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Tips for Internships and Co-ops

October 21, 2016

Katrina Dunlap

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” – Anonymous

“If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude.” – Jesse Jackson

My very first internship experience was for a non-profit organization, based in New York City, called The Humpty Dumpty Institute. Yes…that’s the name, The Humpty Dumpty Institute! This is a non-profit group that partners with U.S. Congress, the United Nations, U.S. Department of State and a host of other non-governmental organizations to remove landmines and improve lives in war-torn, developing nations. In this role, I maintained a database of congressional representatives and staff, and provided content for their website. This was the best unpaid internship I’ve ever had because it gave me a real sense of purpose that I was part of something bigger than myself. Moreover, the experience afforded me the opportunity to demonstrate my research skills and exposed me to international issues and government relations which have seared my careers interests for many years that followed.

In a 2016 Internship & Co-op Survey that collected responses from almost 300 organizations and across 20 industries, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that “employers begin recruiting interns eight months before their start date; for co-ops [cooperative education programs], this window is six months.”[i] It is never too early to start thinking about applying for these opportunities for next summer.

It is never too early to start thinking about applying for these opportunities for next summer.

While you are bogged down with mid-term exams and papers, take time to consider and plan out your approach for landing the right internship (a one-time work or service experience)[ii] or co-op (multiple periods of work experiences)[iii] and make the most of it. Whether paid or unpaid, it has been widely accepted that graduate students have leveraged their experience resulting in acquiring future employment opportunities and expanding their professional and academic networks. Here are six tips to consider before, during and after your internship or co-op:

Choose wisely. The summer months can fly by. Don’t waste time on an internship or co-op that lacks relevance to your career aspirations. Typically, the host company or organization has a listing of past and current interns whom you could connect with and inquire about their experiences. A good recommendation would help you choose the right company or program.

Act accordingly. So it’s your first day on the job. Be mindful that from the moment you walk through the door, you are a being evaluated by your peers and supervisor. Adhere to company policies regarding sick leave, dress code and punctuality. I recall my college advisor at North Carolina Central University saying, “To be late is to be absent. To be on time is to be late. To be early is to be on time.” So make sure you arrive early and ready to contribute to the goal of the organization.

Know how to network. Now that you are in the office space, you have the opportunity to meet senior staff and leadership. Make the first move to introduce yourself to senior executives. A common misperception is that the “higher ups” don’t have time to meet with you. While this might be true in some cases, you would be surprised at how others will take the opportunity to get to know interns and who value the work that you do.

Inquire often. To be inquisitive is to demonstrate that you are thoughtful, engaged and interested in the work of your organization. Learn something new each day by asking questions regarding tasks, expectations and company culture. When employers hire interns, often there is an acknowledgement they are investing in someone who doesn’t know everything but in fact can demonstrate his or her value to the organization through their unique skill sets, ability to learn quickly and be absorbent of information.

Maintain key objectives.  To make the most out of your experience, keep in mind what you intend to get out of it. Perhaps it is a new skill set or a more sophisticated approach to problem-solving. This is where you build your resume. Stay on track with key objectives for your internship or co-op by meeting with an advisor and supervisor on a regular basis.    

Be helpful. When the opportunity presents itself to volunteer to assist or take the lead on a project, take it! You show initiative and that you are a risk-taker when you offer your time to perform a task that might be outside of your comfort zone. Use the opportunity to gain an unanticipated skill set or professional contact that may help you in future endeavors.

Keep in touch. Nowadays, students take for granted the purpose and impact of a thank you note and maintaining communication with former employers. While you are not expected to call or write every day, a casual email from time to time let’s your employer or program director know that your time spent was appreciated. The long-term benefit is that you are not forgotten when companies are seeking permanent hires.

While these tips are important, they are not exhaustive. Talk to your peers, past supervisors and professors for guidance on what internship or co-op experiences might yield the greatest benefit to you and your career aspirations. As Mason students, we have access to many internship and job search tools through University Career Services and through career services offices housed within specific academic units. These offices also maintain resources to help you improve your resume and to help you prepare for a career fair on campus. Take advantage of available resources and watch the many doors that will open before you!


[i] National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2016 Internship and Co-op Survey Report. Bethlehem, PA. Accessed on 12 October 2016. http://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/content/static-assets/downloads/executive-summary/2016-internship-co-op-survey-executive-summary.pdf

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.


Edited: Andrew Quillen, 04/11/2018


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