Back when we were all hooked on The Hills (you know you were!), we were all jealous of Lauren Conrad’s internship at Teen Vogue.
If you were naive like me, you believed we were getting a glimpse into a real-life, grown-up internship; obviously all internships are part-time gigs that involve exciting travel, invites to swanky events, and a paycheck that can fund plenty of nights out in the city… right?
Fast forward to college. Far from what was depicted on The Hills, we now know that internships often involve a competitive application process, rarely come with a paycheck, and are nowhere near as glamorous as Lauren’s dream internship at Teen Vogue.
Leave it to reality TV to depict anything but reality.
As it turns out, internships are actually anything but straightforward. From the internship search, to landing the internship, to making the most of it, and let’s be totally honest, affording an unpaid internship — it’s a long and winding road.
As a veteran of the process, I have a few tips to share from each stage of internships:
1. Finding an internship.
Depending on your field, there are often a number of for-credit, unpaid or maybe even paid internships available in your city, although you may find yourself traveling across the country or even to the other side of the globe to get that all-important work experience.
The best resource for finding the perfect internship for you is your college career advisor. It’s their job to stay up-to-date on all the opportunities out there. An advisor can also help polish your résumé, cover letter and interviewing skills to give you a great shot at getting the internship.
If you don’t have a worthwhile advisor, try reaching out to professors in your major. They likely already have ins all over campus and your city, so if you’ve built a good rapport with them, they’re likely to recommend you for open positions.
If you’re not in school or your university does not have a career center, then other resources include internships.com or internmatch.com.
2. Making the most of your internship.
It’s not enough to have “Legislative Intern” on your résumé if you failed to come out of the experience with marketable skills and a good reference or two.
Here are a couple things you can do to make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience:
1. Don’t arrive with the attitude that you’re above certain types of work. There’s a reason the stereotypical intern is one who spends their day juggling unreasonably complicated coffee orders. Hint: it’s because that’s what a lot of internships consist of, at least until you’ve paid your dues. If you maintain a positive attitude while performing menial tasks, though, you’ll likely get more interesting jobs eventually.
2. Dress the part. Make sure you have a few important staples for your first few days, but it’s best to do most of your shopping after you’ve had a chance to check out what the staff are wearing. No need to break the bank for internship duds, though; resale shops often have plenty of business casual selections.
Extra: Your Professional Wardrobe
3. Network! Treat everyone you meet–from the cleaning crew to the CEO–with respect. Everyone from the higher-ups to your fellow interns can be a great source for career advice and for finding out about other career-enhancing opportunities later on. You never know who might be able to help you get a job after graduation or write you a letter of recommendation.
More tips: 7 Ways to Be Better at Networking
4. Be a sponge. Literally, absorb information, experience, and knowledge from everyone around you. As an intern, you’re basically in the prime place to learn the ins and outs of the industry. You get to see everyone’s job, who gets along with whom, who knows what, who knows whom — take it all in and use it to your advantage.
3. Affording an unpaid internship.
The fact that many internships are unpaid makes it difficult or impossible for low-to middle-income students to afford them. When you’re barely able to pay rent and stock your fridge, it’s impossible to justify spending 12 or more hours per week working for free when you could be raking in at least $7.25 per hour flipping burgers.
Unfortunately, unpaid internships perpetuate socioeconomic divisions by professionally disadvantaging students who simply can’t take these unpaid opportunities.
If you’ve been offered an unpaid internship but don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet, there are a few options open to you:
1. Ask about a stipend. Many universities offer scholarships or stipends for students who are doing unpaid internships. Talk to your advisor to find out what’s available.
2. Look for scholarships. You can search for scholarships, grants or fellowships online; there are many organizations out there that give awards based on a specific field of study, merit or need.
3. Longevity and value. If you have already been interning for a year or more and have proven that you’re worth keeping around, it’s a good idea to be honest with your boss about your situation. They might be willing to work out a plan to start paying you for your valuable contributions to the office.
Don’t sweat it if it just doesn’t work out. If you’re spending your college years behind a coffee counter instead of at Teen Vogue, you’re still gaining essential interpersonal, customer service, and time-management skills. Treat your job–no matter how menial–with as much respect and responsibility as you would treat an internship on Capitol Hill. This includes staying positive, dressing professionally and treating everyone you meet with respect.
Whether you’re able to take an unpaid internship or if you have to spend your summer bagging groceries, you’ll be gaining important work experience that will pay off in the long run if you make the most of the experience.
In the wise words of Conan O’Brien, “If you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen”.