June 17, 2024

The Search: The Internship as Inside Track

Internships have long been a part of the collegiate learning experience, but have never been more closely tied to permanent hiring than they are today, said Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of career development at New York University.

Of course, internships aren’t the only route to employment. But companies increasingly view them as a recruiting tool because they are a way to test-drive potential employees, she said. Conversely, interns can test-drive the company to see if it’s a good fit, professionally and culturally.

Not only do college interns garner more job offers than applicants without that experience, but jobs that grow out of internships tend to command higher starting salaries, said Edwin W. Koc, research director at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

But while more companies are offering internships, the competition has become more intense. And more high school students, too, are seeking them, adding to the competitive pressure, said Lauren Berger, chief executive of Internqueen.com, an online internship listing site. Ms. Berger herself had 15 internships while attending the University of Central Florida, mostly in public relations, entertainment and communications, she said.

So what is the best way to find an internship? It sounds so basic, but many students don’t take the logical first step — visiting career services centers at their colleges, Ms. Berger said. Career centers in each major, and for the college as a whole, can offer leads, and free services like mock interviews and help with résumés.

Beyond checking with your college, use Web sites, social media and networking. Another option is to call a company that interests you and ask whether it needs an intern. “If the employer tells you they’ve never had an intern before,” Ms. Berger said, “ask them if you can be the first.”

She recommends making a list of 10 companies where you could see yourself working, then finding their Web sites and the contact information for their internship coordinators. Then note the materials needed to apply, as well as any deadlines.

Treat each application individually, she said. “I always recommend a cover letter even if the employer doesn’t require one.” she said. If you don’t hear back from the company in two weeks, she advised, send a follow-up e-mail.

On Internships.com, which posts openings, just 34 percent of the internships listed by employers are paid positions, said Robin Richards, chief executive of the company. But that varies widely by industry. Glamorous jobs like those in fashion and entertainment tend not to pay, whereas fields like engineering, technology and finance are more likely to offer money.

Students need to view unpaid internships as an investment in the future, by perhaps working 15 or 20 hours a week at them and taking a part-time job to support themselves, Ms. Berger said.

Check whether your school can help with financial aid. New York University is among the institutions that award stipends to students with unpaid internships.

 The stereotype is that the intern makes the coffee and the copies — and that can still be true in some cases. But Ms. Steinfeld said that now more than ever she sees interns perform professionally meaningful tasks like managing projects and making presentations. That is partly because many of today’s employees have growing workloads and are happy to delegate assignments, she said.

An internship should always have a learning component, Ms. Steinfeld said, and most companies are good about providing it. But to avoid an unfulfilling experience, ask questions during your interview and when you get the offer. Find out what tasks you will perform, what past interns have accomplished, which decision makers you will work with, whether you’ll have a mentor or another advocate, and how the internship might fit in with your long-term career goals, Ms. Steinfeld said.

At the same time, realize that some of your tasks will be mundane, and make sure to do them well and without complaint, said Ms. Berger, who once caused a coffee machine to explode during an internship. “Students need to absorb everything they can,” she said, “from the small tasks to the big ones.”

At times, you may have nothing to do — one of the top complaints that Ms. Berger hears from interns. If that happens, knock on doors and ask people if they need help, she said, or see if you can sit in on meetings. Don’t surf the Web, check Facebook or text your friends, she said — that shows you’re not taking the internship seriously.

When the internship is over, there is still work to do. Ms. Berger, 26, has a decidedly old-fashioned suggestion: send a handwritten thank you note to the internship coordinator. Then send e-mail updates throughout the year to the people you’ve worked for, so that you’ll be in their minds when a job becomes available.

E-mail: thesearch@nytimes.com.

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