How to Create a Successful Internship Program
Published: Mar 23, 2023
Each year, Vault surveys thousands of current and former interns at more than 100 internship programs to create our annual Internship Rankings. Last year, we asked 12,000 interns to rate their programs in a variety of areas, including quality of projects, real-life experience, networking opportunities, training and mentoring, and more. In addition, we asked interns to tell us what’s most important to them in an internship and what they want most out of an internship.
And here, below, are the most important factors that go into creating a highly successful internship program, according to thousands of interns at more than 100 of the top internship programs in the U.S.
Real-world experience is the backbone of any successful internship program. When interns have the opportunity to work on real assignments that impact a product or service, perhaps even affecting the bottom line, it provides them with a deep sense of responsibility and satisfaction, along with giving them hands-on experience. Impactful projects are especially helpful to students who refer to these assignments on their resumes and in their future interviews—which is extremely beneficial when it comes to landing further internships and entry-level full-time roles.
In addition to the opportunity to work on real, impactful assignments, interns should ideally have access to formal training. Formal training sessions can take place off-site, on-site, or virtually, and can include both hard and soft skills training. For example, training can include learning about certain software programs, technical processes, and even how to deal with interpersonal conflicts in the office. Some internship programs hold initial week-long trainings off-site in-person (which double as networking events), while other programs offer training on-site virtually throughout the course of the internship. In rare cases, depending on the industry and type of employer, formal training might even include industry-specific certifications.
Building and maintaining a strong professional network is essential to a successful career, and the beginnings of that network often begins in an internship. In fact, an internship program that offers networking opportunities is often a requisite for students, who see the ability to make professional connections (and maybe even forge long-lasting relationships) as one of the most important factors when choosing an internship program.
Of course, networking opportunities come in a variety of shapes and forms. They can include informal company outings and events, allowing interns to speak with experienced professionals in low-pressure social settings. And they can be more formal, such as lunch-and-learn panels, where interns can meet full-time staff, senior employees, and upper management. The benefit of these, more formal types of events is they give interns the opportunity to meet high-level personnel and at the same time learn more about a company’s culture and expertise.
Taking networking one step further, a successful internship program should include mentorship opportunities. An informal way to do this is to have an open-door policy that gives interns access to senior-level employees, allowing them to ask questions relating to a project they’re working on or about any concept they don’t understand. A more formal way is to pair interns with mentors upon their acceptance into the program. In that case, the mentor acts as both an educator and supervisor to the intern, helping them develop the skills they need to perform their tasks while upholding the organization’s rules and workplace culture. Often, a mentor is also responsible for making sure that the internship requirements and interns’ goals are being met.
A great internship program treats its interns like full-time employees, which includes giving them the opportunity to receive feedback relating to their performance. This could be done through weekly or monthly evaluations, or with an extended review at the end of the program. In the event the company offers mentorship opportunities, these evaluations are typically performed by an intern’s mentor.
During a performance review, an intern will receive valuable feedback and insight into their strengths and weaknesses, which is incredibly important early on. Moving forward, interns will be able to more easily identify areas in which they need to improve, and any positive feedback will act as a motivator for them to continue to pursue their career.
Potential for Full-Time Employment
One of the most highly sought-after aspects of a great internship is a direct path to full-time employment upon completion of the program. First and foremost, when an employer selects candidates for its internship program, it must do so with the same care and vigor as it does when it selects its full-time employees. The bottom line is the internship should work both ways—it serves as an educational period for the intern, while acting as another step in the hiring process for the company. If an employer is thorough and deliberate when hiring interns, it will lead to a higher conversion rate, which is a benefit to all involved.