How to Make the Most of College Internships

As a college student, I've taken advantage of numerous internships at my university and local businesses. They can be a great way to familiarize yourself with a company, industry, job responsibilities, and can even grow your network. All of which can help you build a solid career and reach your financial goals.

The problem is, finding an internship can be tough, but making the most of it can be even tougher. 

My first internship wasn't anything to write home about. 

I remember sitting at my desk, practically pulling my hair out with boredom, asking, "Why did they even offer me this?" I convinced myself that I just showed up at eight in the morning to watch other people do work, while I came up with ways to make the time go faster. In reality, I was wasting my own time. 

For some companies, interns aren't really employees and no one's measuring their progress. The company loses nothing if the interns just sit and wait all day. Which means you might be the one directing your time and, if you want to make the most of it, here's how.

Check the feasibility of the internship.

The reality of internships is that most are unpaid, and "compensation" comes in the form of college credit. Bills and other everyday expenses don't disappear just because an opportunity arises for you to intern. 

Consider the consequences of not being able to work as many hours at your paid job if you commit to an unpaid internship – or that you may not have time for a paid job at all! 

There was a time I convinced myself that I could handle both a job and an internship. You've heard of students who work 20-hours per week while studying abroad, right? Well, for me, the strain and pressure weren't worth it. My focus was surviving the week instead of taking advantage of the opportunity I was given.

As with most commitments, there will be sacrifices, and you should prepare for the consequences. 

Have a plan.

Knowing what you want to gain from the internship experience is the first step. What questions do you have for people that hold titles you are interested in? How can you use this experience to bulk up a portfolio or a resume? Maybe you're interested in learning the best and worst parts about a job or an industry, or scouting a company's culture and benefits. You might not be thinking about retirement yet, but it's never too early to learn about benefits like a 401k or HSA.

No matter what you hope to gain from the internship, have ideas ready to execute it. Like other financial goals and growth opportunities, having a plan is key

Take advantage of the information around you.

You're new, so there won't be mountains of work to keep you busy.

Rarely, if ever, will a department have a pile of projects that need to be done right away by the intern. Instead, look to take advantage of the professionals around you who are possibly in the career you desire. 

Even if you come into an internship and they have tasks waiting for you, the honest and personal conversations you'll have with the people around you will offer insight that you'll carry for a long time. You'll forget why you were entering data into an excel sheet, but you'll always remember the piece of advice that helped you establish yourself in a particular career. 

Build your network. 

This is a phrase you'll hear everywhere, but it's hard to know exactly what "building your network" looks like. 

Networking means going to those office lunches, even if you weren't scheduled on that day, or trying to implant yourself in as many meetings as possible. Infiltrating your name into everything will make many people familiar with your presence. But that isn't enough. By asking questions and starting discussions with those around you, you're more likely to stick in the brains of the people you work with.

Don't forget to communicate to your network that you're open to future opportunities if you enjoyed your time there. Stay consistent with your excitement about being an intern at the company and be memorable. 

Bottom line: put yourself out there. 

Have reasonable expectations. 

I quickly learned that you're not guaranteed anything special just by interning somewhere. You could be a great intern, but sometimes job openings don't align for you when you're ready to enter the workforce – or they simply aren't looking to hire.

I wouldn't view this as a failure. By now, you'll have a network of people who can speak to your fantastic work while you were there. Instead of focusing on getting a job with the company you interned with, work on building a portfolio of work you can be proud of.

The only thing left to do is to find an internship. Check out your university's career platform or local online listings to get started. 

-    Leah C.

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