College is a busy time. Between lectures, homework, extracurricular involvement, and sports, students may at times feel overwhelmed and struggle with managing all the pieces of their lives. But while lectures and coursework must remain a top priority, students should consider reprioritizing their other activities and responsibilities to include at least one internship during their college career.

Now more than ever, internships are a critical enhancement to the core college curriculum. Internships allow students to gain on-the-job knowledge, skills, and experience. Moreover, they also help students make connections with industry leaders. For these reasons, 95 percent of employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) indicated that a prospective hire’s work experience is a substantial factor in hiring decisions. Almost half of the employers surveyed expressed desire for new-graduate experience to be developed by internships or co-op programs.

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“Internships have become key in today’s economy,” noted Melissa Benca, career services director at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. “Graduating students with paid or unpaid internships on their résumé have a much better chance at landing a full-time position upon graduation. Students are doing internships as undergraduates, and it is now not unusual for recent grads to take an unpaid internship with hopes of turning it into a permanent position or at least making some contacts and building their résumé.”

In addition to providing relevant experience that candidates can transfer anywhere, internships can help students secure entry-level jobs at the company they interned for. An increasing number of employers hire entry-level candidates who have gone through the employers’ internship programs. According to Marilyn Macke, NACE’s executive direct, “Not only does participation in an internship make the student a more attractive candidate but it can also be an avenue to a job.” On NACE’s 2008 Experiential Education Survey, nearly 36 percent of entry-level college graduates that were hired from the class of 2007 came from employers’ own internship programs, up from 30 percent in 2005. On NACE’s 2012 Internship & Co-op survey, that number rose to 40 percent.

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For best results, students should seek out paid internships. NACE’s 2012 Student Survey reported that nearly 60 percent of 2012 college graduates who completed a paid internship received at least one full-time job offer after graduation. Alternatively, only 37 percent of unpaid interns received job offers.

An effective way to secure a paid internship is to take an unpaid internship first. A student in his or her early college career will not have much experience, so a local unpaid internship is a great way to gain some. That experience then makes the student more attractive to recruiters hiring for paid internships.

Another key approach is to network with family, friends, professors, alumni, and industry leaders. Reaching out to a contact in a company for which one wants to intern can help build a relationship that can lead to an internship hire, especially if that contact is an alumnus or alumna of your university.

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If you are unable to secure a paid internship, an unpaid internship still offers bright future economic prospects. As early as 2005, NACE reported that entry-level candidates who had internship or co-op experience received a higher starting salary than those candidates who did not participate in any internships or co-ops. Because unpaid internship may be easier to secure, students should focus their efforts on one or two unpaid programs that will best help them acquire the skills necessary in their chosen field.

Finally, in addition to the long-term economic benefits of internship experience, interning also helps foster personal growth by reinforcing lessons taught in the classroom and helping students understand whether they are on the right career path. An internship that relates to a student’s major will help the student learn how to apply abstract classroom lessons to solve real world problems. These applications also help students learn whether they truly like the careers they have chosen. Given that most internships last only a semester or a summer, students who discover that they do not like the specific application of their field can experiment with a related one. For instance, a marketing major may discover that she does not like marketing when she completes a marketing internship, but a subsequent internship in public relations, a related application of marketing principles, may lead her to enjoyment and success. Alternatively, after going through an internship he does not enjoy, a student may choose a different field altogether.

To learn more, connect with Troy Dixon on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/troy-dixon