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Career Expert Offers Students Ten Tips for Making the Most of a Summer Internship

"Think of it as dating," Smith career director advises

This summer, nearly three out of four college students nationwide will put their first foot in the door of a professional work environment via an internship. Internships have become increasingly critical because many organizations, whether museums or Fortune 500 companies, now see them as the first stage in recruiting.

Unfortunately, says Smith College Career Development Director Barbara Reinhold, many interns miss the chance to turn a good first career experience into a great one.

Reinhold, who also serves as an online career columnist for and a consultant to corporations ranging from Polaroid to Praxair Inc., offers the following ten tips from her office's "Internship Survival Kit" for making the most of a summer internship.

1. When considering your summer plans, DON'T assume you can't intern because you need to earn money for school. Many internships do pay. For those that don't, a few colleges, like Smith, have designated funds to help students defray the cost of their living expenses and tuition contribution. Smith's Praxis internship program, for example, offers a $2,000 stipend to any Smith student wishing to do an unpaid internship after her sophomore or junior year.

2. On the job, DON'T expect to be taught as you would in a classroom. An internship is a very different situation, and you must take the major responsibility for what you will learn. "If you can define what you want from an internship, chances are you'll get what you want and be satisfied," Reinhold notes.

3. DO ask lots of questions. Not just "how" questions but "why" questions-questions that help you get a sense of the big picture and your role in it. "Employers often regard internships as full-time try-outs,'' Reinhold explains. "So they'll be taking careful notice of the quality of your thinking, based on the quality of the questions you ask."

4. DO pitch in wherever you're needed, but make sure at least half of your time is spent on meaningful, useful assignments. You can learn a lot by answering phones, photocopying and filing; and if you do them efficiently you'll have more time to investigate, question, research and volunteer for new projects.

5. DO take the internship seriously, whether paid or unpaid. Clarify when the work day begins and ends, how long to take lunch, and the number of days you'll be working. Arrange absences or vacation time in advance.

6. DO call your college career development office if, by the mid-point, your internship doesn't seem to be progressing the way you had expected. "An internship is a learning experience, and learning how to negotiate in ticklish situations is a major survival skill in the 'real world," Reinhold observes. "But you don't have to go it alone. Before confronting the boss, get some coaching if you need it."

7. DON'T expect an internship to lead directly to a job. Reinhold notes that some companies, such as American Express, do cull the majority of each spring's new hires from the prior summer's internship class. But that's unusual; so "plan on using the internship to develop and showcase your skills, not to by-pass the job-search process."

8. DON'T write your internship off as a failure if you didn't end up loving the experience or wanting to work in that field. "Think of it as dating," Reinhold advises, "and be glad you found out what turns you off before you made a major commitment."

9. DO ask for a recommendation and work samples at the end of your internship. It may also be helpful to request an exit interview, to solidify what you have learned and contributed to the organization.

10. At the end of the summer, DO send a note to the internship supervisor and anyone else who was particularly helpful.

Most important, Reinhold emphasizes, is "learning to love the anthropology of it all.

"Exploring various career fields and workplaces and seeing whether they'll give you what you're looking for-this is a process you'll use again and again, throughout your adult life," she explains. "You'd better learn to enjoy it!"

May 5, 1999


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