Landing an internship is a major undertaking. It requires you to track down and research internship opportunities, write a resume and tailor it to each position you apply for, compose numerous cover letters and, if all goes well, prepare for and attend several interviews. If you receive one or more offers, you must then evaluate what kind of experience each one is likely to offer you and how much those experiences will help you after graduation.

Finally, if your top choice happens to be unpaid and you're struggling to pay for college, there's the question of whether sacrificing a summer's or semester's worth of income at a paid, but less-relevant, job is worth the opportunity the internship offers. Here are some insights from several experts to help you make these difficult decisions.

Deciding Whether an Internship Is Worthwhile
Broadly speaking, it's a good idea to do an internship while you're in college; you'll be at a disadvantage without this experience. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), "Nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors from the Class of 2013 took part in an internship or a cooperative education assignment during their years pursuing a bachelor's degree."

Most students, especially within the same major, have all completed similar courses. Sometimes the student's alma mater offers an advantage in getting hired, but for employers attempting to choose from among many similar candidates, the things that separate one applicant from another are essential.

"A primary separator for an employer is internship experience," says Michael Schnur, an economics professor and job placement coordinator at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., which has a highly ranked business and economics school. Internship experience demonstrates that a student can move from academia to the professional environment, he says. For students, the internship lets them experience their chosen profession and perhaps rethink their long-term plans.

The value of an internship is particularly compelling when it comes to Wall Street internships. "Most of these firms will try to hire directly from their intern pool and may not consider someone who has not interned because it may be too risky," says Stuart Mease, director of career advancement and employer relations for Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business in Blacksburg, Va.

If you want to work on Wall Street after graduation and you can land a Wall Street internship, take it. Sometimes getting your foot in the door at the company you want to work for is the most valuable aspect of an internship. But other internship decisions aren't so simple.

"If your potential internship isn't willing to give you a truly valuable experience with a variety of hands-on projects and task, it's best to turn it down and look for something better," says Nathan Parcells, co-founder and chief marketing officer of InternMatch, an online platform that helps students find internships and helps companies hire talented students.

Aside from reading the internship description carefully and asking questions about the position during the interview process, you can ask your school's internship or career office if other students from your school have interned at the company you're considering and find out what their experiences were like.

The Value of Unpaid Internships
The NACE survey found that only slightly more than half of internships were paid. Should you take an unpaid internship, especially if you're borrowing your way through school?

Financial considerations are always a factor in our daily decisions, Schnur says. "If a student truly needs the financial support, then it would absolutely be more appropriate to obtain a paid position outside the chosen profession over the unpaid opportunity." However, many internships are paid, and students who need the money should focus on these opportunities, he says. An internship, no what matter the position, can help your resume.

The more in-demand an industry or company is, the more likely an unpaid internship for academic credit is the model for entering that field, Mease says. "Certainly, everyone's personal financial situation is different, but if you want to be in that field badly enough, you will do what it takes regardless of your situation," he says.

Even if an internship is unpaid, the best thing an internship can get you is experience and help in determining if the career in question is something you want to pursue, says Adam Koos, the president, portfolio manager and senior financial advisor of Libertas Wealth Management Group in Dublin, Ohio. "Too many college students walk into a major, thinking they want to do business or finance or economics, only to find out they hate the jobs associated with the major, or worse yet, their personality doesn't align with the career," he says.

Joel Gross says despite the financial struggle at the time, he would never take back his Merrill Lynch internship experience. The reason he can comfortably repay his loans now is because his company has a strong financial foundation thanks to the skills he gained during his internship. Gross is the CEO and founder of Coalition Technologies, a web-design and search-engine optimization firm based in Los Angeles and Seattle. "I think anyone interested in pursuing a career in business should consider a financial internship," he says. It will give them the basic skills they need without having to get a separate degree or pursue further education in that field.

Parcells feels strongly that students should take an internship that pays at least minimum wage. He suggests that students examine whether an unpaid position meets the Department of Labor's standards for an unpaid internship.

Signs of a Worthwhile Internship
A paid offer is a good sign, but it isn't enough to guarantee a good internship, says Flore Dorcely-Mohr, assistant director of the internship program at Drew University in Madison, N.J., and a member of the Nationwide Internship Consortium, which provides access to internship listings for students at 18 U.S. colleges and universities. "I have seen employers think it is OK to abuse good workers simply because they are paying them an hourly wage. And, conversely, we have several employers start their interns unpaid but invest a great deal of time in orientation and training in various aspects of the business," she says.

Here are some questions Dorcely-Mohr says students should ask themselves when evaluating an internship opportunity:
  • Was there a person you could contact or an online description you could review to understand the important elements of the business?
  • How detailed was the job description?
  • When the company called you for the interview, did you get screened or have the chance to ask a few basic questions, or did it seem like they were just scheduling another appointment?
  • What was the application and interview process like?
"At every step of the process, an intern should be evaluating whether the organization is showing that they value their internship program and aren't just looking for unpaid gophers to do their drudgery," she says. Every job has administrative duties, but these should not be the major focus of the intern's responsibilities.

Company Considerations
"Students often want to work at the big firms like Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan because of perceived stability, growth potential and name recognition on their resume," says Dorcely-Mohr. "I encourage them to also consider smaller but prospering financial service firms where we at the career center may have a strong alumni presence or have established a good professional connection." She says bigger is not always better; what matters is the richness of the learning experience the company offers.

Parcells says that while many students have their hearts set on big-name companies, they end up completely happy with their experiences at a smaller, lesser-known company. "You should consider any company willing to give you a valuable educational experience and training within your industry," he says. "A big-name company with a large intern salary doesn't guarantee you'll be getting an experience worthy for your resume."

Schnur says it is definitely worthwhile to take an internship that is not with a company that you hope to one day work for. Not all internships are designed to lead directly to a job, he says, but "the internship offers an opportunity for a student to experience the real world and also expand their resume," and it also enhances networking prospects. In addition, an internship allows a student to get recommendations not only from academia, but from financial professionals. Furthermore, the opportunity to interact with those professionals can help a student obtain guidance for their chosen profession, Schnur says.

Branching Out
Say you're a finance major and you want to go into investment banking, but the only internship you've been accepted to is for an insurance company. Is it worth your time?

Parcells says internships are a chance to test the waters in a variety of fields before starting your career. "While it's important to gain experience in the field you're interested in pursuing, taking on an internship in another field won't hurt you in the end," he says. "Many internships offer a chance to gain transferable skills that will be valuable to the future of your career."

Schnur says obtaining an internship within the student's chosen major or field gives them an opportunity to determine if that is truly the area they want to proceed with. In certain fields, any relevant internship will enhance a student's experience and resume, but other fields require prior experience that shows that the applicant can perform the required skills specific to that field.

What if You Don't Land an Internship?
Your financial career isn't ruined before you've even begun if you can't land the right internship or even any internship at all.

"Most media messages will have people believe that the internship is essential in getting a full-time job, and it is certainly wonderful to have relevant work experience, but a close examination of data from the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech will reveal the internship is not as essential as many believe," Mease says.

Only two-thirds of the firms that attend Pamplin's job fair want interns, he says, and on average, firms are trying to fill twice as many full-time positions as intern positions. What's more, there are more undergraduates seeking internships than there are graduates seeking jobs. "So there are twice as many students going for half as many positions with only two-thirds of the companies coming to campus for the annual mega job fair," Mease says. The chances are much better to get a job as a senior than an internship as an underclassmen. "This may not be the norm at other schools, but it is the reality at Pamplin," he says.

The Bottom Line
In general, doing at least one internship during your undergraduate years is a good idea. Assuming you're getting real experience in the field and not just fetching coffee and making photocopies, an internship offers the opportunity to conduct informal informational interviews, to network, to gain professional work experience and to secure professional recommendations. It also offers a chance to re-evaluate your anticipated career and perhaps adjust your coursework and your major if your internship experience causes you to change your mind about where you're headed.

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