author, May 22, 2014
  5. "2014: Internship & Co-op Survey," National Association of Colleges and Employers, April 2014, page 4,
    https://www.naceweb.org/uploadedFiles/Content/static-assets/downloads/executive-summary/2014-internship-co-op-survey-executive-summary.pdf
  6. "Class of 2013: Paid Interns Outpace Unpaid Peers in Job Offers, Salaries," National Association of Colleges and Employers, May 29, 2013,
    https://www.naceweb.org/s05292013/paid-unpaid-interns-job-offer.aspx
  7. Internships Investigation, ProPublica,
    http://www.propublica.org/series/internships
  8. Robin Reshwan, Founder of Collegial Services, Interviewed by the author, May 22, 2014