If your plan and aspiration is to embark on a professional career in a corporate-type environment then I would be hard pressed to argue against pursuing a summer internship opportunity. I’ll briefly explain why then let’s consider some alternatives.
Completing a summer internship is largely inconsequential in my opinion from the perspective of building knowledge and expertise in your chosen field. What you will learn in the span of ten weeks or so, while significant relative to your knowledge base on day one, is frankly minuscule relative to what you will learn once you embark on your full-time occupation.
Your participation in an internship or co-op program is nonetheless very relevant to your future – and there are three distinct parties who are interested in it.
The first is the person or organization that employs you for that internship. Most talent-driven, high-quality organizations use an internship program as a strategic talent pipeline – a way of identifying and vetting prospective candidates for entry level professional positions. If they’ve seen what you can do for a couple of months or more, they can be reasonably confident of what they’ll see from you in the course of a more permanent commitment.
The second interested party is any other employer to whom you might apply following your internship. The fact that you have completed an internship sends a prospective future employer several important signals:
- It is evidence of a seriousness of purpose on your part in planning and pursuing your career obejctives
- It indicates that at least one other organization was prepared to employ you – so you must have at least some good things going for you
- In the event you got an offer to return to the internship employer the following year (e.g., if you interned after junior year and were extended an offer of full-time employment following graduation), that fact pattern indicates strong, on-the-job performance on your part
- If the prospective employer is in the same field as your internship employer then your experience demonstrates a focus on and commitment to that same field (one of the most important considerations for any employer considering an entry-level candidate: does the candidate really want to do this kind of work?)
The third interested party, and perhaps the most important, is…you. An internship is not only an opportunity for a potential employer to evaluate you. It’s also a crucial opportunity for you to evaluate them. Not just the organization, its people and its culture, but the industry itself. You are potentially getting ready to sign on (as a full-time hire) for 40-hour work weeks (and potentially much, much more) in this industry and this firm. Do you like the work? Wouldn’t you like to de-risk that decision for yourself by trying it out on a no-commitment basis first?
Finally, there is a very practical reason to pursue an internship – depending on your chosen field. Premier employers in many of the most competitive fields such as finance, tech, law and elsewhere hire entry-level, full-time candidates almost exclusively through their internship programs. If you show up in your final year of college – let alone beyond – without meaningful, relevant internship experience or something comparable, the odds are very, very slim that you will secure an attractive opportunity. It’s competitive out there, and that’s just the way it is.
But what if that’s not your chosen path?
I mentioned at the outset that my answer was somewhat predicated on the idea that your plan would be to pursue a career in the professional or services sector.
If that is indeed the case, there are two other types of activity that come to mind that would be additive to your resume. One would be to participate in an interesting research project, likely working for a professor at your college or university. Another would be to set up and run your own business. I’ll elaborate.
Firstly, I would suggest that either of these activities would be most ideally suited to the summer after your freshman or sophomore year, rather than after your junior year. That latter summer window is critical for securing a relevant internship that has the potential to lead pretty directly to a full time position. But if, for example, you haven’t been able to secure an attractive internship or co-op opportunity, one of these options may be helpful. Undertaking a research project, especially if it’s in a field that may pertain to your chosen career track, can be useful and additive. All the more so if you’ve previously secured a traditional internship in a prior summer, which will help check a number of the boxes I outlined above.
Starting or running your own business, which I see from candidates with not inconsiderable frequency, can also be a good use of time. Doing some summer tutoring for local high school kids doesn’t really cut it in this regard though. That’s a fine activity for the summer after you leave high school. But if you’re going to do something along these lines later in your college career, it should be something more substantive that demonstrates commerciality, business acumen and insight.
In the end, the one thing you absolutely cannot afford to do is nothing.
The competition for good jobs out of school is extraordinary. You will be up against any number of accomplished and driven candidates for the most sought after jobs. You cannot afford to create a disadvantage for yourself by failing to use your summers or other downtime productively in pursuit of your career goals. Because everyone you’ll be up against for that job you want will not be making that mistake.