An internship or a co-op is often considered to be nirvana for the college student seeking work experience. The original "co-op" idea—cooperatively combining academic study with practical work experience—has evolved into a broad-based experiential education program for gaining relevant work experience. The experience gained in an internship/co-op can be the key differentiator for many new college grads seeking entry level jobs. Make no mistake—a successful internship can be your ticket to locking down a job offer (or several job offers) early in your final year.
Many schools offer academic credit for formal internships. In addition to standard work hours, you may be required to write a paper to report and reflect on your internship/co-op experience.
Another adaptation of the "internship" term is to refer to summer employment as an "internship." This experience in the field also plays well in your job search, although you should not be concerned with finding summer work specifically listed as an internship. Depending on the size of the employer, if you ask if they offer summer internships, the answer may be "No." However, if you ask if they offer summer jobs, the answer may be "Yes." Why the difference? Because some employers consider internships to be formal training programs in preparation for real work, while summer jobs are simply doing the real work. Whatever is closest to the real work is always the best experience.
While an internship can be the single best differentiator for you in achieving job search success, it does come with some attached baggage. Namely, why would you want to work anywhere other than with the company you interned with?
The opportunity often exists to work for the company you interned with after graduation. That is, if you were a productive intern. While accepting a position with your internship employer can make your job search infinitely easier, doing so also limits your scope of opportunities to just one company. Would you consider marrying the first and only person you ever dated? Probably not. Yet that is what many students are doing when they go to work for the employer where they interned. If the company is everything you ever wanted, if it provides you with opportunities for growth and advancement, if it helps you realize all your hopes and dreams—go for it. But then why are you reading this information? Probably because you want to know if there may be something better out there.
So here's the dirty little secret:
For most students, the company you interned with is just one of many potential employers to consider in the job search. Yet other employers will usually wonder why you chose not to work for the company where you interned. You will need to have a ready answer to this question, or you may end up looking like the unwanted leftover from another company's internship program. If there is an offer to return full-time after graduation, make sure you mention this fact in your correspondence (written, verbal, and during the course of the interview) and why you decided to consider other employers.
The strongest hand to play is when you have an open offer from your intern employer to return as a full-time employee after graduation. It will provide you with an offer already in the bank, which can only be beaten by better offers. The net result is that it will intensify the competition for you as a prospective employee. Use your time wisely while the offer is still open, but do not put off a decision beyond the requested response date. Do not accept one offer, then continue shopping for a better offer. Work within the time frame given.