Back in the day, most college students didn’t start thinking seriously about their career and finding a job until their graduation date was in clear sight. If you apply this strategy today, you are already behind in terms of launching a career that is a good fit for you. It’s no secret that internships are a great way to start clarifying your interests, building your network, and landing that plumb job after you walk across that stage.
When is the best time for four-year college students to do one or more internships? There are no right or wrong answers to this question but there are certain pros and cons about your choice of timing.
Freshman Year vs. Senior Year
Although your career interests and your workplace skills might not be that developed as a freshman, a freshman-year (or sophomore-year) internship can be a good place to start weeding out potential major choices and career paths. Even a part-time internship at this stage will help you develop basic workplace skills like managing time, taking initiative, and communicating in a professional manner. The downside to interning early in your college career is that your career interests might be unclear. An internship you’ve committed to can feel interminable if you discover early on that you don’t enjoy this type of work. As a freshman, you also haven’t had a chance to take the upper division courses in your major that can provide you with stronger qualifications and knowledge as you head into an internship. As a result, you might get meatier projects as a junior or senior than you would as a freshman. You are also more likely to receive an offer for permanent employment with the organization, the closer you are to graduation.
Summer vs. Academic Year
Summer internships allow you more freedom, in general, since you have a wider choice of options such as interning part-time or full-time. Being able to intern full-time will give you a clearer sense for what the workplace is really like and will give you more opportunities to take on and complete intensive projects. Student-athletes typically have more availability during summer without extensive practice and travel schedules. Non-credit summer internships can provide more flexibility in terms of geographical options, if you don’t have to be on campus taking courses. More companies offer internships during the summer (in fact some only offer summer internships); however, the flip side of this benefit is that securing a summer internship can be much more competitive.
If you decide to complete an academic year internship, make sure you plan your course schedule carefully to maximize blocks of time when you can be at your internship. Interns rarely get to work on meaningful projects if they are only able to be in the organization a couple of hours here and there. Take advantage of any academic credit available for completing your internship (and if you are in the U.S. on an F-1 visa, keep in mind that you will need to be earning internship credit towards your degree in order to receive authorization to complete an off-campus internship). Use academic year internships to clarify your career direction and build your network to secure a summer internship.
Interning after Graduation
While it might feel like you are not moving on to a “real job,” completing an internship after you have your diploma in hand can be a good way to get your foot in the door with a company that is highly competitive. Many larger and fast-growing companies use internships as a recruitment tool. Post-graduation internships can also allow you to continue to fine-tune your interests without a longer-term commitment. The downside is that most internships don’t offer benefits such as health insurance, which can be a financial burden as you move towards greater financial independence.
Optimal internship timing for you will be based on a variety of factors—academic load, whether you need a paid internship, and your goals and other commitments. It’s never too early to create a plan for when you will complete internships during college. If it makes sense for your situation, intern early and often.
Angela Schmiede is Dean of Academic & Professional Success at Menlo College, a small, private business college located in Silicon Valley. She has over 20 years of experience designing and leading experiential learning programs, and has taught at Vanderbilt and Stanford Universities.