How to Maximize the Value of Your Summer Internship

In many cases, internships have become as important as your college degree when it comes to getting a job after graduation. Employers really care about what kind of practical experience you've gained and internships are a great way to learn and demonstrate what you can bring to a new job.

It's critical that you make your internship experiences as valuable as possible. Research for my book Graduate to a Great Job showed three things that college students and new grads do to maximize the value of their internships.

1. Take Charge Of Your Learning

There’s a fine line between being eager to learn and being seen as obnoxious or high maintenance by your busy boss. Pablo recalls how he asserted himself:

"After my junior year at Union College, I landed an internship with a small hedge fund in New Jersey. On my first day, the portfolio manager handed me a laptop and suggested I work in an empty room nearby. But the firm’s Bloomberg terminal near the research staff was clearly where the action was. So I planted myself there. Before long it became my desk, and the director of research was asking me to use the terminal to research stocks and build financial models. I learned more in that 10 weeks than in all of college about how the investment industry works."

An internship provides you with unique access and an opportunity to learn while you are temporarily part of an organization. Often, your sponsor will be busy and unsure about how much work you can handle. If you’re not getting useful tasks, be politely aggressive and imaginative in suggesting how you might help the organization improve things. You may even have to bend some rules to find opportunities to take on more challenging tasks. The easiest way to do this is to come early or stay late, making it clear you’re eager to take on extra assignments.

2. Use Your Internship to Expand Your Job Search Network

As soon as you start an internship, begin developing a hit list of people in the company you want to talk to. You can approach virtually anyone there for an informational interview. “Hi, I’m an intern in sales this month, and I’d like to learn how you became marketing director. Could we meet to talk about that and I’d like to get your advice on ...(whatever you want to learn about).” Bring questions to each meeting. It shows you’re serious and you value their time.

Your internship gives you immediate, legitimate access to a bunch of smart people you can learn from. You need to take full advantage of this access while spending time there. These are people you may come back to in the future when you start a full-fledged job search.

If you don’t know what an “informational interview” is, or how to conduct one, contact your school’s career services office and ask. You must learn how to do these well.

3. Never, Never Leave an Internship Without a Solid Recommendation

You always want to leave an internship with a sparkling recommendation and the possibility of a reference. In some cases, you will want to immediately add this recommendation to your LinkedIn profile.

When Pablo completed his summer internship with a small hedge fund, the CEO gave him a very nice letter of recommendation. Returning to school for senior year, he immediately sent copies of the letter to his growing network with a cover note saying, “Here’s what I’ve done this summer. Will you please keep me in mind if you hear of opportunities of job openings where I could be a potential candidate?”

Every internship is an audition. Like it or not, you are always being evaluated. Are you a hard worker? Do you learn fast? Are you a fun colleague? Would we want you in this organization full time? Whether your boss offers you a job or not, these are questions she or he must answer when deciding what kind of recommendation to give you. This is an assignment you definitely want to ace.