By Steven Broussard

Undergraduate education is a nurturing period in which students can take time to determine their career paths and develop the tools necessary to succeed.  At the same time, an increasingly competitive job market fosters an environment in which soon-to-be college grads are doing anything they can to bolster their resumes and enhance their marketability.  Aside from achieving a 4.0 GPA, there are a number of things a college student can do to stand out to potential employers. 

Students can advance their status by participating in campus-sponsored clubs and organizations, by doing volunteer work, or by holding down part-time jobs.  However, none of these will help them to realize their passions or prepare them more for stepping out into the "real world" than valuable time spent as an intern.

There are two main reasons for seeking an internship prior to graduating college. 

First, the four years you spend as an undergraduate are meant as a period to determine which field you would be comfortable choosing for a potential career.  Russell Ventura, Internship Coordinator at Boston College said, "For many liberal arts majors, they find themselves interested in multiple fields.  Trying to work in as many as possible would be a good way to narrow the selection process...It exposes students to different work settings and different people, all of which can shed light on the student's career decision."

In addition to helping a student realize his or her desired career path, internships are often pivotal assets for getting a foot in the door after graduation.  Compiling an impressive series of jobs indicates a clear eagerness to achieve.  Employers often offer full-time positions to their soon-to-graduate interns. 

According to Beth Settje, Internship Coordinator and Career Consultant at the University of Connecticut, "Employers have shared with us that they look for internship experience on a student's resume; additionally employers often prefer to offer full time positions to those who have worked for their organization in an internship, as the new employee is already vested and may have even been trained."

How do I get an internship?

The key to gaining this practical work experience, which is initially hard for the typical college student to do, is to find your own engine and to take the initiative.  For the most part, no one is going to seek you out to work for their company.  Therefore, you have to do the legwork and utilize any and all potential resources until your goals are met. 

The career center at your college is an outstanding place to start.  There you will find experienced professionals who deal with the process on a daily basis.  Valuable resources include up-to-date contacts and job descriptions submitted by company recruiters and online job search databases specific to interns or new grads.  Experts also offer top-notch advice on submitting resumes and cover letters, and how to succeed in an interview.  Taking your search one step further, an excellent option is to ask older friends and family about possible openings.  Hiring managers are more apt to hire someone with a good reference from within the company.  Don't be afraid to use who you know!

College is four years long, leaving much time to gain the necessary experience to make your mark in the marketplace after graduation.  The majority of students holding internships are juniors and seniors, but that doesn't mean you can't try to start searching or trying to improve your chances earlier. 

"There is no set timeline when it comes to internships," said Geni Harclerode of the career center at the University of Michigan.  "While some internships are available only to upperclassmen, many employers are open to hiring students at a variety of academic levels, including first year students, so it is never too early to seek out experiential learning opportunities,"

Should I take an unpaid internship?

Many interns face a dilemma when considering which opportunities to apply for or accept.  The problem is many employers offer their candidates a wealth of experience, but nothing else in the way of compensation. 

The consensus among experts interviewed is a belief in the principle of delayed gratification.  If you're financially able to forgo the remuneration, the experience far outweighs the immediate monetary gain. 

According to Scott Mofield of the career center at Duke University, "Unpaid internships can provide great experiences.  An important idea for students to remember is that an internship gives them value to employers because of the opportunity, not because of the salary they are paid.  An internship doesn't hold more or less value over another because it is paid or unpaid.  An internship is most effective for students when they take advantage of the lessons provided and are motivated to do great work."  Translation: concentrate on learning the facets of the field you intend to enter.  The money will come later.

Finding an internship is, much like when you applied to college, a process.  If you are considering applying for a position it is a clear indication that you are motivated.  The next step is to translate that into action.  Most competitive summer internships have February deadlines for all applicants.  Be sure to keep this in mind when you're in the throes of the busy spring semester.  When landing an internship, in the words of famed Roman philosopher Seneca, "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity."