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Time spent in college is an important period for growth, education and experiencing life, but ultimately, it’s about preparation for your career path and for life after school. Internships are becoming increasingly crucial as a way to complement your education and secure your future career. They provide a valuable glimpse into what it’s like to work for a living, lend insights into how your chosen field works and they can show a potential employer you are serious about wanting to be a valuable employee.

Benjamin W. Hoffman, assistant professor and internship coordinator, department of accounting at Monte Ahuja College of Business at Cleveland State University; Morgan Kush, coordinator of career development at Hiram College; and Brian Matthews, assistant director of experiential learning at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, talked about the importance of college internships, how to find one, and the best times to look for them.

An unpaid internship may be the first time in your life you find yourself working just for the sake of learning and doing a good job. The importance of internship experience comes from the skills you build and the improvements you make to your resume.

“Students gain valuable skills and insights into potential career paths, they can apply knowledge learned in the classroom to actual situations in the marketplace,” Matthews said. “They become more valuable candidates for employers and graduate programs upon graduation.”

Internships are your way to show your commitment to professionalism,

self-improvement and excellence. They are one of the most important factors in making yourself appealing in the job market.

Every prospective employer prefers to hire someone with industry experience who they can rely on and who doesn’t require extensive training. Internships show an employer that you made the most of your education and spent your free time outside of class on experiential learning. “Internships set you apart,” Kush said.

“Experiential learning provides educational benefits that you may not otherwise gain from the classroom and allows you to apply your learning in action.,” she said. “Employers will see that you sought out internships beyond your academic requirements, which is a great way to show your dedication to your development. Seeing that you are willing to learn and do what it takes to prepare yourself for your area of interest is an incredibly appealing thing to use as leverage in the job market.”

It’s very important to secure a college internship to increase your appeal to potential employers.

Matthews said, “a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers study reveals that employers are more likely to consider hiring students who have had internships for full-time roles. And those students who have had internships are better prepared for their career.”

Internships also provide exposure to the inner workings of your chosen industry. They let you behind the scenes to get a taste for the specific knowledge and everyday practices that every job requires.

Hoffman said, “it’s difficult to simulate the real world in a classroom. You get the benefit of seeing trained professionals complete tasks you might otherwise have only read about, and you’ll get a chance to try tasks out yourself.”

Working in internships can also be helpful in determining if you are in the right field. Hoffman suggests starting early.

“Get internships even in freshman year just to refine your choices,” he suggested.

Kush said, “It can help you learn whether you truly like your area of study. Doing an internship earlier on in your academic career allows you to see if your chosen field is the one for you, or if you need to make a change and adjust your trajectory.”

But how does one find an internship? Heading to the careers services department at your school is a good start.

Matthews said, “When students are considering an internship, the first step I recommend is connecting with the career services office of the college or university they attend. These professional staff have resources and information at their disposal that can make the process easier and they can assist students in developing a strategy to make the search process more effective, connect them to employers who recruit at their school and assist in preparing for interviews.”

Kush said, “Your career center might have special insights about who to talk to and where to look for internship opportunities that would benefit you the most based on your area of interest.”

Other ideas include networking with alumni, using the resources available to you and being ready for any opportunity at any time.

Matthews said, “Networking with alumni and other professionals through sources like LinkedIn or alumni databases is great. The key when doing this is to not ask for an internship, but to gather insight on their career path and choices, their company culture and more. The goal is to begin to develop a relationship and line of communication with the alum that could potentially be helpful in the future.”

Also, keeping “ears to the ground” about different company cultures and needs is crucial.

“Students should pay attention to tips on job boards and conduct research on company websites to get a sense of what resonates with them and how the company’s mission or philosophy may be in line with their personal and professional aspirations,” Matthews said.

Kush said, “Take advantage of the resources you have available to you at your college – employers are excited to host your experiential learning and often reach out to local schools to look for students to fill their positions. I would also recommend having a resume on hand for the moment you find an internship that might be the right fit, so that you can apply without stress.”

Hoffman stressed being resourceful and taking the initiative.

“Leverage connections with family and friends,” he urged. “Anyone can Google internship opportunities, but only you have your own unique relationships that can be built into internship or shadowing opportunities … creating a network is very important.”

The best time to look for an internship depends on your field and other variables.

Matthews said, “Students who are seeking internships should understand the recruiting cycles of employers and, or differences between industries. This is where engaging the career center can add additional value. For example, in some industries, students need to apply in the spring for an internship the following summer (spring 2022 for a summer 2023 internship), while some organizations won’t even post their summer internships until a few months before they need the intern to start. It all depends on the industry and organization. But, if you start early, you won’t miss out.”

Kush said, “Some large employers will have deadlines for internship applications that you should be aware of since they usually end well in advance (sometimes months) before the start date. Most students that I interact with find internships for the summer, since they have more flexibility with time and can afford to commit themselves fully to their internship. Summer is a great time to find internships because more seasonal opportunities available.”

Overall, however, students should try to involve themselves with as many internship opportunities as possible, at any point in their degree and beyond.

Hoffman recommended junior year as a general rule of thumb year for internships.

Lisa Matkowsky is a freelance writer.

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