Though the job market has shown marked signs of improvement in recent months—the unemployment rate has dropped from 10.6 percent to 9.2 percent this year—finding a job after college, especially with little to no work experience, remains a daunting task. Many schools have begun steering their students toward internships in recent years, with some even going as far as to require students to complete an internship or equivalent work experience before they can graduate.
"If a new graduate wishes to attain a job, he or she really needs to display relevant work experience," says Carolyn Corcoran, assistant director of Misericordia University's career development center. "The students who still have not landed a job—or sometimes even an interview—six months to a year after graduation are usually those who did not do an internship or neglected to work at a summer job that was relevant to their major during their time in college."
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Only 30.7 percent of graduating seniors without internship experience received a job offer after graduation compared to 42.3 percent among those with internships, according to a 2010 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Interns got higher salary offers, too—former interns were offered a median $45,301 salary compared to $34,601 among non-interns.
But an internship alone isn't enough to produce the best results, experts say. "First and foremost, the student should be seeking the most relevant, interesting, and challenging internship possible, not something that is simply convenient," says Corcoran.
Use these guidelines to help you find an internship that will pay off once you hit the job market:
1. It's not about the money. Though you may have relished making $100 a shift as a waiter in summers past, or are looking for an internship that pays $20 an hour, any short-term financial benefit pales in comparison to the long-term financial and professional gains that the best internships lead to, experts say.
Recent graduates agree, but caution against choosing a firm with a revolving door of unpaid interns. "Don't be above accepting an unpaid position. In the long run, what's a few months without compensation?" says Elysia Myers, a University of Colorado—Boulder graduate who turned her unpaid internship into a full-time position at a public relations firm last year. "With that said, the trick is to find a company that truly wants to expand, as opposed to just cycle through unpaid interns."
[Read more about the benefits of internships.]
2. Grunt work is OK in moderation. Nearly every internship will have its fair share of menial tasks. Whether it's putting together expense reports, filing papers, or making lunch runs for the office staff, most interns will occasionally find themselves doing tasks they don't relish, says Michael True, director of the internship center at Messiah College.
However, he notes, accepting an internship where the bulk of your time is spent by the coffee maker is not a wise decision, and students should look elsewhere. "Good internships are designed to be so much more," he says.
3. You must take initiative. While employers understand interns are young and inexperienced, don't use this as an excuse to procrastinate. Employers will help you along the way, but are most impressed by interns that dive into projects and other tasks without having to be nudged.
The best interns "solve problems or tasks on their own without having to be told a number of times on what to do," says Aaron Moore, assistant professor of journalism at Rider University. "Employers see college students as needing too much hand holding; those who don't need their hands held do the best and stand apart."
[Learn about the brighter job outlook for the class of 2011.]
4. Don't be seduced by a big name. Oftentimes, a position at a prominent firm sounds enticing and students will gladly accept it without learning more about what will be expected of them. The name on the front of the building shouldn't be the sole reason you decide to work somewhere, experts say. Many large firms do provide quality internships, but be sure to verify what your role will be before you take the position.