In three years or so, when hiring managers look at your postgraduate résumé, they may glance at your GPA and maybe even at classes listed. But what they’re really looking for is experience. So how can you, as an undergrad, get the experience you need? Internships and cooperative education. If your reasons for transferring include better career opportunities and guidance, then look no further than an internship or co-op. They are more than jobs; they’re learning experiences. You can use internships and co-ops to sample multiple companies, or even industries, to see what you want in a career. The great thing is that you’ll win no matter what you do, because virtually any experience is good experience. Plus, most college students, transfer or otherwise, don’t pursue an internship or co-op until their sophomore and junior years anyway, so you haven’t lost any time.
Why get an internship?
Many students add internships to their schedules on top of other part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, classes, and homework—even as freshmen. Why should you give up your free time to do more work? Because, in general, internships are worth it. “Students who supplement their classroom work with an internship have the opportunity to gain career-related work experience, clarify career options, earn money to offset college expenses, obtain exposure to the ‘real world’ of work—its expectations and variety of opportunities—realize increased job opportunities upon graduation, and acquire networking opportunities with professionals in their chosen field,” says Sharon St. Germain, Director of the Springer Center for Excellence in Internships at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Did you realize that you could also earn college credit for your internship? The academic advising center or registrar typically needs to approve of the job first, but those extra credits can lead to more freedom in your class selection or, better yet, to saving tuition dollars.
What do interns do?
The role of an intern varies so much from company to company that it’s basically impossible to define a set of common responsibilities. Yes, interns sometimes do menial tasks like making copies, but that often leads to more advanced work. And, as they say, you need to pay your dues. “Students need a very positive, willing-to-do-and-learn-anything attitude,” says Alice Martin, Director of the Career Development Center at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. “The student needs to show the employer he made a wise hiring decision.” Interns at large, high-profile companies may do a lot of filing and trips to the post office—but they also get to learn from industry leaders. On the other hand, interns at small startup companies may be assigned many important (maybe stressful) tasks because of staffing shortages—but they also leave with an unmatched variety of skills.
How do you find an internship?
“Networking is by far the most effective thing,” says Annalee Letchinger, an undergraduate career counselor for the University of Chicago. She recommends visiting your school’s alumni or career services office to ask about job shadowing programs or the possibility of meeting with alumni in your field. Even an informational interview can lead to an internship. Or you could use your existing connections to network your way to an internship like Jenny Rapp, a senior at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. An accounting and German major, she wanted to use both of her skill sets. Working for the central auditing team at KPMG in Munich, Germany, definitely helped her do that! Rapp was fortunate to have an uncle working at KPMG, which led her to such an ideal job. “This internship has been my biggest learning opportunity thus far and hopefully just the beginning of my career path,” she says.
What kinds of internships are there?
Internships can be full or part time, paid or unpaid. Paid internships are great for your résumé and your bank account, and students often earn enough to pay for textbooks and fees. Many companies, however, have been forced to downsize their paid internship programs, if not discontinue them indefinitely, because of the economy. As for which industries are hiring, Letchinger says there has been a definite decline in the financial sector. “We’re seeing an upsurge in marketing, the nonprofits,” she says. “We’re being more creative.” Luckily, there are many incredible opportunities for students willing to work for free! Museums, art galleries, and concert halls, for example, are nonprofits that generally cannot afford to pay their interns. But for students looking for a career in the fine arts, there is hardly a better place to start. “Stay positive and be flexible,” says St. Germain. “There still are employers who are hiring!”
What about co-ops?
Think of cooperative education as a more intense version of internships. Students still get the same valuable experience, but there are a few key differences. While most internships are part time, co-ops are full time. Internships typically last one semester, while most co-ops last six months. Finally, co-op students are almost always paid employees—and they’re usually paid well. Engineering co-ops can earn as much as $25 per hour! But at the end of the day, “many employers truly don’t distinguish between co-op and internships,” says Nancy Hutchison, Director of Cooperative Education & Career Services at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Just like interns, co-ops’ responsibilities run the gamut, and they need to embrace their job as a learning experience. “Students are dead in the water if they feel that they are above some tasks,” Hutchison says. Some students spend each semester of co-op in the same place, and some jump around, so they may encounter hugely different work environments and responsibilities.
When you arrive at your new college or university, you will have more options for extracurriculars than you know what to do with. Fitting an internship in with sports practices, rehearsals, homework, or other activities might be tricky, but it might also be the perfect beginning to your ideal career.
Find more advice on landing important experiential learning opportunities in our Internships and Careers section.