Updated May 28, 2021 • 6 Min Read

Practical Help to Find, Choose and Make the Most of College Internships

A 4.0 GPA is something to brag about, but even the best students usually aren't entirely ready for the real working world. Classroom knowledge is only part of the equation in forging a successful career, and even the brightest college graduates will likely start their first jobs not understanding what will be required on a daily basis. Fortunately, employers know this, and expect to offer training to bring new hires up to speed. This learning curve can be less steep when incoming employees already have some experience under their belt—making internships invaluable during the college years. Read more about finding and taking full advantage of an internship.

Benefits & Red Flags of a College Internship

Internships are almost always a positive for college students, but some are better than others—and some might not be the right move at all. Before accepting a position, it's a good idea to be aware of how internships can be beneficial for your future as well as the red flags to look out for and avoid.


Hands-on job experience.

The best way to learn is by doing. An internship provides the opportunity to not just apply classroom learning to the real world, but gain practical skills as well.

Meaningful connections.

Many jobs are obtained through connections. Internships provide networking opportunities and ways to meet people who can serve as mentors.

An opportunity to “test drive” a career.

Ideally, an internship will provide a taste of a particular job, which can help a student decide if that's the right career path for them. If not, there's often still plenty of time to make changes.

Excellent resume boost.

A great internship helps any resume, especially if it provides a student with hands-on experience in their field. It also serves as proof to employers that a graduate is serious about their chosen profession.

Help society.

Many students take internships with non-profits and other charitable organizations that provide beneficial services for a local community or society as a whole. The work of interns allows these organizations to save precious financial resources.


Menial Work.

Don't let an internship be a euphemism for “grunt work.” While spending a little bit of time filing or answering the phone is okay, menial work should be limited.

No clear mentorship.

Because employers know an intern's stay is temporary, they may not bother to invest the time and effort to properly train and teach an intern. This can lead to a lack of mentors.

Vague Job Descriptions.

If the job description is so vague that it could be for any line of work, steer clear. These allow employers to change the job duties to suit what they need at the moment, which may not serve a student's future career interests.

No clear projects for previous interns.

“Good experience” on a resume only works if it really is good. When interviewing, ask about specific projects previous interns completed. If there's no clear answer, it might indicate the employer provides little in the way of a learning experience.

No payment.

Unpaid internships might be okay in the case of a school that allows for college credit in lieu of payment, but if you're working for free, make sure the internship is a good fit for you.

Students who identify potential red flags can be proactive about the experience, turning a potentially disastrous internship into a beneficial one. For example, if an internship isn't paid, the student can make arrangements to get college credit for the experience. Or, if the internship seems to be all menial work, an intern can suggest tackling a project that would be rewarding to the student and employer both.

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Determining the Right Internship for You

There are numerous internships available for students in almost every field, each of which may have its particular upsides and downsides. When choosing, think about what's realistic for you in terms of the actual work, as well as what your end game is.


Some form of compensation, such as a stipend or hourly wage, is required by law for internships in for-profit companies unless specific requirements are met. Not-for-profits have more leeway, so students may find less competition for these spots.

For-credit internships

Internships that offer academic credit are extremely popular on both sides. It gives some organizations a way to host interns without having to pay them, but students get a bonus because they save money on tuition.

Externships and job shadowing

Externships are internships that last a relatively short period of time (less than a month), but still go beyond a one- or two-day job shadow. They're an excellent way to get a fast dose of a potential career without a longtime commitment.

Service learning

Service learning internships involve working in a community or public service setting where the organization's goal is to help others. They're ideal for students interested in social welfare—both during the internship and in the future.

Temporary and short-term

Internships, by definition, should be accomplished during a finite period, usually either a semester or year. However, in some situations, such as completing an apprenticeship in a highly skilled trade, a student may require more time.

Virtual internship

Remote work is increasingly popular in a technological society, and some organizations may have few (or no) physical facilities. These internships may appeal to students who require more flexibility, and whose work suits the virtual environment. Virtual internships may be especially appealing to students already comfortable with working remotely such as those who have earned an  online bachelor's degree  or who are considering enrolling in an  online master's program .

In some industries, unpaid internships are more typical than others. For example, non-profit organizations may only offer unpaid internships due to budgetary constraints. If a company can afford to pay an intern, they certainly should make the effort. Ultimately, the position should be to value of the student and their learning, rather than to fill a staffing void for the employer.

Deanna Parkton

Checklist for Landing an Internship

Getting an internship is relatively easy, although getting the best one is a bit more challenging. The following is a list of major steps prospective interns should take during the process of finding the ideal internship.

  • Visit a college career center

    Just like jobs, internships are advertised among the people who can fill them. A college student's best first step is a trip to the career center to check the bulletin board and quiz the staff about possibilities and resources.

  • Search for internships

    No source is as wide-ranging or comprehensive as the Internet, so fire up your high-speed access and start searching. The possibilities are legion, especially if you're not constrained to a particular geographical area.

  • Prepare resume and cover letter

    A resume and cover letter, often in conjunction with an application, is the most common way into an internship. Take the time to prepare these carefully so that you showcase relevant experience, and proofread to eliminate mistakes!

  • Start building a professional network

    The college years are a bad time to be a hermit. Smile, shake hands, and meet as many people as you can. Keep your options open to increase your odds of finding an internship.

  • Conduct a mock interview

    Students should do a few practice interviews with family, friends or the career services office. Ask for candid feedback to help you fix any bad habits and become smoother in your presentation.

  • Get the right wardrobe

    Depending on the internship, formal and/or casual business attire may be necessary. Wear formal business attire to the interview, and then get the right clothes to suit the internship itself.

  • Determine your availability

    Talk to your school's career services and registrar offices to figure out exactly when you can take part in an internship. Is it something you can do during the semester, or will you need the summer? Also, confirm your school's internship requirements so you don't inadvertently delay your expected graduation date.

  • Apply

    Students should submit their resume, cover letter and any other necessary documents. Depending on the organization hosting the internship, these can be uploaded through the internet, e-mailed, faxed or mailed in. You may want to apply for multiple internships to increase your chances of acceptance, especially if you chose ones that are highly competitive.

  • Follow up

    Check the organization's guidelines and schedule for the selection. If it indicates that candidates will be chosen by a certain date, wait until then. And if you're applying for something far in advance, following up immediately won't do you much good. Otherwise, it's safe to ask for a status update via e-mail or telephone about two weeks after applying.

Finding an Internship

The internet contains a treasure trove of websites that can help you find the right internship. Explore several to find out what offers the best returns in your particular field or interest. Below are a few to get started:


A career network for college students and recent graduates who seek internships and full-time employment with major companies.

College Recruiter

An online search tool that matches entry-level jobs and internships with college students and recent college graduates.

Global Experiences

Helps college students find international internships.


A search tool that focuses on community and public service internships.

7 Tips to Make the Most Out of Your Internship

Landing a great internship is only the first step. The next one is to make it really count. With a smart approach, students can turn the opportunity into a slam-dunk work and learning experience—and gain skills and habits that will be valuable down the road.

Always be on time

This is one of the most effective—and easiest—ways to show responsibility, maturity and devotion to an internship. Get a reputation for punctuality.

Volunteer to take on more work

Everyone loves a go-getter. By asking for additional work, interns show they can work efficiently and are eager to learn. This is also a great opportunity to suggest projects that interest you.

Think critically

It's easy to spot problems; it's harder to find solutions. Employers typically appreciate those who can analyze an issue and make constructive comments.

Acclimate to organizational culture

Coworkers will be more inclined to help an intern who is willing to adapt to office culture. Observe the habits and routines, and strive to fit in.

Ask thoughtful questions

You're new here—everyone knows that. It's fine to ask questions to learn the ropes. Just be sure that you're asking intelligent questions. If the answer is easily available elsewhere, look it up. Don't expose yourself as someone who didn't pay attention or doesn't have the initiative to track down information independently.

Don't slack off with any assignment

This is not the time to get lazy with work and hope you'll slide under the radar. Work hard and don't be afraid to put in a little overtime if it will push your performance over the top.

Foster and maintain your professional relationships

One of the benefits of an internship is creating contacts. You're building professional relationships, so make sure they're positive and lasting. They could lead to future professional references and be a great source of advice on your future.

Students should be an active participant in their positions. Take the initiative if you know something needs to be done. Develop your reputation as someone who takes action and can be trusted to follow through. Employers will invest time and resources in training a doer rather than try to motivate someone to complete a task.

Deanna Parkton

Alternative Ways to Get Valuable Work Experience in College

After looking into internships, some students may decide that they just aren't the right path to take. In that case, there are plenty of other ways to get valuable work experience while in college.

Get a part-time job

An actual job is an attractive alternative to an internship. While you may not be working your “dream job,” you'll still gain valuable insight into life in the working world.

Summer work

If you can't manage working during the school year, set your sights on a summer job, where you'll have more opportunity to immerse yourself into full-time work. Many companies have summer job programs aimed specifically at students.


Volunteering doesn't pay, but it can still lead to unforgettable life-building experiences. It also shows the student in a good light—as someone who cares about the well-being of others. Some colleges also offer course credit for volunteer work.

Student organizations and extracurricular activities

Many student and on-campus organizations engage in community service projects, which require a lot of organization and people skills to execute. Then there's the logistical challenge of setting up and running a particular event. This can teach valuable skills about planning, organization and management.


The student can work for themselves doing jobs for which they have an aptitude, be it writing, photography, or other skilled labor. Being your own boss will give you a crash course in managing a schedule and finances, among other business skills.

Start a project

Even a hobby project can be worthwhile, depending on the field. For example, a computer science student who designs and builds a computer from scratch, including an operating system they coded themselves, can make for an impressive resume addition.

Observe other professionals

Tag along with a friend or family member for a day to get a taste of what they do. Or, contact someone in a field that interests you and explain you'd like to learn more. If you're professional in your initial contact and presentation, many people won't object to giving you a brief introduction to their work.

Additional Resources

Students looking for more information about internships have a plethora of resources to choose from online. Here are a few:


Run by Lauren Berger, this site focuses on promoting Ms. Berger's brand, but also lists numerous internships and has an extensive series of informative blog posts.


While primarily an internship matching service, this site has a comprehensive resources page encompassing all aspects of the internship process.


This site has a section called Quintessential Careers, which provides a wide array of job and career advice, including information relating to internships.

Monster College

Part of the more famous Monster job searching company, Monster College also lists internship opportunities, and offers articles and advice about interning.


Most well-known for its resources for getting into college, Unigo also has career advice for current and recently graduated college students.

US Department of Labor – Internship Fact Sheet

The US government's explanation of whether an internship must be paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Wet Feet

Current and future interns can get advice and information from more than 600 articles on career topics.

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