On the value of internships

For students who may be considering pursuing an internship as a means of increasing experience, building a resume, or gaining a college admissions advantage, here are a few guidelines to help you make a good choice, and hopefully land a good opportunity.

1. Remember that your efforts to secure the internship are part of the learning.
Some of the most valuable internship learning takes place before you ever start the gig. How did you find the opportunity? What was the application and interview process like? How did you convince the organization you were worth taking an internship chance on? If you seek out, apply for, and secure an internship yourself, you’ll learn these lessons. If your parent or someone else does all the work and just tells you when and where to show up, you won’t. Don’t assume that fancy sounding internship you have handed to you is more impressive than a lesser known opportunity you found and secured yourself.

2. Get as close as you can to the product, service, or customer.
There is no shame in filing, sweeping floors, getting coffee, etc. But it’s even better if you can get an internship where your role is more central to what the organization does. One way to find those opportunities is to go where other interns don’t. Countless high school students try to get internships at hospitals or law firms. But how many search for opportunities at free clinics or legal aid centers that specifically work with disadvantaged populations? The tech giant in town probably won’t let you test the product before it ships. But the small upstart company down the road just might. A Collegewise student I worked with wanted to major in journalism, and rather than pursue an opportunity at the major newspaper everyone read, she went straight for her small town community paper where she went from fact-checking stories, to copy-editing, to penning her own weekly column in less than six months.

3. Consider creating your own internship.
An internship is usually a defined role an organization has planned for and made the decision to fill with an eager person. But just because an opportunity isn’t posted publicly doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t create one for the right candidate. Consider what you have to offer, find a place that might benefit, and pitch your services. Can you build websites? Fix computers? Translate Spanish and English? Proofread? Organize what’s disorganized? Research online? Make minor repairs? I promise you that there’s an organization nearby that would happily accept your services a few hours a week. Reach out, be specific about what you can do and how much time you’re willing to commit, and ask if they’ll give you a shot for two weeks to prove you can make a difference. Even if they say no, they’ll be impressed with your teenage gumption.

4. Use your opportunity as a springboard.
When you begin an internship, you’re an unproven commodity. Your job is to change that perception, and even better, to become someone the boss or team or organization just couldn’t live without. The best opportunities in the future come to those who make the most of their current opportunities. You may not intend on staying past your agreed upon tenure. But if you do the kind of work that invites more responsibility, more experience, and more trust, you’ll learn—and perhaps even earn—even more than you originally planned. Here’s a past post about how to thrive in a part-time job. I think it applies to just about any opportunity.

5. Do it for the right reasons.
There are a lot of good reasons to consider getting an internship. Here’s a bad one if it’s the only one—to put it on your college application. Yes, colleges will be impressed by real commitment, especially one that aligns with what I’ve advised above. But if you’re just doing it because you’ve heard that colleges look favorably on internships, and if you’d really rather be playing in a recreational softball league or working at an ice cream shop or taking self-defense classes, why turn away from what’s clearly a better fit for you? Internships aren’t more or less compelling to colleges than any other involvement that you care about, commit to, and make an impact on during your time there. If you get an internship that goes well, list it proudly on your application. But as you make decisions about how to spend your time, remember that just about every college would tell you that they don’t have a prescribed list of recommended activities. That leaves the door wide open for you to choose things you want to do, whether or not an internship makes that list.