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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.

For the Student

Remember that you are at the site at the tolerance of the sponsor. Sponsors don’t have to take on interns. They generally do it out of commitment to their fields and a desire to be helpful. If they are taking their role seriously, you are extra work for them.

If you want your end of the bargain to work well, here are some tips from students who came away from their internships with good experience, good relationships, and good recommendations:

  • Treat the internship as seriously as you would any job. Show up on time. Dress appropriately and neatly. Respect the rules. Do whatever is assigned with enthusiasm and a commitment to excellence.
  • Do your homework. Be an active, engaged learner. Don’t wait to be fed information. Read the company annual report and web site. Read up on the field. Then ask thoughtful questions.
  • Take direction. You may think you know better. At least 99.9 percent of the time you don’t. Your sponsor sees a larger picture than you do. If you have suggestions, phrase them as a question, not as a criticism. Say, “What led you to decide to do the job this way?” not “It would be better if you did it my way.” If you think you have an innovative idea, talk privately with your supervisor about it.
  • Don’t go it alone. If you don’t know what to do next or if you are stuck, it’s better to ask than to assume. Put any ego that may be hanging around on the shelf. It’s far better to look a little dumb than to make an expensive mistake or to make extra work for someone else.
  • If you are uncomfortable with anything you are asked to do, ask to speak privately to your supervisor about it. If you can’t resolve it, involve your student internship office.
  • Remember that manners do count in the work world, especially if you are working with people who are considerably older than you are. Take the time to write a thoughtful thank-you note to your supervisor and the company CEO at the end of the term.
  • Do the paperwork and do it in a timely way. Getting your college credits depends on it. Your college internship office wants to know what went well and what didn’t so they can continually improve the opportunities for other students.


For a student, success in an internship can be measured in many ways. For some it is affirmation that “Yes. This is the field of my dreams.” For some, it is the discovery of new and even more interesting applications for a major. For still others, it is the realization that “No. This really isn’t for me and I’m glad I found out in time to go in another direction.” All of these outcomes are successes. In each case, the student is getting information that will help with career decisions.

For a sponsor, success is less tangible, but no less important. Success is the satisfaction of having shared something that is important to you with an interested young person. Success is knowing you have helped someone grow and make an important decision. Success is having built a mentoring relationship that sometimes pays off with the student coming back to work with you. Success is bridging the present with the future.

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 February 22, 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.