How to Make the Most Out of Internships

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There’s no arguing that internships are critical preparation for a successful post-graduation job search. In fact, many firms look for students who have held multiple internships, in addition to a degree. A new report from found that 60% of students feel that internships are now mandatory. And half of the entire 2011 graduating class had held at least one internship — and almost half of those positons were unpaid.

There has recently been some debate over the issue of unpaid internships. Columnist Jean Chatzky, for example, has argued that students should not accept unpaid internships because, among other reasons, they have deep hidden costs for students. She notes, in addition, that paid interns tend to spend more time on professional activities, while unpaid interns are more likely to be involved in clerical ones. And she points out that companies hire more paid internships than unpaid ones.

Despite that evidence, however, many students feel pressured to accept unpaid positions. Here are some ways they can at least make sure they get the maximum value from the experience.

1. Go above and beyond. Whether your internship is full time or not, always try to expand your role to the extent possible. You want to leave that internship with a series of accomplishments that will support your job search. Find ways to add value to projects that you aren’t part of. I had an internship in operations back in college but saw an opportunity to develop marketing brochures for clients, so I spoke up and diversified my role. You need to look for opportunities because they typically won’t just come to you. By doing this, you will establish trust with your employer and they, in turn, will be more inclined to give you new opportunities that can further enhance your resume.

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2. Ask for feedback. The more feedback you can gather early in your career, the better you will be at later stages when more is expected of you. Ask questions such as “What are you looking for in a new hire?” and “What can I do to improve?” so that your employer will see that you care and be invested in you. By gathering feedback, you’ll understand what it takes to get a job with a company when you graduate.

3. Build your network. During work hours, go to lunch with your co-workers and meet other employees through them so you can expand your network. The more people that know you, the better chance you’ll have at securing a full-time job when you graduate. Also,  spend time at industry networking events so that you can connect with new people, while showing your company that you’re constantly learning, even outside of the internship.

4. Get a recommendation. Before you leave your internship, make sure you ask for a written endorsement from your manager. The best way to do this is to have them write a recommendation of your work on LinkedIn. This way, the recommendation will be visible to their network as well as yours. It’s rare to find a student who asks for recommendations. But what employers say about you can have a lasting effect on your career.

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5. Turn your internship into a job. Don’t leave your company without asking if there are any job openings and if you can be considered. If you’ve exceeded expectations and they can afford you, you have a good chance at getting a job. Even if there are no positions available, your interest will make you top-of-mind when a position opens in the future.

Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, LLC, a full-service personal branding agency. Dan is the author of Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future, the founder of the Personal Branding Blog, and publisher of Personal Branding Magazine.