How to make the most out of your summer internship (and, yes, you should get paid for it!)

Schools out and it’s time to begin the summer internship. You have lined one up, right?

Summer internships are an invaluable right of passage for college students planning ahead for life after graduation. For many, a solid, relevant internship is the necessary ticket to the business world.

If you are still evaluating internship opportunities, choose the one in which you’ll have the best chance to do the most real work. This isn’t like your last four summer jobs, where it was all about finding the one demanding the least amount of work or most time to work on your tan. This is for your resume, and more importantly, for your own development. A relevant summer internship provides a window into your future career.It will help you decide if your chosen path is going to lead to work you’ll find interesting and rewarding. And, of course, it will make you better prepared for that first “real” job.


What you are paid isn’t as important, although you should get paid something. The Great Recession unfortunately has led to a rise in unpaid internships. When I was a journalism student at the University of Missouri back in the day, no credit was earned if you worked an unpaid internship. (Is that still true at Mizzou? Other colleges?). The idea was that the university did not want to do anything to promote the exploitation of its talented students. And, make no mistake, unpaid internships are exploitive. If the company can’t afford to pay you at least  $10 an hour, it isn’t much of an organization. Put another way, any company that doesn’t expect to get at least $10 an hour worth of value from an intern doesn’t expect the intern to contribute any meaningful work. You don’t want to be a gopher, or spend the summer rearranging files. You want to do meaningful, challenging work. And you want to contribute.

Begin the internship with just that attitude–you want to contribute to the team’s success. Chances are your first few projects will be pretty basic. They’re a test to see what you’re capable of and how fast you learn. If it takes you two months to learn where the bathroom is, you aren’t going to make much of a difference over the summer. So make a point at doing an exemplary job on your first tasks, and get them done quicker than you’re expected to. Then ask what else you can do to help out.

At first, your supervisor may appear to be annoyed that you’ve so quickly completed the task and he or she has to take the time to give you another assignment. But sooner or later, the light will come on in the supervisor’s head that you are capable of more challenging work. And that you can help out with the annoying project that is stressing the supervisor out.

Now it’s your time to really shine. Put your best thinking and best effort into that first challenging assignment. Check with the supervisor to make sure you’re on the right track; don’t come off as an arrogant know-it-all with 15 minutes of experience. Rather, show that you are willing and able to help out as part of the team, and you have some fresh ideas that just might help get the job done.

Recognize where you can learn from your more experienced co-workers, and compliment them on their knowledge and experience.

Pretty soon, you’ll be a valued contributor to the team. The summer will fly by and you’ll enjoy the experience. And you’ll have added valuable contacts and references willing to go to bat for you when you graduate.

– Jon Harmon

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