7 Ways to Get the Most Out of an Internship

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On Monday, thousands of college students, recent grads and those simply looking for work experience will begin internships en masse across the country. Knowing the right moves to make as an intern could mean the difference between a job and the unemployment line.

According to a new study by Millennial Branding (founded by TIME Moneyland columnist Dan Schawbel) and Experience Inc., 91% of employers think students should have at least one or two internships before they graduate. So even as unpaid internships have increasingly come under fire, employers clearly favor job-seekers who already have some workplace experience.

All internships may look equal on your resume, but what you get out of them (which may include future employment) is what really matters. So we asked someone who’s been through a few internships herself. Actually, 15 internships.

(MORE: The Beginning of the End of the Unpaid Internship)

Lauren Berger, the self-proclaimed Intern Queen (who performed 15 internships in four years) and author of All Work, No Pay, gave us tips on everything from looking for an internship to the initial interview to the best way to land a job afterwards.

1. How to Find the Right Internship

It may seem completely overwhelming just choosing which internships to apply for, but a good place to start is your campus’s career center. “Every school has a career center, and it’s their job to build relationships for you,” says Berger. Your college’s career advisers will help you network and can reach out to companies on your behalf. But there are also a number of helpful sites with extensive internship listings, including Berger’s own internqueen.com, internships.com and MonsterCollege. Don’t take any internship that comes your way just so you can fill up your resume. Make sure it’s something you’re interested in and along a career path you’re working toward.

2. Ask Questions

Once you’ve applied for an internship, the interview’s next. While the interviewee will clearly be the one asking most of the questions, you should also ask several of your own: What’s a typical day like at the company? What will your tasks and responsibilities be? What are the hours like? “Employers should have clear answers for the intern,” says Berger. “If the employer seems confused or gives very vague or ambiguous answers, that should raise red flags about the internship.”

3. Know Your Rights

Over the last few months, three companies have been sued over unpaid internships. So it’s important to know which are legal and which aren’t. Berger says there are certain buzzwords that should raise a future intern’s eyebrows, especially the words “sales” or “commission.” Unpaid interns shouldn’t be doing anything that directly affects the revenue of a business. If so, it may violate federal law.

4. Seek Out a Mentor

Many internships have mentor programs built in, and you’re likely to get much more out of it if you’re assigned one. Plus, you’ll make a good connection that could pay off later. But after about two weeks, set your sights even higher. Berger suggests asking the internship coordinator for permission to reach out to an executive at the company to ask them for 5 or 10 minutes out of their day to speak about how they got started. “Don’t be intimidated,” says Berger. “Hopefully, at the end of the meeting, they’re going to say, ‘Stay in touch.’ Those are the magic words.”

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5. Evaluate Your Internship at the Halfway Point

You’ve made it to halftime. Now’s when you need to assess how things are going. Are you getting what you want out of the internship? What have you accomplished so far? What projects could you tackle in the time left? “If there are things you want to do, e-mail your coordinator and just ask them,” Berger says. “But be formal and polite whenever you’re requesting something.”

6. So … Can I Have Job?

Don’t say that. Instead, about two weeks before your internship’s up, sit down with your coordinator or mentor. “Don’t put them on the spot,” Berger says. “But politely ask them for advice. I tell students to take the pressure off of thinking the internship will turn into a job. An internship doesn’t guarantee that you’ll work at the company afterwards. What you need to do is leverage your contacts and stay in touch with them.” Also, if you’re looking for a letter of recommendation, this is the time to ask.

7. Get Out the Pen and Paper

After it’s all over, do two things: Send a thank you e-mail and a hand-written note. Why hand-written? “It shows attention to detail,” Berger says. “Yes, it’s old-fashioned, but it’s nice to get a personal letter from a student.” One simple letter could mean the difference between getting a job and remaining a job-seeker.

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