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Internships – we have all had good ones and bad ones and if you are yet to experience one then here are a few words of wisdom to help you make the most out of those unpaid hours.

The first thing you have to do when looking for an internship is research.

Yes, big fancy companies do look impressive on your résumé but the point of an internship is to get experience in your chosen field and make connections. If you get an internship with the biggest company in town and all they get you to do is fetch coffee and answer the phone then it’s going to be a huge waste of your time. And more than likely, everyone in that industry – including your future employer – is going to know it.

Before you approach a company about an internship, do your research. Ask students in your department if they have interned there or ask your professors. We all know the web is a valuable tool when it comes to research so do your homework about the company thoroughly. They may even have information online in regards to what they get their interns to do. And if all else fails, they most likely have someone responsible for recruiting interns so a quick phone call to them won’t hurt to inquire what exactly would be required of you.

Most companies who take on interns will want to interview candidates. One you have done research on a company and decided the internship will challenge you and you have reached the interview stage, make sure you prepare some questions to take along with you. It is very important to keep organized during this process and to recognize leadership roles. Perhaps a masters of organizational leadership is something to consider.

The person interviewing you will ask all sorts of questions regarding your professional life and activities at school and when they are finished they will most likely open the questions up to you. If they don’t, this would be a good time to say, “Before we conclude I have a few questions for you.” They will appreciate that you are an interested and active candidate. And feel free to take a printed list of questions with you so you don’t forget anything. This is perfectly acceptable. But no scribblings on a napkin. Make sure you look professional at all times.

Some good questions to ask include:

  • What will be my responsibilities for each day?
  • What are some of the things I will learn throughout the duration of my internship?
  • Once I have completed my internship will you or my supervisor be able to give me a performance review and a written letter of reference?

It is also important to include some questions specific to your field. If you are interning at a magazine and interested in a career in writing ask:

  • Will I be able to pitch stories for publication?
  • Can I contribute to your blog?

Or if you are interested in a career in sales ask:

  • Can I please shadow some of your reps on sales calls?

You get the drift.

The main thing to keep in mind with an internship is that it should be a mutually beneficial relationship. You and the employer should both get something out of it. You don’t want to waste your time fetching coffee, answering calls and making posts on Twitter and Facebook all day.

Once your internship has begun and if the things they promised you are not materializing, speak up. If you asked the right questions at your interview and made it known you want to gain valuable knowledge and experience in your field, then you should have no problems.

Tread carefully though and handle the situation delicately. Don’t barge into the CEOs office and demand why you are fetching coffee and not making sales calls. Ask the person you originally interviewed with if you could talk in private and then calmly outline that you wanted to intern with their company because it was the one that you felt offered the most opportunities for hands on experience and to learn more about your chosen career field. You want the person to know you are serious about starting a career in their profession, you have the capabilities an you are willing to work.

Remember, make your internship experience a positive one and make sure you and the employer both get something out of it.

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