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Tips for Successful College Internships

Students: Thinking about doing an internship this year? Cool! Internships are a great way to see your chosen field up close and personal. They often introduce people to both plusses and minuses in the work that an outsider never sees. Best yet, they often introduce students to the people who can help them on their way.

Employers: Thinking of starting an internship program? Terrific! Young interns often add energy and creativity to a work site. Their questions and observations can energize staff and get people to think critically about what they do and why. Sometimes internships are a great way to recruit good people once they graduate. Over the course of a semester, you are able to get to know a student and what she or he can do. If a student is promising, you can help her or him grow into skills you need. Perhaps most gratifying, training interns is an important contribution to the future of your field.

It’s a cooperative effort. An internship is not quite school and not quite a job. The student is there to learn by getting some hands-on experience. Unlike school, the emphasis isn’t on reading and thinking about a career but on actually trying it on for size. The sponsor may get some extra help by having another pair of eyes and hands at the workplace but the company has to remember that the student is just that, a student, not an employee. For an internship to be successful, both parties have to work at making it a mutually productive learning experience.

For the Employer

A good internship is an educational experience for the student. An internship is not free (or reduced cost) labor for the sponsor or a way to get work done that the regular employees don’t like to do or can’t get around to. In fact, a good internship requires some extra work on the sponsor’s part: Students need regular guidance and mentoring. Their schools often require a meeting or two each semester. There is paperwork to be done.

It’s important to remember that if the student is getting college credit for the experience, he or she has paid a substantial amount of money for the privilege of working with you. You may be getting some help you don’t have to pay for. But the intern has paid his or her school to make an internship an official part of his or her education.

If you want your end of the bargain to work well, here are some tips from successful internship sites that take on students year after year:

  • Assign a supervisor. Interns need someone who will meet regularly with them (at least once a week) to provide guidance and answer questions.
  • Think carefully about learning objectives and the experiences that will help the intern meet those objectives. It’s not sufficient to tell a student, “Just go help out so and so.” A written “job” description makes goals, expectations, and roles clear for all involved.
  • Provide your interns with a careful orientation. It’s often helpful for interns to participate in the same new employee orientation that is required of anyone else entering the company. If you don’t have such a standard program, it’s important to formally go over company policies and safety rules. A few days to “shadow” and observe before starting actual work is a practical way to help an intern ease in.
  • Whenever possible, provide breadth as well as depth. Interns are exploring your field. It’s important for them to see beyond a specific program, department, agency, or particular task. They need to get some exposure to the range of roles and responsibilities in the organization and some help understanding the whole picture.
  • Never ask a student to do something that makes him or her uncomfortable without adequate training and supports. Yes, there are unpleasant or difficult aspects to every job, but a student shouldn’t be expected to do a challenging task without support until he or she is confident. Even then, risky or uncomfortable jobs should be done under the watchful eye of an employee.
  • Similarly, it is unfair to ask an intern to do a job that is unrelated to the internship just because no one has had the time to do it and you’d like it done. You may need the garage cleaned but this isn’t something that will further the intern’s education.
  • Follow the rubric of “observe, assist, do under supervision” and you will be much happier with student performance. Students need mentoring and can’t be expected to jump right in as you might expect a new employee to do.
  • Never put interns in a legally vulnerable position. Interns shouldn’t be asked to do tasks for which there might be legal ramifications later. They should not be asked to use their own cars for company business (other than their own commute) unless they are specifically added to the company insurance policy. Most important, interns should never be wholly responsible for the welfare of a vulnerable person who is a client of your company.
  • Schedule a formal debriefing at the end of the term to help the student sum up the experience and to give yourself useful feedback.
  • Do the paperwork and do it in a timely way. The student’s ability to get needed credits depends on it. In addition, the sponsoring college internship office wants to know what went well and what didn’t so they can continually improve the opportunities for their students.
Tips for Successful College Internships

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Tips for Successful College Internships. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.