Starting college? Think about internships now
Work and Learning

Starting college? Think about internships now

The problem with most college commencement speeches is that they come too late. By the time graduates cross the stage, the experience is over. What students — even those in their first year — really need is a commencement-style dollop of wisdom while there’s still time to make big choices.

And so, without academic regalia or the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” here’s a piece of pre-graduation advice:

Start looking for an internship — today. Make sure you’re using all the resources of your school to help. And ideally look for an internship that pays, since you deserve to be compensated, even if it’s modestly, for your work.

It’s not the only good advice students will hear this fall, of course. You should also heed the wise words of others: Go to class, get lots of sleep, get to know the professors. All that matters, especially in the complicated lives of today’s students, who are frequently holding down jobs, leading families, and returning to school as adults.

But an internship, now more than ever, is critical. Even though education after high school is critical and higher levels of education typically translate into better careers, a degree alone won’t cut it.

A graduate today must stand out from the crowd. Many potential employers are skeptical: While nearly 90 percent of college seniors in one study said they have the professionalism and the work ethic to succeed, fewer than half of employers agreed.

Students must turn that perception around, one job interview at a time. And a record of good internships or meaningful part-time work can impress the people who make hiring decisions.

It’s important to start looking, even in that first year of college. And don’t wait until spring when everyone else is looking. Start now: You’ll be at the head of the line, and you’ll get extra points from employers, who’ll be impressed with your hustle. That means getting out to visit with people for informational interviews and to talk about their summer internship programs.

You can start doing this during fall semester breaks, when school is off for the holidays, and during spring break. Here’s what an internship campaign might look like:

Do your homework — Find out what places are doing interesting things in your field. Who’s in charge? What are their problems and opportunities? Do they pay their interns? Collect these in a file that you can use as your database of contacts. Never visit a company or organization without knowing a little of its history. You don’t have to know the whole story but knowing even a little shows that you’re serious. Be sure to read the group’s webpage or LinkedIn profiles of its executives. Notice their backgrounds and how they got started.

Communicate — Reach out to people in your field by email with carefully written requests to meet. Be sure to take advantage of the career services available at your school. Fewer than one in five undergraduates ask for job-hunting advice from their career centers, a report last year found.

Know yourself — Be able to talk about how you can help, what you want to learn and what you’ve done with the opportunities you’ve had so far. But mostly, listen. Most of the people you’ll meet will want to help a student who is serious.

Campaign — If this sounds like a campaign, it is. The more conversations you have, the more confident you will feel. Look at the school’s academic calendar, find a break in the schedule, and target those days for visits to potential employers. Compose an email request to talk about the industry, where it’s headed, and the kind of skills newcomers should have.

Will all of this guarantee you an internship? No, but it can make a big difference — and it can help make sure that you have choices, instead of just one opportunity. You want to be paid for the work you do, for example, and a good networking campaign raises the chances you’ll find an opportunity like that. This is a controversial notion for some people. But Lumina pays its interns and more companies should, so opportunity is not just available to those who can afford to work for free.

I speak from experience here, as someone who benefitted from internships at a Washington, D.C., magazine and with a publishing organization. Those opportunities helped bring to life the lessons of the classroom and set the stage for later successes.

Lumina is doing more work to understand the role of college work experiences, but we already we know this: Your chances of success go up a lot if you get started early. Think of it as the beginning of your career. And in this like so many areas, the harder you work, the better off you’ll be.

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