Internships help prepare college students and recent graduates for their future careers by allowing them to take what they've learned in the classroom and apply it in real-life situations and environments. Some internships are paid and others aren't, but regardless, both students and companies benefit from the experience, experts say.
"It is vital that a student understands what they are getting into before becoming fully invested in the career path that they choose," said Todd Rothman, an educator and partner/co-founder of wyzPREP, which prepares students for the Graduate Management Admission Test (commonly called the GMAT). Internships provide the opportunity to work alongside mentors and peers, and gain experience you cannot get in a classroom, he added.
A competitive climate
Just like the job market, the internship climate is extremely competitive, with tons of applicants competing for the same job. Nowhere is that more evident than in California's Silicon Valley, Jeff Selingo, author of "There is Life After College," wrote on LinkedIn. Each summer, thousands of college students descend on the technology mecca to work as interns at a mix of startups and Fortune 100 companies. During those three months, these companies are looking for the best students in their intern pools — as well as those at other firms — and putting a full-court press on them to commit to permanent jobs after they graduate, Selingo said.
According to Selingo, more companies are hiring from their intern pools. This means recruiters have shifted their attention from hiring soon-to-graduate seniors as full-timers to scoping out juniors, even as early as the fall term, to be interns the next summer.
"Internships are increasingly the only way for new applicants to get in the door at some companies," Selingo wrote. "Postings for internships now make up a significant proportion of the overall entry-level job openings in several industries, including engineering, graphic design, communications, marketing and information technology."
"Everybody wants to get a chance to prove themselves, and many companies now treat internships as a trial run for full-time employment," added Jon Loew, CEO and founder of KeepTree, a service that captures messages and send them on a designated date. "Most applicants are aware of this, so you have to compete with a lot of other qualified candidates looking to get a leg up."
Apply the right way
Despite the competitiveness, you shouldn't apply to internships for the sake of having them on your resume.
"First and foremost, make sure you apply for internships that truly interest you," Rothman said. "Internships can be very demanding on a student's time and effort. The more passionate a student is about [their internship], the more they will gain from it."
Rothman noted that it is vital that students understand what they are getting into before becoming fully invested in the career path. Even if the student won't be offered a job at the end of it, it's important to have a direction.
Even if there is no potential for interns to be hired at the end of the internship, they shouldn't rule out that particular opportunity, Loew said. "The networking opportunity alone can be invaluable," he noted. "The best way to know is to evaluate what you really want to do with your life and focus on working and learning about that particular job."
Time spent at these internships is valuable and should be treated as such, Rothman noted. However, it's important to be wary of companies that try to take advantage of young professionals, said Natalya Khaykis, analyst at ZipJob.
"Research the company for reviews, and stick to reputable companies where you can learn and have a shot at employment after the internship," Khaykis said.[See Related Story: Everything You Need to Know About Job Searching in the Digital Age]
Getting the internship
Once you've figured out what you want to do, it's important to remember to treat the process — from submitting your resume, to interviewing, to accepting the internship — as you would a real job search.
Applicants can set themselves apart in the interview process. One way to do this is to ask questions that show a deeper interest in the company and the industry. For example, instead of asking, "What will I be doing?" and "Can I get a job out of this?" ask, "What is the company culture like?" or "What opportunities will I have to learn?" Loew suggested.
Rothman noted that before students accept an internship, they should understand the time commitment and the internship objectives.
"You want to be sure that you have the time and ability to fulfill your obligations," Rothman said. "An internship provides an inside look at what [that job] will require before you get accepted. In some sense, it is like having a crystal ball and being able to see what your future career will look like."
"Treat your internship like a real job, and show you're committed and got what it takes to handle any tasks," Khaykis added. "A good intern also puts a lot of emphasis on learning. Find a mentor, ask questions and show you're eager to learn more and get the job done."