Even If You're Just Fetching Coffee, Summer Internships Pay Off

Unpaid positions provide invaluable experience, impress employers.

A lucky summer intern might find herself playing an active role in a Web site redesign while her equally qualified peer spends the summer fetching coffee for a grumpy boss.

But regardless of the actual work they do, students who have held any internship are more likely than their less-experienced peers to profit from the experience after graduation.

The catch, however, is that a student's desire for a summer internship is not always enough to overcome the hurdles of heavy competition and financial difficulties.

It's no secret that internships are considered critical to success after graduation. In addition to providing valuable experience, internships are deemed essential items on a grad's résumé. After all, internships demonstrate that students have spent time applying all they learned in school to a real-world environment.

"We're finding that it's increasingly important for students to have that kind of hands-on experience to be able to be hired, particularly for the kinds of jobs that employers come to campus recruiting for," said Rebecca Sparrow, director of career services at Ithaca, New York's Cornell University.

And internships can pay off too: Nearly half of employers said they offer higher starting salaries for full-time jobs to recent grads who have an internship under their belt, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Plus there's always the chance that if students make a lasting impression at their internships, they could be offered full-time jobs after graduation. Many employers even rely on internships as a method of recruiting college graduates, according to NACE.

"It's definitely an eye-opener, because you get to really see what it's like to work in the corporate world and just the give-and-take of everyone's job," said Hannah Bang, a senior at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In order to obtain that shining internship for their résumés, however, students actually have to find one and get hired. Sure it sounds obvious, but it's much easier said than done.

Students often flock to major cities such as New York and Los Angeles for the summer seeking their dream gigs at prestigious companies. But these coveted positions are limited and highly competitive. Not to mention that students must apply months in advance for consideration and must have exceptional credentials in order to stand out among the mountains of applications.

Bang, a native Californian, landed an unpaid but highly competitive internship in the marketing department of Kenneth Cole Productions in New York. But the process wasn't easy — she attended a grueling open house for four hours where an estimated 70 people clamored for 10-minute interviews.

Once the lucky few, like Bang, score the internship that could put them on the map, they must figure out how to afford living in these pricey metropolitan areas.

Though some internships offer wages, a stipend or possibly housing, a substantial number of internships provide little or no financial compensation. While these experience-only internships are great for the school year, when many students have room and board built into tuition, they might present a significant obstacle during the summer.

University of California, Berkeley senior Eric Hwang is spending his summer working as an unpaid intern at a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. — a position he was more than happy to accept despite the lack of funds. But that's not to say it's easy. Crashing on a friend's couch for the summer, Hwang admits that living a frugal lifestyle can be tough. "I'm very conscientious of what I buy," he said.

More than half of college students receive some type of financial aid, according to the Department of Education. These students are often forced into a Catch-22 situation: A summer internship will help them when they graduate, but in order to get to graduation, many students have to help pay the school bills.

"There are two groups of students who are particularly hard-hit with these kinds of things," Sparrow said. "One is the students who are on a lot of financial aid who really need to be able to make money over the summer because their financial aids have an expected summer earnings component. So when students return in the fall, their financial-aid package is based on the premise that they're going to come back with a certain amount of money to put toward their own education."

The other students most affected by unpaid internships are those who just barely missed qualifying for financial aid. These families often don't have the extra income to support students while they work as free labor.

The good news is that while some students may have to sacrifice internships in order to make ends meet, there are options. Sparrow recommends what she's dubbed the "buffet summer." Instead of working at an unpaid or low-paying internship full-time, students should try to balance a part-time internship with a more flexible part-time job, such as waiting tables.

Students are also encouraged to seek out external financial aid or scholarships, though this can be difficult, Sparrow warns.

Alternately, some colleges such as Connecticut College and Yale University offer subsidized internships. Through its Praxis program, Smith College provides sophomores or juniors $2,000 stipends for working approved unpaid internships. Reduced amounts of money are granted to qualifying students who earn very little compensation at their internships.

Despite a lack of pay, most students find summer internships rewarding.

"I feel like when you do something that you really want to do, you have to sacrifice, and for me it's the pay," Hwang said. "It's kind of tough, but basically the work I'm doing is what I really want to do, so this is the hit I took."