What Makes a Good Internship Experience?

by | Operations

Internships that Add Value

Most college students aim to land an internship before they complete their degree or even shortly after. Internships usually offer hands-on experiences that are not found in the classroom. In addition, companies benefit from providing internships by attracting fresh talent that they may wish to permanently hire in the future.

While internships can offer valuable experiences, some may overpromise or underdeliver. No one wants to spend an internship doing busy work for someone instead of learning how to thrive in their desired industry. That’s why it’s important to know what to include in your internship program to make it appealing to potential applicants, as well as beneficial to both the interns and your company. 

Keep reading to learn what makes a good internship experience.

Real-World Tasks

Some internships only allow the intern to do busy work around the office, such as getting coffee, making copies, taking notes, and cleaning. In these instances, students will not learn any skills that apply to future positions, and they will leave the internship without gaining valuable experience.

Good internships teach students the necessary skills to succeed in a field. These programs allow the intern to complete real-world, professional tasks that challenge them in ways they have not experienced.

Keeping the intern under the guidance of a specified leader is one of the best ways to ensure the person learns how to apply knowledge gained in school to industry tasks. Furthermore, the leader can monitor how well the intern works both autonomously and as part of a team to determine their potential as full-time employees.

That is not to say that there should not be education-oriented aspects to the internship. Attending conferences, seminars, or classes related to the field can also teach interns skills that apply to the job. As long as the learning sessions are relevant to the industry in which the intern is working, you can consider them valuable.

Examples of Real-World Work Experiences

Companies like GE have interns work on data science, software development, and information security. The experiences gained from the internships can apply to company positions like scrum masters, product managers, UX, and software engineers.

Facebook treats its interns like the rest of its employees. They assign interns to almost all of their project teams and give them access to all company resources in the hopes that they will succeed and transition into full-time employees. Students gain real-world experience by working alongside actual employees, and they even interact with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In short, an internship can drastically increase the chances of getting hired since most employers prefer hiring people with experience outside of college. However, this only happens if interns have opportunities to perform real-world tasks.

Exposure to Workplace Culture and Leadership

When an intern aligns with a mentor or project team, they can experience workplace culture firsthand. The student gets exposed to how the company ecosystem works, the processes involved in bringing a project to fruition, how coworkers collaborate, how to work smarter and more successfully, and what it takes to get positive feedback from management.

Individuals who experience workplace culture will gain valuable skills and knowledge, making them appealing candidates for full-time positions. And if hired full-time within the company, the former intern can skip some of the foundational training steps since they already know how to fit in with the company environment.

Another important aspect of a good internship involves leadership engaging in the program. As previously mentioned, Mark Zuckerberg hosts regular question-and-answer sessions with his Facebook interns. Company leaders can gauge the interns’ skills to see how they would function as an employee, and they can inspire them to take their work more seriously.

In addition, students benefit greatly from seeing success. Talking to CEOs, CIOs, CFOs, managers, and founders can spark a drive to become a similar leader. Learning from those who excel in a field can teach someone tips and tricks to replicate the steps they took to get in that position.

Leaders should review the projects that interns complete and offer advice and constructive criticism on how to improve. They can discuss the strategies they employ to drive the company forward, as well as answer any industry, skill, or knowledge-related questions. At the end of the program, company leaders should meet with the interns and employees to determine how they can enhance the program for the next internship class.

Examples of Engagement with Workplace Culture

Disney’s interns work side-by-side with project teams and “Imagineers” to complete their assignments. They get real on-the-job training similar to full-time employees, and they present their findings to the senior management team.

Walgreens also assigns mentors who encourage interns to input their ideas to management. The interns participate in challenging projects to develop their skills, all under the guidance of a team of higher-level employees. Walgreens even provides their interns with information sessions to give them insider knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry.

Networking Builds Connections Beyond the Internship

Whether a student interns for a technology startup or even a venture studio, they will have the opportunity to make professional connections in the industry. These initial professional connections made at an internship can open a world of opportunities for students. Participants will have a higher chance of finding a job at that company or elsewhere, which can make the employment-searching process far easier.

Giving interns opportunities to meet with professionals will open up space to discuss their career goals with industry experts who can advise them on how to achieve their dreams. Additionally, these professionals may include them in their network. Having a spot in a respected business person’s network can help the student receive consideration for future open positions, which boosts their chances of employment. Giving your interns the chance to make connections offers them a tangible incentive to try their best at the company.

Financial Compensation

Students are more likely to apply for a paid internship because it offers them tangible benefits for their hard work. While someone could get a valuable experience at an unpaid internship, many view it as too much work for too little reward.

Of course, not every technology startup can afford to pay their interns, but the ones who do not show less productivity among their interns. A survey showed that paid interns performed professional tasks for about 42% of their workday, while unpaid ones only did industry work about 30% of the time.

Paid interns also have greater satisfaction with their program because they usually get more real-world experience. Employers who treat interns like employees give them more opportunities to develop their industry skills, which gives them an advantage in the work environment.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean every unpaid internship lacks value when it comes to experiences. For example, Forbes does not pay their interns but still gives them substantial work such as researching, writing, and fact-checking magazine and blog articles. The company also requires interns to conduct themselves professionally by following the dress code and work schedule. And they make a point to introduce students to senior leaders.

Most unpaid internships do not require full-time work. Many of them involve part-time hours with only two or three days of work each week. Furthermore, they are usually conducted by nonprofit organizations that often pay their full-time employees less than for-profit companies.

Federal guidelines allow companies to waive payments for interns if they follow these conditions:

  • The employer states before hiring that the intern will not get paid and will not work the same as full-time employees.
  • The internship provides educational training with hands-on experience.
  • The internship is considered part of the student’s coursework or they get academic credit for completion.
  • The program corresponds to the student’s academic calendar to allow them to complete their exams and campus obligations without penalty.
  • The employer provides the intern with meaningful tasks and experiences over a set period, ending the internship when the student stops benefitting.
  • Current staff members devote part of their day to supervising and directing the intern.
  • The intern will not have a guaranteed job once they complete the internship program.

These guidelines still allow unpaid interns to receive a beneficial experience during their work. However, it may actually involve more work for the employer to not pay them than to provide financial compensation.

Road to Employment

If you offer paid internships, you can define a path to employment for your interns. One of the primary reasons employers assign interns real-world deliverables is to see how they perform and identify their potential to become full-time employees. During the internship, interns display their aptitude and talents, and leaders can see how they fit in company culture.

Offering interns the chance to demonstrate their capabilities as full-time employees provides an excellent incentive to work to their full potential. If they know they have an opportunity to create a roadmap to a career out of the internship, they are more likely to put in more effort. However, they will need to be treated well with financial compensation and other benefits.

The company should work to scope the ideal candidate for the position who will match the types of employees who currently work there because they will become part of the team and collaborate cross-functionally.

Some employers treat the internship process like an extended interview, such as E&J Gallo’s CIO Sanjay Shringarpure. The company groups IT interns into one of three roles: programmer, business, or data analyst. They also hire candidates with interdisciplinary skills as needed. 

The interns work on multiple projects as they prepare a capstone presentation for the IT leadership team. During the presentation, company leaders conduct a group interview where they analyze how individuals perform at the company and consider them for full-time positions. Afterward, they extend position offers to college seniors and invitations to another internship for underclassmen who qualify for their company.

Even if students do not receive full-time offers at the end of an internship, they have still gained many experiences that could help them in their career search. And if they were paid during the internship, they will have a small financial start to tide them over as they look for jobs. The intern will also have professional connections that can notify or recommend them for opportunities, and they will possess the necessary skills to potentially have a fruitful career in that industry.


As an intern, you can learn industry insight, gain real-world experience, and have access to mentors from a leading venture studio. HVL interns have the chance to make professional connections, work alongside teams that impact the community, and explore all aspects of business areas to expand their skill sets and see tangible results from their input.