NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Summer may be starting to sizzle, but for college-age interns getting their first glimpse at the professional working world, the feeling may be more cold and clammy.
Some anxiety is understandable. But college students should remember that internships are no luxury these days — they're a necessity.
"In today's job market, internships are key for people looking for jobs with top firms when they graduate," says Kathy Harris, managing director at Harris Allied, a New York City recruiting firm in the technology sector. "Employers expect that top entry-level candidates will have had at least one internship during their college career."
If you're in the internship market this summer, whatever you do, don't take the assignment casually. Your short-term professional future could be on the line, and there are long-term ripple effects to consider as well. "Given the potential upside of a coveted internship, I encourage interns to treat their summer positions — whether paid or unpaid — as a 'real job' and look for opportunities where they can distinguish themselves and add value to the organization," Harris says.
The experts tell collegiate workers to treat an internship as a serious opportunity. "My advice to college interns in making the most of their internship is to say 'yes' to opportunities," says Tom Ostapchuk, marketing director at Chalk.com, an educational services firm who completed four internships while at the University of Waterloo. "That means more than just handling daily responsibilities, or ad hoc tasks."
Interns should be saying yes to going out for lunch, joining after-work sports teams and attending company events, Ostapchuk says. "Building a positive relationship with professional contacts is absolutely critical to succeed," he adds. "For me, building relationships resulted in connections at several major companies and job offers waiting for me when I finished school."
Career experts say even if you wind up at a firm you have no interest in working for after college, don't give up — there may be opportunities you don't realize yet. "Go into your internship with a clear direction of what you want to get out of it," says Melinda Jackson, a senior publicist at JAG Entertainment in Sherman Oaks, Calif., which deals regularly with college interns. "Is it to just see if you like doing that line of work? Is it because you want to make connections? Is it because you would like to get hired on at that company in the future??"
"Just because you don't want to work at that company in the future doesn't mean that your superior couldn't possibly refer you to something else," Jackson says.
Another good idea is to show as much initiative as possible. It's useful, and chances are that other interns may not show that initiative, giving you some leverage at a firm.
Luke Orlando , a rising senior finance major at the University of Texas at Austin, says he's had "great success" in internships in multiple industries, including energy, construction and government. "To be successful at a summer internship, you have to explore your position beyond the basic tasks assigned to you," Orlando says. Often interns have a lot of downtime or incredibly menial tasks, he adds. Using that downtime to learn more about your position can pay huge dividends.
"While working at a firm in a Houston, I was tasked with creating a report on all sales across the company," Orlando says. "Finding myself with little to do, I independently audited the report during a slow day and found large discrepancies between our actual values and what had been previously reported."
That move got noticed by company decision-makers — and got Orlando noticed at the firm. "Even if the results are not so dramatic, taking the initiative to learn more about your firm will only allow you to be a more impressive intern and learn valuable transferable skill sets over the summer," he says.
The bottom line for interns is to use time wisely this summer: Reach out to potential mentors, ask for opportunities and make sure you get some references before heading back to school.
"Summer interns should realize that the relationships they forge this summer can carry forward into their career. Work to sustain those relationships even after the summer is over," Harris says. "Don't stalk them on Facebook or LinkedIn, but periodically reach out to them to say hello and meet for coffee when you are home from school on break."