At a variety of conferences and meetings of career centers over the past few years, colleges and universities have expressed their plans to invest in new internship programs and increase the sizes of the programs they offer. At higher education institutions across the country, students are being encouraged to pursue internships to build experience, develop professional networks, and access recruiting pipelines.
Many organizations that host college interns look first to their internship programs when seeking entry-level hires, yet students often wonder how valuable their internship experiences really are in relation to their goals of post-graduate employment or graduate school admission. Employers, too, may wonder how to derive more value from their internship programs.
Recent research from Mount Holyoke College, with support from the National Association of Colleges and Employers Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition, has yielded some key findings that can help interns and organizations alike get better results from their internship experiences.
What Interns, Employers, and Recruiters Should Know About Internships
A research team (of which I was a part) at Mount Holyoke College analyzed data on three consecutive graduating classes. The study also examined whether Mount Holyoke’s implementation of a universal internship funding program had increased student access to internships. Because so many Mount Holyoke students complete internships, the college had comprehensive data available on internship participation, making it a good site from which to examine questions related to internship participation and post-graduate outcomes for students.
What we learned from the study can provide valuable lessons for interns, recruiters, and supervisors of interns alike. For example, though the optimal number of internships varies according to individual students’ goals, we found that students who completed two or more internships were more likely than those with one internship to be employed or in graduate school six months after graduation.
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Other lessons for career-minded college students and the schools they attend include:
1. Prioritize Academic Performance
Academic strength, as indicated by a high GPA, significantly predicted a positive career outcome, defined as “being employed or in graduate school rather than seeking employment six months after graduation.” Having a high GPA increased the odds of employment more than nine times when compared with having a low GPA, and students with high GPAs were exponentially more likely than those with low GPAs to matriculate in graduate school within six months of graduation.
2. Internships Matter
Completing a higher total number of internships increased the odds of a positive career outcome, which underlines the importance of using time in college intentionally to build experience and engage in multiple internships.
3. Intentional Interventions Can Increase Student Access to Internship Opportunities
At Mount Holyoke, universal funding improved student access to internships. This is evidenced by a decline in the percentage of students who never completed an internship, down from 25 percent before universal funding to 19.6 percent one year after the move to a universal system. Following the shift to universal funding, significant differences between the GPAs of students who participated in internships and those who did not disappeared. Differences in financial need levels between students who participated and those who never participated also decreased.
Key Takeaways for Recruiters and Employers
Meanwhile, those who recruit and supervise interns can also walk away from this study with further guidance on getting the most from their programs.
For example, did you know your interns may have untapped resources that could support their performance at your organization? At many colleges and universities, internship preparation is available to students before they depart campus and career advisors are available throughout the internship to consult with students on how they can make the most of their experiences. These resources can reinforce the supervision and coaching provided by your organization. Your company should consider how it might leverage these resources to derive higher value from its internship program.
Consider also whether you are accessing the insights available from interns’ experiences. Many students consider a variety of opportunities before selecting an internship, and they often participate in multiple internships over time. This puts interns in a great position to share insights into which components of an internship, organization, or work environment resonated with them and which did not. One strategy for collecting these insights is to survey each of your interns for feedback on what drove them to choose your internship, what may have confused or challenged them about the experience, and any other input they may have.
On a final note, recruiters should consider the relationships (or lack thereof) that they have with nearby colleges and university career centers. Career centers are typically happy to hear from recruiters interested in making connections. Many campus career centers work actively with hundreds of candidates each year, and they can be great resources for information about student trends, the messages that resonate with current and future job seekers, and other vital insights into the next wave of the workforce.
Liz Lierman is executive director of the Career Development Center at Mount Holyoke College.