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How to create a positive summer internship experience

Human Resources icon5 min read


As we approach the summer break, more and more college students will start hunting for internship opportunities to help them gain relevant work experience. This provides a great opportunity, not just for these students, but for the employers who will end up hiring them for the summer. College students often bring enthusiasm, curiosity, and coachability that can be infectious and improve the morale in the whole workplace.

Whether you work for a large company with a sophisticated internship program or a smaller company considering taking on one or two interns for the first time, here are some important things to keep in mind as you plan for summer:

Budget to pay them

In the past, it was common to try to hire unpaid interns for the summer. While it’s still possible to do this in rare circumstances, it’s probably not worth it for several reasons. For one, it’s harder to hold your interns to a high standard if they’re not being paid to be there and take their work seriously.

More importantly, there are strict requirements for this kind of arrangement in order to stay in compliance with FLSA guidelines. This includes the stipulation that your business not be getting any benefit out of the arrangement. But if you’re not seeing any benefit, then hiring a summer intern is more akin to community service than an actual employer-employee relationship; it’s probably not worth it.

If you’re looking for a summer internship experience that’s mutually beneficial— and you want to avoid fines and a bad reputation— it’s best to plan to make your internships paid.

Take hiring seriously

Even though summer interns are only temporary employees, you should screen and interview them as vigorously as you would if you were hiring a full-time permanent employee. For one thing, this gives college students valuable real-world experience that will help them prepare for the job market after college.

It’s also important to remember that these new employees can have a positive or negative effect on your company’s culture and morale in their short tenure with you. When you’re interviewing applicants, remember that their attitude matters. While it may be tempting to zero in on the students with the highest GPA, try to look beyond that factor and find coachable, enthusiastic young people who have a genuine interest in your field.

Create a thorough plan

The worst thing that can happen— both for your interns and your team—is to have nothing prepared for them to accomplish. They’ll learn no important job skills, and you’ll be paying people to sit around wasting time and potentially bringing down morale. That’s why it’s so important to have a detailed plan for each week of the summer internship laid out ahead of time.  

Approach this as if you were a teacher creating a lesson plan. Set aside time to teach important skills as needed, and provide enough work to keep your intern busy each week. You should ideally continue to provide new challenges throughout the summer. This is labor intensive, but think of it as an investment in the future of your industry, or even a potential future employee. If you train them well now, they’ll be a better asset if they come to work with you after graduation.

Give them a warm welcome

If you’re hiring more than one intern for the summer, consider creating an opportunity for them to get to know one another and their supervisors prior to their first day. When your interns start work, send out an email to the whole office to introduce them and encourage the staff to greet them and provide help when possible.

If your company has the flexibility and capacity for it, try to give all interns one single point of contact to report to for the summer. This person can help them navigate office culture, introduce them to all the necessary people in the office, and answer their general questions as they arise.

Communicate expectations from the beginning

College interns usually have very little job experience, particularly in a professional environment. There are likely huge gaps in their understanding of what’s expected of them in an office setting. Be sure you equip them with clearly-articulated expectations from day one in order to help them succeed, and to provide a seamless experience for them and for you.

Your interns will obviously need basic concrete information such as where they should park, what time they should arrive, what equipment they’ll be provided, and relevant dress code information. But they also likely need to be coached ahead of time about the unspoken expectations of your workplace, such as the volume of their voice during meetings and phone calls, whether they can attend to personal business during the work day, and what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate conversation in your office. Remember that while these things are second nature to you now, you had to learn them at one time.

Provide plenty of feedback

Feedback is built into the whole experience of higher education. Because they get grades on a regular basis, interns are used to knowing the gaps in their understanding so that they can adjust accordingly. Even if your permanent employees are on a longer feedback loop, and are comfortable without being critiqued or encouraged for months at a time, remember that your interns don’t have extensive experience in your field. Let them know how they’re doing— both in terms of job performance and acclimating to office culture— and answer any questions they may have about how to improve.

Talk about references

If your interns have done a stellar job, be sure to let them know at the end of the summer that they should list you as a reference for future job searches upon graduation, or even apply for open positions in your company when the time comes. Likewise, if they haven’t been a good fit, be sure to communicate this with them and let them know they may not want to list you as a reference. This conversation can be awkward, but if they’ve been getting regular feedback, it likely won’t come as a surprise.

In an ideal world, internships provide a positive and mutually-beneficial experience for students and their summer employers. Letting young people with enthusiasm and fresh ideas into your office to learn helps them get valuable job experience, and brings a potentially positive energy into the mix. It also helps build a stronger future workforce for your industry, or even for your company specifically. Creating a valuable internship depends almost entirely on ample communication, planning, and follow-through.