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Unpaid to CEO: How To Make The Most Of Your Internship Experience

A college degree won’t get you the job anymore. At least not by itself. With higher education becoming more and more the norm in today’s society, a college degree can’t be considered to be enough of a credential to stand out to a recruiter. Companies today want to know that you have applicable experience for the role that you are applying for. It’s a classic dilemma: You need to get a job to get experience, but you need experience to get a job. While it may seem like an impossible task, gaining experience in your particular field of study is certainly within reach. Just like inexperienced young men trained underneath blacksmiths as an apprentice, students without relevant experience can find on-the-job training with an internship.

Often unpaid and temporary, internships are sometimes overlooked by the general population of students as they are hesitant to commit to “free labor”, so to speak. Make no mistake about it, internships offer compensation far beyond a paycheck. Training, references, college credit, and the opportunity to work hands-on in a real world environment are just some of the benefits that come with an internship. Some of them may even pay an hourly wage. Here are some tips for you to take full advantage of your internship experience:

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It’s A Real Job, Take It Seriously

While some internships are in fact unpaid and temporary positions, the companies that hire interns consider them as a valued member of the team, and often consider them for permanent roles after the internship is over. This is the opportunity to really gain knowledge of the field of your interest, and to accumulate experience that will help you build your professional skillset. Even if you are not offered a position at the end of your internship, your grit and performance will speak volumes about whom you are, and that can pay huge dividends if a position opens up with that company in the future. Treat the job as if it was yours for the rest of your career.

Network, Network, Network

If you are lucky enough to find an internship directly related to your field, meet as many people as you can. Even if your internship isn’t related, still shake as many hands as possible. A resume and cover letter can help you find a job, but a personal recommendation from a professional in the industry will almost certainly land you an interview. As they say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Never burn bridges and make connections anywhere; from the receptionist, to the mailroom guys, and if you can, to the executives. You never know who can help you in this world later in your career, so it’s always a good idea to establish relationships early on and get more people in your corner.

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Find a Mentor and Ask Questions

If you’re making an effort to network, you are bound to meet professionals within your industry that look a whole lot like what you can see yourself doing in a few years. With respect to their time and workload, ask these professionals if they would become a mentor figure and allow you to shadow them. Take them out to lunch, establish a close bond, and pick their brain about their work routines, thinking process, and any knowledge that they can teach you. Learning from the people who are doing it will show you exactly how to do it correctly, and will hopefully get you in the same position one day.

Make a Difference

Just because you are an unpaid intern does not mean that you are any less of a team member as the seasoned professional. While they may have more stability and a paycheck, the employer brought you both in for a reason – to make a difference. Whenever you have an idea or a solution, don’t be afraid to speak your mind and help the team. Add value whenever you can, whether that’s taking the initiative to take on more responsibilities, or assisting fellow team members to increase efficiency. Make your presence felt within the team, and the employers will surely acknowledge that. Maybe even with a permanent position after the internship.

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Don’t Mess Up On The Little Things

We get it: you’re in college; you barely have time to study for chemistry, let alone buy a lint roller. But when you have the opportunity to shine in an internship, it’s important to not create attention for failing to accomplish the little things. Always show up to work on time. Take showers daily, and always be well-groomed and professionally dressed. Never use company time to use your smartphone or surf the web. Never, ever use foul language in a professional setting. These are the little things that every person is expected of fulfilling. It should never have to be said or taught to any team member, and as an intern, it is highly expected that you follow suit and behave appropriately.

While internships may only be temporary, and often for little or no pay, they offer invaluable experience for your career. More often than not, if you are able to use these tips above, you may find yourself being offered a permanent position with the company after your internship. If not, the connections you’ve made networking, the skills you’ve learned, and the overall experience will pay for itself when it lands you that next position that would never have been offered to you before your internship.

Alex Vu

Acoustic guitarist. Part-time poet. Rap aficionado. Critically-acclaimed backup dancer. World-famous DJ. Just kidding, I'm just a writer.

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