How to Help Students Succeed in Internships

September 1, 2020

BY: Megan Hollis & Tracey Lord

Studies have shown that students who hold internships during college secure full-time employment or obtain graduate school admission at higher rates when compared to peers who do not. To help any student succeed in an internship, we need to first help them think about the why behind their specific motivation for pursuing, securing, and completing an internship. This motivation can help craft learning goals and be used as a vehicle to keep an intern motivated to perform and engage at their highest capacity throughout the experience.

Each student has a different reason for pursuing an internship (or other form of experiential learning). For some, it is merely a graduation requirement for their academic major. For others, there are a variety of reasons, and it can be quite complex.

Helping the student identify their motivation could be as simple as asking them questions about their career goals, their plan for the rest of their time in school, or reaching deeper to connect about any dream careers they have now or have had in the past. Prompting reflection in this way may bring up answers they did not know they had!

After identifying the student’s motivation, the next step is to build upon that foundation with intentional goal-setting and guided reflection. There are five critical junctions that facilitate sustained student success throughout the duration of the internship:

1. First Impressions
Before a student begins their internship, help them connect what they have learned in the classroom directly to their intended internship activities. This is especially crucial during remote work due to COVID-19 – check in with them to provide concrete details regarding company norms and expectations during remote work (response times, appropriate use of virtual communication tools, attire and background, etc.).

Tip - Help them find competencies for professionals in their field. What is expected of new graduates with a degree in X? Seeing where they should be can help find meaning in their current course of study and experiences.

2. Settling In
While the student may be comfortable at their internship site, encourage them to think of their whole experience as an interview. The student may have full-time opportunities in the future based on their performance now. Leaning into the process of building and maintaining professional relationships with their supervisor and other co-workers will be valuable to help them learn norms, processes, and avoid missteps. Talk with them candidly about how COVID-19 has changed and impacted working at this site and in this field.

Tip - Encourage the student to reach out to co-workers regularly. Building connections outside of their department or work area can be helpful for them to see the big picture of the organization and where they fit. Provide suggestions for building connections virtually due to COVID-19, such as strategies for leveraging company-approved chat tools, attending work networking events virtually or setting up 1:1 coffee chats or lunch virtual meetings.

3. Mid-Point
The midpoint of an experience is a perfect time to revisit goals. As we know, it is very easy to get caught up in day-to-day tasks and lose sight of where we want to go. Reflecting on, and even editing goals, can help re-center a student’s focus and direction.

Tip - Have your student schedule a midpoint check-in with their supervisor at the beginning of their experience. If they know it is coming, they will be better prepared to talk about their progress and anything they’d like to change when that day arrives.

4. Wrapping Up
It’s important to help fuel student momentum to close out their internship projects. This is a great time to prompt them to look beyond the day-to-day work of their internship and consider how the experience has changed them before, during, and after the experience.

Tip - Ask them about pride points and moments where they felt like a subject matter expert in something they knew little about a short time ago!

5. Graceful Goodbyes
Reflection is a powerful tool to help students make connections between their current skillset in comparison to future career goals and between what they have learned in the classroom and what they actively contributed to throughout their internship. Guiding them through reflections on situations where they applied skills, rather competently or with room for improvement, will help them prepare to verbalize their knowledge, skills and abilities for employment through cover letters or admissions essays, as well as during interviews for full-time work or graduate school.

Tip - As they offboard from their internship site, having completed these reflections will help them authentically and thoroughly thank the colleagues that helped them polish and grow throughout the experience! Remind them to write thank you notes/emails to close out their experience.

Making Your Internship Count facilitates sustained student success before, during and after an experiential learning opportunity. It can be provided to student internship and site supervisors to ensure a positive, productive experience for both parties.

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