How to Get the Most Out of an Unpaid Internship

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give any college student is to do as many internships as possible –paid or unpaid. They’re the only way to get hands-on experience in your field before you graduate. When I was in college, I did internships at three separate newspapers. All three of the them were unpaid, which meant I had to juggle school, a part-time job and an internship all at once. It was tough, but it was also the best decision I could have possibly made. By the time I graduated, I had a solid resume, letters of recommendation and strong references. I was hired at a job in my field two weeks before I graduated. During this time, some of my other classmates were entering the workforce with only Starbucks or Macy's listed on their resume.

Even as an unpaid intern, it’s important to remember that you’re making your first impression on the people in your field of choice. The contacts you make during your internship can lead to potential job offers in the future. It’s also possible that you could be hired at that company once your internship concludes. While thousands of college students dedicate time to do internship, many undervalue the impact internships can have on their career.

Now that I’m four years out of college, I have the task of hiring two interns to work with me each semester. I've had a mix of fantastic interns and interns who left no real impression. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I’ve observed the characteristics of unpaid interns who progress in the field, and those who don’t.

1. Take Time to Prepare for the Interview

This might seem obvious, but I can’t even tell you how many college students I’ve interviewed who didn’t understand what kind of internship they were applying for. Even if you’re applying for an unpaid internship, take the interview seriously. Do background research on the company or the person who is interviewing you. Even if the company doesn't require a cover letter when applying, send one in advance anyway. Going that extra mile will make a difference. Make sure the employer knows that you're aware of the position you're applying for and that you did your homework before you came in.

2. Show Them You're Passionate

Unpaid internships typically don't require much background experience during the hiring process. So while having a strong resume is a plus, it's usually not a necessity. Most employers look for passion and eagerness to lean in. They want to hire someone who is committed to learning the material and cares about doing a good job.

3. Send a Hand-Written ‘Thank You’ Note

This is a bit old-fashioned, but important. Taking the time to send a hand-written note shows the employer that you value their time and truly appreciated the opportunity to meet with them. When it comes to internships, employers will sometimes set lower standards because they’re hiring college students will minimal experience. Surprise them with your professionalism.

4. Commit to Working At Least Two Days Each Week

This can be difficult when you’re juggling work and school. If you can make it happen, offer to work at your internship as many days as you can. You’ll learn the material faster and it will allow you to have more time to network. Your employer is also more likely to give you bigger tasks if they know you’ll have enough time to complete them.

However, if you commit to working certain days at your internship, it's important that you stick to them. I've had interns ask for the day off because their paying job called them in to work. Although many employers wouldn't penalize an intern for trying to earn money, it can make them seem flaky and unreliable. If you’re going to commit to doing an internship, follow through. Even if your internship isn't paying you, you need to at least pretend that working there is a priority. Your manager at Safeway may want you to work this Tuesday, but your internship could potentially be a step toward your potential dream job.

5. Dress Appropriately and Professionally (Even if the Employees Don’t)

Some employees at the company might wear t-shirts and jeans to work. Even if the company has a casual dress code, hold yourself to a higher standard. You need to make a good impression. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to wear a suit and tie everyday, but you should at least be dressed in business-casual attire. Remember: you still have something to prove. They don’t.

6. Put Your Phone Away

Millennials have a bad reputation for being addicted to technology. Don’t make the rest of us look bad. Put your phone away unless you need it to do your job. You don’t want to be looking at your phone every time your boss glances over at you. Be present.

7. Be Pro-Active and Keep Busy

Never stop asking for things to do. If you’re given a task, complete it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then, tell your supervisor when you’re finished. When I did internships, there weren’t always enough tasks to fill up my time. Some days are slow, but don’t use it as an opportunity to check Facebook or slack off. I once caught one of my interns watching a movie on her computer. I caught a different intern reading a book at his desk after he finished his work. Never do this. If you’re finished with a task and your supervisor doesn’t have anything else for you to do, go see if there’s another department that could use your help.

8. Prove You Actually Want to Be There

The whole point of an internship is to get hands-on experience. When I’m interviewing people for an internship, I pay close attention to whether they’re genuinely interested in the position or if they just want something to put on their resume. Remember that the people you work with might be your references for another job in the near future. Don’t apply for an internship just because you think that’s what you're supposed to do. It wastes everyone’s time. Take advantage of it and learn as much as you can.

9. Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

During your last week on the job, ask your supervisor and coworkers to write you a general letter of recommendation. After all, you've spent countless hours working for free--it's the least they could do. Keep these letters in a personal file until you're ready to start sending out resumes.

Carolyn Copeland is a freelance writer and media professional based in the San Francisco Bay Area. To work with Carolyn, visit carolyncopeland.com.

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