NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The dream of using an internship as a gateway to an entry-level job is back.

Employers plan to increase their summer internship hires by 8.5% in 2012, the biggest year-over-year increase since before the recession, according to a survey of 280 companies put out last week by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. This represents a significant turnaround from 2009 when the number of internship hires was expected to decrease by 21% from the year before.

Much of the increase in internship hires is tied to the larger shift in the employment outlook for recent graduates.

“The overall job market is improving for college graduates,” says Andrea Koncz, employment information manager with NACE. At the same time, she says the vast majority of employers who were surveyed (79%) view their internship programs as a way to “find full-time hires.” So as the economy continues to get better and employers increase the number of hires, it’s only natural that more interns will be given staff positions.

Throughout the past decade, internships became increasingly common in industries like banking and public relations, and increasingly useful for landing a job as companies recognized the perks of hiring from within their internship programs rather than looking elsewhere. While the number of hires may have fluctuated because of the economy, the philosophy remained the same.

“I think companies realized that if they are going to be hiring for internships and hiring for employees, why don’t they just make more of those interns transition into employees so they don’t have to recruit twice,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting From College to Career. Aside from cutting down recruiting costs, Pollak says internship programs provide companies with a better way to vet whether potential candidates are a good fit for the company, both in terms of their skills and their personality. This way, the intern is less likely to quit or be fired later.

Even though most companies view their internship programs as a bull pen for potential hires, it’s certainly not a guarantee that you’ll be offered a job at a company just because you intern there. For that reason, you need to be proactive in promoting yourself while interning to improve your chances of receiving a job offer. Here are a few tips from our career experts on how to turn your internship into a full-time job.

Be ambitious from the start.

You don’t have to wait until your first day on the job to be proactive. Pollak suggests making it clear in the interview for the internship that you’d be interested in being considered for a job after the internship ends.

“When you are interviewing for the internship, say ‘I think this company is fantastic. Is it common for interns to get hired to work at the company?” she says. It might sound overly presumptuous, but as Pollak points out, “Who could fault you for being enthusiastic?”

Schedule regular check-ins.

Once you’ve started your internship, it’s important to schedule one-on-one check-ins with your boss about your progress and to set expectations going forward.

“An intern should definitely go to their boss once a month and say, ‘Am I doing everything you would like me to do, and is there anything you’d like me to improve on or help you with?’ That creates real velocity on how much people want you on their team,” says Robin Richards, founder and CEO of

During one of those conversations, you can also ask whether it’s common for interns to be hired at the company and if so, ask the manager for some tips on how to best position yourself for that opportunity. Network with other departments.

Your supervisor isn’t the only one you should be trying to impress at the company. The key to making the most of an internship is finding ways to build connections with other departments. After all, you never know which may have the next job opening.

Richards recommends introducing yourself to every person you pass at the company and offer to help them in any way you can, time permitting. It’s also a good idea to ask if you can attend company outings, whether it’s a weekly happy hour event or an upcoming conference, as this can help you meet new people and show that you’re a good cultural fit at the company. Finally, Richards suggests asking your co-workers for career advice once in a while, which can be an incredibly effective way to build a relationship with someone.

That said, it’s absolutely essential that your networking doesn’t come at the expense of your actual work. Before you take on a project for another department or step out to lunch with a colleague, make sure you run it by your supervisor first.

Network with other interns.

Along the same lines, Pollak says it’s important not to forget to network with other interns at the company. It may not lead to a job at your current company, but it could help land you another position down the road.

“I would hedge your bets and befriend all the interns you work with. Some of them will end up at other companies and could be useful later,” Pollak says.

Don’t forget about HR.

One of the biggest mistakes that interns make, according to Richards, is that they ignore the human resources department after getting hired and don’t touch base with them until the very end of the internship, if at all. Yet human resources usually plays a role in deciding who to consider for a full-time staff position, so it’s a good idea to check in occasionally and keep them up to date on your progress.

“If you stay friendly with HR, you’ll have a much better chance of being one of the people who gets considered for a position,” Richards says.

Stay as long as you can afford.

If you have the option to extend your allotted time as an intern, there’s no doubt that it can help improve your chances of eventually being offered a position, particularly if you’ve heard through the grapevine that another entry-level employee is preparing to leave or is about to be promoted.

“Anything that makes you indispensible, continually valuable and loyal will always work in your favor when a job opportunity becomes available,” Pollak says. If there really are no open positions, she says interning longer can still “lead to a phenomenal reference letter or the company will connect you with someone who can hire you.”

However, just because you’re offered the chance to intern longer doesn’t always mean you should take it. If you really don’t enjoy the current work, or the company doesn’t pay you enough, it may be a better idea to look for internship positions elsewhere. Even if you do choose to leave, both Pollak and Richards suggest offering to do some work for the company remotely, whether it’s helping to manage their social media presence or do research projects from home.

Keep in touch.

An ambitious intern never leaves an internship completely empty-handed. Just by working at a company, you should have plenty of extra contacts in your rolodex so don’t forget to use them.

“Oftentimes, interns are just a little too meek. If you want to be the one offered a job, you have to stay in touch, stay familiar and stay involved,” Richards says. That means anything from updating former co-workers on your career and asking them to refer you to other internships or job opportunities. Even a simple note about something that happened in class may go a long way.

“Drop your old boss an email and let him know that you had a really great day at school because of what you learned from him, and that you just wanted to say thank you,” Richards says. “Imagine how good I would feel as a manager that someone just took the time to do that?”