NEW YORK (TheStreet) — For most students and recent grads, internships are a necessary part of the path to success. Although all internships that offer relevant experience are good, paid internships may set students apart from the rest of the herd. According to an InternMatch survey, students with paid internships are three times more likely to get job offers than those with unpaid internships.
Why money matters
If you're paid during your internship, it shows a higher level of commitment on both sides, says Janet Elkin, CEO of Supplemental Health Care.
"Although many people do very worthwhile unpaid internships, if you are paid it shows the employer thought enough of your work that they wanted to compensate you," Elkin says.
Additionally, hiring managers know companies attract better talent by "sweetening the pot" with money.
"We are starting to see more paid internships, companies competing for the best and brightest by offering compensation," she says. "If you have a paid internship on your resume, then it shows that perhaps you were a cut above, or at least you were competing at that level where you had a choice between paid and unpaid."
Hiring managers generally feel a paid internship functions more like a "real job," and therefore the candidate who has worked a paid internship is more comfortable with the demands of an effective workplace.
"When a candidate has been compensated for their work, there is greater accountability on behalf of both the employee and the employer," she says. "The company has to ensure they're getting the most for their money, so that intern is probably not just getting coffee all day. They think, 'I am paying this person, so we'd better be getting something out of this.'"
Also, when the company takes the internship seriously, the intern is probably not as likely to take off at noon every Friday for the beach. They're getting paid and clocking in and out just like they would at a real job, Elkin explains.
Although one or two unpaid internships won't hurt your resume, it's not a great idea to take multiple unpaid gigs — especially if you're a recent grad. Even though you're gaining experience, it can result in a lack of respect from prospective employers.
"When I talk to people who have been out of college for two years and have only gone from one unpaid internship to another, that's a red flag. I know times are tough, but if you have gone on that long and no one is willing to pay you for your work, there's a problem."
With that said, you shouldn't turn down unpaid internships if you'll be learning or doing something you're passionate about, Elkin says.
"It depends on what it is. If it's your heart's desire and somewhere you've always wanted to work, I wouldn't turn that down. But if you have five unpaid internships in a row, whether unfairly or not, there's a perception that it just wasn't valuable for that company to pay you."
Whenever you have a choice, opt for the paid internship.
"It sets the stage," Elkin says. "Don't let money dictate the experience, but all things being equal, go with paid whenever possible."
How to land a paid internship
Check out what's available through your college
Going through the college or university's career services department should be the first step in landing an internship, says Tom Gimbel, president and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing and recruiting firm.
"Teachers and professors are an extremely helpful source because they are either practicing in the field or know of other professionals that are," Gimbel says.
Head to the Web — just be careful what you say
Check out sites such as CareerRookie, InternMatch and YouTern for internship opportunities, recommends Amanda Augustine, job search expert for TheLadders.
"Oftentimes these sites will tell you right away if the internship is paid, offers a stipend to cover your food and travel costs, or is unpaid," she says.
When you're being more social online, watch what you say. A Jobvite survey found that 70% of HR professionals and recruiters turned down a candidate because of something they found about them online. "Don't let your social media habits ruin your chances of landing an internship. Increase the security settings on your Facebook page and other personal accounts and un-tag yourself from any photos you wouldn't want your grandmother — let alone a prospective employer — to see," Augustine says.
Be polished and professional
Prospective employers are looking for interns who show up to the interview prepared, polished and passionate about the opportunity, Augustine says.
"Employers want to know you took the time to learn about their organization, so research each company before you interview with them. Read the 'About Us' section on the company site, search for recent news articles and check out their social media accounts."
On the day of the interview, remember to silence or turn off your phone and put your devices away. Once there, avoid using words like "yeah," "uh-huh," "um" and "like."
"Even if the company seems laid back and relaxed, that doesn't mean you have permission to act unprofessional," she says.
At the end of the day, a foot in the door may be worth more than money
Remember, internships are trial runs for job-seekers, too. This is the time to test whether an industry or specific role is the right fit, Gimbel says.
"Aim to land any internship — paid or not — with a growing company, because getting that foot in the door through a free internship could pay off in the long term, far more than a minimum-wage paycheck for three months," Gimbel says.
By coming in with a hard work ethic and being willing to do it all for free, hiring managers will be impressed and may be swayed in the intern's favor when it comes to hiring them over a new applicant.
— By Kathryn Tuggle