Fed up young woman intern upset about having to fetch coffee.

Making the Most of an Unpaid Internship

Tips to help you determine whether your donated time is worthwhile for your career.

Fed up young woman intern upset about having to fetch coffee.

Being paid is always more desirable than not, but the true purpose of an internship is to learn something.

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To pay or not to pay your college intern? That question has received a lot of media and legal attention these past couple years. Like most things in life – the issue is not a simple black-and-white equation where an unpaid internship = bad and a paid one = good. While being paid is ALWAYS more desirable, internships are meant to be learning experiences, first and foremost.

Here are some tips for discerning between good and bad unpaid internships and making the most of the one you have.

1. Examine the coattails on which you will ride. If the intern isn’t exposed to impressive people who WANT to be a mentor, it doesn’t matter if the internship has a great title in a cool company. Internships are about learning – so if you aren't getting paid to be an intern, make sure you get high value on-the-job education from accomplished business people. Already accepted an internship? Look for opportunities for executive exposure or extra projects that will enable you to collaborate with impressive colleagues. The key is to make sure that you're successfully managing the work that is part of your original intern description before you go looking for more. When you do a great job, you will have more latitude to seek additional interaction. Use your exemplary performance to seek more enriching opportunities as needed.

2. Don’t let the cover fool you. Many students select an internship by who was the nicest or friendliest in the interview. Being nice and friendly make for enjoyable conversations, but do not have much bearing on the quality of the internship. Look for roles that show that the employer has a specific plan for your development and learning. Humans learn more when they're on the fine line between uncertainty and confidence. A challenging manager may not be your choice for after-hours drinks, but he or she may teach you way more about the world of work and how to get things done.

3. Performance assessment. One of the best ways to get the most from an unpaid internship is to ask to get paid in feedback. Honest feedback aids in achieving maximum performance. Many entry-level employees often don't know what is expected of them and how professional success is measured until someone tells them specifically. Look for roles with managers that are committed to giving you at least one (and hopefully two) performance reviews over the summer. These meetings make it easy for managers of all types to tell you the good, the bad and the ugly of your work. Furthermore, it gives the intern a designated time to ask questions or voice any concerns that may impact his experience.

If you have already accepted a role but are unsure if you will be evaluated, ask to schedule a performance meeting. Ideal timing to make the request is during orientation. For example, “Hi, May. I'm very excited to work at PDQ this summer. I really want to do the best possible for you. Can we set up a performance review conversation for the beginning and again near the end of my internship, so that I can make sure I am meeting your expectations?” It may sound forward, but smart managers know that if you want feedback – you want to perform. Giving attention to high-performing employees is a great way to get the best return on their investment of training time.

4. Neighbors. Whom will you interact with in addition to your direct supervisor/mentor? You may have a role in marketing, but maybe your days are spent analyzing data for the sales team. Learn what other professionals, departments, vendors or clients you will meet over the summer. These not-so-obvious teachers can impart a tremendous amount of knowledge and be a great way to catapult a so-so unpaid internship into a great one. If things look interesting in other departments, it is OK to ask if you can conduct an informational interview with colleagues in other parts of the company or with vendors. These requests don't take extra time from your manager and are a high return networking strategy to get more educational value in lieu of compensation.

5. Ask for advice. People love to give advice – especially to an eager student who is attentive and interested. Start by asking your manager if it is OK for you outside of key business hours to ask other colleagues for their advice regarding the industry, career paths, coursework, etc. Provided you get the thumbs up, you can ask, “Do you have any advice on best classes to take to learn X?” or “What things do you look for in a résumé before contacting a candidate?” or “What are three resources I can use to learn more about this industry – i.e., websites, trade associations, influencers to follow?” These questions are bound to open up interesting conversations AND give insight into how to increase your marketability as a future job seeker. While there may not be any free lunches, there is a lot of free advice waiting for you at your internship. Just remember to bring a notebook and pen to the meeting so you can retain all the nuggets of wisdom.

There are ways to distinguish a valuable internship from a lackluster one, whether paid or unpaid. Look for mentorship, a challenging environment with planned meetings for feedback and interaction with a diverse group of colleagues and stakeholders to make a great selection. After your choice has been made, take the time to seek enriching experiences and valuable insight from industry professionals. By using all of the tactics, you can turn an unpaid internship into a meaningful out-of-the-classroom learning experience.