Why an Internship Could Be the Best Financial Decision You’ve Ever Made

internshipBack when I was in college, I majored in English literature – but I might as well have majored in internships. I lined up internships the way a sous chef lines up ingredients for a meal. The meal I was trying to plan was a career in writing and research, with the timer going off at graduation. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a novice and my plans fell flat.

I started with all the right ingredients. Stellar grades, multiple interesting internships, and recommendations from my professors. However, my recipe for success fell flat when I didn’t think about the goal I was aiming for. That led to years of underemployment before I finally found the job of my dreams – and set me back financially in the process.

Now there’s a whole batch of new grads hitting the job market and soon to be college seniors approaching their final year before they too enter the workforce. And a recent report shows that they can all maximize their success by obtaining an internship, even if their majors and grades don’t line up with their desired career field. However, an internship should be approached strategically to work out in the long run. Here’s how you can do that – and how it can become the best financial decision you’ve ever made.

Why Internships Matter

In my college days, an internship was often equated to a summer of coffee slinging and copy making. Luckily, that trend seems to be losing prevalence as college students and new grads are finding ways to gain more responsibility and growth in the workforce. For graduates looking for jobs, this could be making all the difference.

The Wall Street Journal recently published the findings from a study done by Economics professors looking to understand the job market for new graduates. In this study, they sent fake job applications out to different jobs, changing factors like majors and grade point averages. Overall, these factors made little to no difference. According to The Wall Street Journal,

“Five out of six candidates never heard back. Just 17% were invited to come in for an interview.”

Pretty scary statistics for new graduates hoping to make a quick landing into a career this summer. But the study did find one promising fact: internships matter.

“Candidates whose résumés could point to pregraduation work experience in the industry they were applying for were 14% more likely to get an interview. An English major with a middling GPA and a summer internship in a bank was more likely to get a job interview at a bank than an outstanding finance major who spent the summer touring Europe.”

So why would internships make such a big difference? Especially over grades and majors? And what does that say about how we approach college education?

Aside from the fact that many companies hire their interns on after they graduate, there’s something to be said for the experience interns gain in the real world in comparison to their peers who focus more on studying or traveling. In short, companies value a college education (since so many require it), but they value work experience more. They want to know that you’re smart and savvy and can think critically, but they also want to know that you can handle the work environment in your chosen industry.

In other words, they want you to prove it. Yes, good grades are an asset, but not as much of an asset as providing concrete evidence that you can prosper in the workforce.

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How to Strategically Approach Internships

And this is where my recipe went so wrong. I started with all the right ingredients, but I put little thought into why the ingredients mattered. I obtained internships because I knew it was advisable to do so. But I chose internships that were intellectually challenging first and foremost. Doesn’t seem like a bad thing, right?

Wrong. I’ll never forget the first phone interview I had after graduation. I was attempting to convince a publishing company that my experience working on The International Toni Morrison Society Newsletter was completely relevant to the editorial assistant position I applied for. What could be more relevant than the entire process of publishing a newsletter? I obtained the articles (and wrote one), created a bibliography, edited the material, and set it up for distribution. I figured I was a shoe-in.

Then the woman asked me, “But have you ever actually worked at a publishing house before?”

That was it – she didn’t care that I had experience doing the work that was required for the position. She wanted to know that I could hack it at a publishing house. That I could do the work in the way they required, in the environment they created. All of my internships were rendered useless from a career perspective.

That was a wake up call for me and something for all internship seekers to remember – the internship matters, but where it the internship takes place also matters. Do you want to work for a big bank? Intern at one. Want to work at a law firm? Intern at one. Interested in doing PR at an agency? Don’t do PR work for another company: intern at a PR agency. Strategically plan your internship to match the career you hope to have later. This method isn’t a guarantee (and many might find success on their own paths) but doing this will certainly increase your odds – especially if you have a clear vision of what you want your post-college career to be.

Getting a Financial Head Start

Why is all of this so important? Because college graduates who have a head start on their careers also have a major head start on their finances. The quicker you can obtain a career-oriented job, the sooner you can start making headway on your student loans, building an emergency fund, and saving for retirement. Being underemployed after graduation isn’t the end of the world, but it can set you back financially and slow down the entire career building process.

Whether you’re a college senior or a new graduate, keep an eye out for those internships. Even a little coffee slinging and copy making can be worth it if it gets your foot in the door at the right company.

Image Credit: Thomas Heylen

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  • sasha martin

    Thank you for this smart approach to internships (I love Toni Morrison by the way).

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Oh me too, Sasha! 🙂 You’re very welcome and I hope this is helpful!