What to Look for in a First-year Internship
You plan to use these 3 months to figure out some part of yourself—your career choice, preferred workplace environment, or future city to call home. But with anywhere between a few months and a few weeks left before the summer begins, you feel stuck. You do not know what, where, and how you should even begin looking for that internship you want. I’m here to help.
First, make sure you want an internship.
There are many other wonderful, equally enriching alternatives to an internship: study abroad, summer courses, summer programs, working on your own project, volunteering, and traveling, to name a few. I, personally, had an unforgettable study abroad experience this summer in China, in addition to my corporate internship. I also took a psychology class at night! You can truly do anything with this summer.
Okay, so you still want an internship.
The problem is internship application processes for college freshmen are generally very informal and unclear. Potential internships are also usually open first to rising juniors and seniors. This is often because they will be quicker full-time conversions and have more relevant coursework and work experience.
But from one college freshman who finished the process to another who is beginning, you have already figured out how difficult it is. Turn that knowledge into an advantage. Be realistic. Basically, don’t bet all your money (or time) on one company.
The Real Question
Before you even begin your internship search and seek advice on what opportunities are available, ask yourself—what should you be looking for in a first-year internship?
By answering this, you can add clear direction to your search and save an incredible amount of time.
The top things to look for in a first-year internship:
(In order of what you should consider least to most)
- Recognizable name (or lack thereof)
Many college freshmen unfortunately get stuck on this. You might have a few dream companies in mind or been thinking you have to land a gig at the brand names frequently discussed at your college.
But just because your upperclassman friend who you look up to or that one person everyone loves worked somewhere with a brand name their first or second summer, that doesn’t mean you have to also do it.
If you’re confident in what you did during the internship and the impact you made, it will show. You do not need the company name to validate your work.
Now is the time to explore. What my friends and I have discovered is that there are so, so many incredible opportunities that few people look into just because it’s not as “known” or often discussed.
You can set the trend.
- Company size
It matters less than you think. As a college freshman, your best chance at having the most opportunities is applying to a range of companies. So apply to Google if you want but also apply to startups working on products you’re excited about.
No matter the company size, you will gain a different but equally valuable perspective and skill set.
The benefits of working at a smaller company can often be unforeseen. More friends of mine than not ended up having incredible experiences at startups and smaller companies and were able to talk about the really impactful projects they did in their later interviews. Some even realized they preferred working at smaller companies. You are able to try more roles and talk to more upper management.
You can only find out if it is for you by trying it out. Freshman year summer is the perfect time to do so.
- Interaction with other interns and leadership
This can add a lot of value (and fun) to your internship experience.
If there are other interns or at least people around your age at the company who you can become friends with, you will likely feel more comfortable and excited to go to work.
Interaction with company leadership, whether that be division VPs or the startup’s founders, also matters. Talk to previous interns and employees about whether during the internship you would be able to sit in on meetings with your manager or attend company-wide events and conferences.
As a college freshman, these are opportunities to get an inside view of what your future as an employee can truly look like and meet mentors, role models, and leaders in their field.
Absolutely do not take choosing where (as in what city/state/country) you are interning lightly. Your internship location will be incredibly influential in your experience.
What matters is not the exact place but what you want for your summer.
Do you want to be close to the friends you just made in college? Then choose where most of them will be.
Do you want to go where you think you might work in the future? Then look into the cities most known for your industry of choice. Thinking about working abroad in the future? Then try working in a new country!
If you want to be near your family—or save money by staying with them, then choose a place near or in your hometown.
For college freshmen, many choose to stay near their hometowns for several reasons. Some include: 1. Many of their high school friends are also back. 2. Their still growing professional network is concentrated there. 3. Working at a company for the first time is often already a drastic change. Going to and working in a completely new place would make it even more jarring.
Decide what you want to prioritize this summer. No wrong answer.
- Alignment with main career interest and vision for your own future
Speaking of priorities, you can get a head start on a lot of people by figuring out if what you think you are interested in for a career is or is not what you really want. This is the least risky time to test your main career interest, and no better way to find out than to try doing it for 2-3 months.
- Flexibility to explore interests
Let’s face it, you also likely have more than one interest you are looking into. For example, you could love coding but also are interested in product management. Maybe you even have an interest in working in sustainability or social impact.
Try to see if the internships you are looking into offer you the flexibility to try different functions and projects that relate to those interests. Though this can often be determined by your manager, a more formal example are the rotational internships that some companies offer. This allows you to make better use of the limited time you have there and narrow down your interests faster.
Take careful note of the actual responsibilities they want you to handle. You can either find this on the job listing (though these are often purposefully vague), by talking to previous interns in the roles you wish to apply for, or by directly asking during interviews.
The degree of responsibility they plan on giving you provides the clearest insight into how much they trust their interns and plan on investing in your professional and personal growth. Feeling trusted and responsible for real projects makes for a much more rewarding internship experience.
An unpaid internship could be a good experience, but be very careful when looking into them. One of the best ways to ensure the company you are interning for will give you significant responsibility is if they are paying you.
Do all that you can to ensure the internship stereotype of bringing people coffee and filing papers is not your reality. You are still spending one of your 3 college summers there. Make the experience count.
- Team, team, team
The biggest realization many of us have come to during our internships is by far the importance of the team you work with. This is when all that group work that schools have emphasized over the years comes to fruition. After all, you will be spending every weekday with these people.
A good team will make your work as an intern feel valued. Having supportive and welcoming co-workers on your team will allow you to more likely offer your own ideas and have the opportunity to implement them.
Additionally, inevitably during your internship you will need guidance and mentorship. Do not underestimate the importance of this. Being able to turn to your team when you need help just makes for a more productive environment.
If possible, try to speak ahead of time with people who you know will be on your team or in a similar role. Sometimes the people who you will be working with are even the ones who interview you. Use that time to find out if you fit in well with the team culture.
- Applicable skills and experience
This first-year internship can allow you to start developing and implementing skills that you may have been taught in class but never were able to practically apply.
In the end, you want to leave your many weeks at your first-year internship with a result. You want to have made an impact. It does not have to be necessarily on the company or even on the team. You want the internship to have made an impact on yourself—that you have felt like you have truly done and learned something.
That’s what you should really be looking for.
. . .
Remember, ambitious college freshman, don’t get discouraged in your search.
You are already clearly a self-starter and want the best future for yourself if you are looking to intern this first summer. Do not take any non-responses or rejections personally. Anything could have been a factor.