The National Association of Colleges and Employers defines an internship this way:
An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.
To ensure that an experience—whether it is a traditional internship or one conducted remotely or virtually—is educational, and thus eligible to be considered a legitimate internship by the NACE definition, all the following criteria must be met:
If these criteria are followed, it is the opinion of NACE that the experience can be considered a legitimate internship.
Explore career fields
While many students wait until their junior or senior year to complete an internship, completing an internship while you are still undecided allows you to explore career paths before you commit to a major. Juniors and seniors can use an internship to experience the variety of specialties within their chosen field and determine the best fit for individual skills, abilities, and interests.
Gain work experience
Employers frequently cite the work experience gained by internships as important in their hiring decisions for college graduates. An internship is a great way to gain experience in your career field and can help to put you ahead of other candidates in the job search.
Learn valuable job search skills
The process for finding an internship is, in many cases, identical to finding full-time employment. Finding job openings, contacting employers, developing your resume and cover letter, interviewing, and evaluating offers are all skills that you will practice during your internship search.
Build a network of individuals in your field
An internship will put you in contact with professionals in your field of interest - a perfect networking opportunity.
Observe and develop skills required to succeed in any workplace
Employers frequently mention new graduates’ lack of “professionalism” in the workplace. The best way to learn how to fit into the professional workplace is through practice. An internship is your orientation to the world of work!
Maybe even get a job offer!
Employers like to hire interns into full-time positions after graduation. During an internship, employers are able to observe your daily behavior, work ethic, and ability to fit in with their organization. Think of an internship as an extended interview.
Internships are often categorized based on three main criteria: compensation, college credit, and time-frame.
Internships can be either paid or unpaid depending on the career field and employer resources. Internships in business fields (accounting, marketing, finance) are more likely to be paid than those in social science careers (social work, education, history). Consider whether or not your personal financial situation will allow you to accept an unpaid internship. An unpaid position can be a great experience and has the same networking opportunities and professional benefits of a paid internship. When considering an unpaid position, it is important to weigh the long-term benefit of your experience against the short-term financial gain.
If you will receive college credit for your internship you need to contact your academic department to arrange this. Internships that are for college credit will require you to enroll in an internship course and have a faculty advisor. Each department handles internship credit differently so be sure to check with your advisor before accepting or beginning an internship. Internships for which you do not receive college credit are still valuable experiences.
The length of internships varies; however, students commonly complete internships over the summer or during a semester while taking classes. Summer internships are more frequently full-time, while internships completed during the semester tend to be fewer hours per week to allow students to continue to take classes. In the early stages of your internship search, consider which option fits into your schedule. Location of an internship also is a factor; summer internships can be found nationwide, or even internationally, while semester internships may have to be local.
During your internship search you may run across the term co-op. A co-op, or cooperative education, experience is typically a semester of full-time employment. Students in a traditional co-op setting do not take college courses during the co-op. Employers may use the term internship and co-op interchangeably, so be sure to ask about the employment time frame and expectations.
Each employer has unique internship parameters, so be sure to ask lots of questions during the selection process to ensure that the experience is what you are seeking. Your accomplishments and tasks completed during your internship are more important than simply having the word “Intern” on your resume.
At the start of your internship, meet with your supervisor to discuss your interest areas and internship goals. While you may not be able to tailor your entire experience, showing initiative and ownership of your experience will demonstrate professionalism and dedication to the position. Make your specific areas of interest and experience known to your internship supervisor.
Treat your internship as a job interview. Since many employers hire full-time employees from recent interns, your performance during the internship can determine whether or not you are offered a position. During your internship, act as you would if you were a full-time employee. Following the dress code, arriving on time, staying on task, and completing work within deadlines will impress your supervisor. Even if your company does not have a position open, a positive reference from your internship will be very helpful during your job search.