An internship can give you a leg up

          Potential employers won’t hire you without experience, but how do you get experience if they won’t hire you? Find an internship. Not only will you gain skills you can leverage once you graduate, you may turn your internship into a job offer.

          “We don’t want someone just to fill a position,” says Jennifer Burns, Bank of America’s intern program manager. “We want top talent and someone we can groom to hire for a full-time position.”

What to look for

  • Assess your strengths: Your friends may be applying to Fortune 500 companies for a summer slot, but that doesn’t mean a big corporation or the experience you’d get there is right for you. Talking to career counselors and doing self-assessment exercises will pay off in the long run. Don’t be afraid to pursue an internship at a small company if it provides the kind of experience you’re interested in.
  • Be creative: You can turn any situation into an internship. Initiative is the key. If, for instance, you have a part-time job, ask to shadow your manager. You can do many things to learn about the culture of the company. Get involved in advertising. Learn about marketing gimmicks. Ask to attend major conferences.
  • Tap your network: Sure, your school’s career office will have lists of available internships, but don’t forget alumni. They can be invaluable, says Carole Campbell, a director of the executive search firm Stanton Chase International and a member of Southern Methodist University’s associate board. “If you look at the alumni ranks of your school and find that John Doe is the executive vice president of a big bank downtown, he’ll be more likely to help you if he knows you’re an alum from his school.”
  • Be persistent: Competition is fierce for internships at top companies. Bank of America, for instance, had more than 2,000 applicants last year for 300 summer slots. The bank begins looking at applications in October and November, Burns says, meaning students who apply in April or May don’t stand a chance. “We know they haven’t put in the initiative.”
  • Ask questions: Don’t assume anything about an internship, Green says. You need to ask how many hours you’ll work, what your duties will be, if you’ll get academic credit, where you’ll be working and if you’ll get paid. “You’re paying, oftentimes, to be there,” she says.

What to expect

  • Humility counts: An internship isn’t a job. It’s an opportunity to learn, and your attitude is a key. “It’s very important to be willing to continue learning,” Case says. “Sometimes one of the greatest mistakes an intern can make is walking into an organization thinking they’ve got control of the information, they’ve got control of the job, they’ve got things in control.”
  • Take initiative: To get the most out of an internship, offer your best. View every assignment and every request as an opportunity to learn, “not as something trivial or something that doesn’t have an impact,” Burns says. Bank of America offers its interns mentoring programs, lunchtime seminars and networking opportunities. Successful interns “take it upon themselves to make the most of it,” she says. “They’re going to get out of it what they put in.”
  • Expect a letdown: Students begin internships with great anticipation. Most of the time, the experience is not what they expected. “Usually internships are a shock to students. People are busy. Sometimes they don’t make time to be with an intern,” Green says.
  • Control your destiny: If you find yourself floundering, take charge. Ask for help. Tell your supervisor you’d like more responsibility. Create your own program. But don’t quit. “We generally advise people to stick with it,” Case says. “We all have aspects of our jobs that we don’t like.”
  • Assess for the future: You may enter an internship hoping to grab a full-time job offer. But you also should assess the company to see if it’s a place you’d want to work full time. Watch people’s behavior and how they interact with each other. Listen for both formal and informal messages. “An intern is auditioning the company as much as the company is auditioning the intern,” Case says. “It’s a mutual selling opportunity.”

How to end

  • Nothing’s guaranteed: Even if you’re a star employee, you aren’t guaranteed a full-time offer after your internship. That’s particularly true in today’s economy. Companies are paying close attention to expenses and scrutinizing new hires. “So the automatic offer is gone,” Case says.
  • Don’t sweat a mistake: You hope for the best, but your internship doesn’t work out. You don’t like the work or you don’t perform well. In either case, your career isn’t ruined. Internships are a good time to find out if you fit well in a particular industry. If you discover you don’t, consider it a learning experience. “People doing full-time employment are very forgiving of the choice of an internship,” Case says.
  • Mine those contacts: The No. 1 benefit of an internship is the relationships you’ll make with seasoned professionals. That network can last throughout your career, but you have to work on it. Green suggests writing thank-you notes to your supervisors, sending holiday cards and keeping contacts updated on your whereabouts. “You have to follow up because you’re the one leaving,” she says.
  • Spin the experience: Once you’ve finished an internship, know how to position it. Potential employers won’t necessarily care that you spent a summer at XYZ Company; they’ll be more impressed with the skills you learned and the projects you undertook. “If they can see you can hit the ground running, that’s their key,” Green says. Internships “are stepping stones. They’re stepping stones to other things.”


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