Here we are folks, April—famously known as National Internship Awareness Month. Well okay, maybe not famously, but as it turns out, it is indeed National Internship Awareness Month, and I thought the best way to celebrate would be by, well, raising awareness about the many benefits of interning. While unpaid, coffee-fetching internships have given interning a bad rap, the truth is that the right internship at the right company can be an invaluable learning opportunity. In addition to all of the gained hands-on experience, internships offer a sneak peek at your potential future and the demands of an entry-level position in that industry (which can help confirm you’re on the right path). Alternatively, interning can help you realize that a particular career or industry isn’t the right fit, which allows you to pivot while still in school (you can always pivot, but it’s definitely easier while still earning your degree).
Internships can also be a great way to network and develop professional relationships (you might even meet your dream mentor!). However, in order to enjoy all of these benefits, it’s essential to find the right internship, which will require both time and research. But you can rest assured that even if the internship doesn’t go as well as you hoped (or even if you do realize it’s not the right career), all of the self-knowledge, experience, and transferable skills you’ve gained are non-refundable and priceless.
Be clear on what kind of experience you want and do your homework.
Get crystal clear on what you want to get out of the experience. Ask yourself, “What will make an internship a valuable experience for me?” This will help you find a fulfilling internship and narrows your search to companies best suited to help you meet your goals. From there, pick a few promising opportunities and fully vet them to make sure they’re offering a valuable internship experience. How hands-on will current employees be with interns? Who will you interact with? Will you receive training? How much will you get to participate in job-related tasks? What will your day-to-day experience look like? A great place to start is by reading Glassdoor reviews. Or even better, if you know folks who've interned with the company before, ask them about their experience.
The overarching theme here is investment. That is, is the company really investing in its interns (or does it simply treat them like free errand runners). It's not unreasonable to be asked to do some menial tasks as an intern (things like note taking and the occasional lunch run), but the bulk of your tasks should be oriented around learning and gaining actual work experience (the kinds of tasks that will prepare you to jump right in as an entry-level employee). 
While this might sound a bit tedious, these steps are crucial for finding an internship that will be worth your time and effort.
Take the application process seriously.
The steps for applying to internships are generally very similar to the ones for a job. So, think of it as great practice for the future and be serious about it. For each open position, tailor and personalize your resume and cover letter—this shows the company you’re motivated, know what you want, and genuinely do want to intern there. Be sure to research both industry-specific and general interview questions as well as think through your responses in advance. Lastly, make sure to take full advantage of all the resources available to you—many colleges have free career counseling services (including for alumni). Even Google can be an incredible resource.
On the day of the interview, be sure to show up on time, dressed appropriately (be aware that this can vary based on the industry, so be sure to research that in advance too), and be prepared to ask company-specific questions during the interview (these will often come up naturally when researching the company anyway). Again, all of this shows the company that you’re sincerely interested in the internship. 
Intern effectively to get the most out of your experience.
Your work doesn't end once you land an internship; it's just begun! How you approach your internship will be the difference between wasting your time and taking a step forward in your career.
On your first day, do your best to keep an open mind and be prepared for an intense week, knowing that it won’t always be that way. Onboarding can be very stressful and even overwhelming simply because of how much information you need to learn in order to get up to speed. The reality is that this is true for any new role (from intern all the way to the C-suite). So think of this as yet another learning experience. There should be support systems in place to help you through the process so don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for help or advice (especially if you feel overwhelmed). 
Be flexible and open to feedback throughout your internship. There is no shame in not knowing something—that’s why (and what) you’re there to learn! Your goal isn't to be perfect; it's to learn and grow as much as possible and add some value to the organization. Know that everyone makes mistakes and the important thing to master is how to handle them. And remember that, no matter how the internship ultimately goes, the transferable skills and self-knowledge gained alone are well worth the effort and are truly invaluable. Sometimes you have to learn what you don’t want in order to figure out what you do and that’s perfectly okay—in fact it’s often part of the journey. At the end of the day, an internship is one step of many you’ll take over the course of your career. So while it should be taken seriously, it's a great time to stretch yourself, and yes, even make some mistakes. If you aren't making any, then you aren't really pushing yourself, and you're unlikely to get much out of your experience.
Most importantly, always be active and engaged throughout your internship. It's understandable to get a little bored at times—work can’t always be exciting—but if you allow yourself to be passive and simply go through the motions, your internship might as well already be over. Always look for new learning opportunities, ask how else you can help. Respect your time and yourself enough to fully dive in. If you do, you'll be swimming in no time.


Liz Elting