Beyond summer: Beat the competition and intern in fallThe summer technically began just this week, but it's a good time to look ahead to future semesters, particularly when thinking about internships. Most people who have applied for coveted internships realize quickly just how competitive summertime opportunities can be, but the school year is a very different story.

At first glance, the summer break seems to be the best time to do an internship. Traditionally, it's meant a break in classes, meaning time is available for putting in many hours, whether paid or unpaid, as an intern. Problem is, students everywhere are thinking the same thing, meaning more applications for supervisors to peruse and evaluate, and more people to beat out for the spot you want.


Paula Brien, an academic adviser at Columbia College Chicago, where I work, has seen students do internships year round, and is probably more familiar than most with the pros and cons of seeking these kinds of opportunities during various semesters.

"Most typically, students are taking a fall semester followed by spring, and then summer is seen as a semester during which they can do something alternative, like an internship,'' she says. But what many people overlook, is the fact that the summer turns some cities, especially big metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., into a national job and internship market. "That's a time of year when most people are not bound to the city in which they attend college.''

In fall or spring, a local student might look to local businesses, organizations, media outlets and other internship outlets. "Local college students at that point, are their main competitors,'' Brien said. "But in the summer, students from all over are seeking to be in big cities.'' Not only for the experience, excitement, and resume-building, but also as a way to evaluate whether they could live in that city permanently. In the summer, relatively cheap housing can be had in some of the country's most costly cities, including Boston and New York City -- through college dorms that are going unused until the fall.

Sometimes, summers are the only time employers might offer structured internships. Moreover, as Brien notes, "a lot of times the internship sponsor will form a little community of their interns because they'll know the students are away from their college towns and their hometowns.''

My own experience with this type of out-of-town internship, many years ago in New York, was invaluable not only in terms of what I learned professionally, but also because it gave me the chance to meet people my age from all over the world, and allowed me to explore one of the world's most exciting cities. But it took months of applying all over the country, and enduring the daily arrival of rejection letters, to secure the position.

"Depending on where a student feels they place in terms of their competitiveness, that would affect when they wanted to pursue (an internship),'' she says.

One of the biggest benefits to doing a fall or spring internship, Brien says, is that if students take the internship for credit -- either by choice or because the intern site requires it. "Students can employ the credits that are part of full-time tuition and max out their credits, making good use of tuition dollars,'' she says.

But she also points to legitimate concerns related to taking internships during fall or spring classes if they are not planned out carefully. "In summer, students are usually not taking other classes, so they can dedicate from 9 am to 5 pm to an internship instead of trying to fit it in between classes, homework, projects, sports/activities on campus,'' she says.

"The challenge, though, is fitting it in, not spreading themselves too thin,'' Brien says. She points to a formula that tends to be overlooked. "Full-time academic schedules tends to take you 40 hours (a week) -- that's our rule of thumb: one hour in class, two hours outside. Adding an internship on top, that can be difficult.''

I've seen this spread-too-thin scenario with a few students, and it is a frustrating experience. Students who don't anticipate the time demands of classes and internships can be overwhelmed by the combination of work involved for both, potentially resulting in poor performance both in classes well as in internship duties.

Ideally, a student taking an internship in the spring or fall would be getting credit that is counting toward their graduation requirement, allowing them to substitute the internship for another class, and thereby lightening their spring or fall load. Working with a college counselor to see if such a win-win can be planned for coming semesters can help steer toward a particularly satisfying experience. And secure a plum position with a lot less competition.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

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