6 Tips for a Successful Internship Program

By Lauren McCormack, Program Manager, Campus Recruiting, PEAK6

Internships can be a win-win for interns and employers. Done right, they offer several positives, including an incredible source of career exposure; on-the-job training and network building; and a strategic talent pipeline of tried-and-true young professionals for the organization.

But internships also require getting a number of elements right to hit the mark. Here are our top 6 must-haves for a successful program.

1. The internship is an actual opportunity.

 Why This Matters
The intern’s role has to be a legitimate, structured opportunity—not a backfill for an existing role or an extra desk in mom’s office for the summer. If the organization’s need is purely for an extra set of hands at an opportune time, it is unlikely to meet the intern’s need for professional growth or the organization’s need for talent acquisition. It’s also unlikely to appeal to promising candidates if it’s not a clearly defined and structured opportunity to do something real.

How To Achieve It
Create or identify a relevant, purposeful role within the organization that is both accessible and inviting. Communicate the value proposition of the role internally to educate your organization about the value of internships, and to inspire collaboration from colleagues toward your objectives.

2. The internship is educational and allows room for growth and learning.

Why This Matters
Interns typically are students or recent grads who need opportunities to grow and improve their performance on the job. Learning and growth are important for interns, and career development is a crucial element of the internship experience.

How To Achieve It
Assign a dedicated lead at your organization who is responsible for intern education. Develop a structured and organized curriculum, using effective delivery formats, such as experiential learning, organized lectures, and educational platforms. Be sure to carefully consider interns’ growth and learning opportunities in your organization’s plans for intern setup, training and onboarding. Create opportunities to shadow more senior-level professionals to gain understanding of what’s involved in those roles and future growth possibilities.

3. The internship provides access and exposure to real work that matters to your organization.

Why This Matters
A key aspect of any internship is getting to know an organization while you are making a contribution to it. When interns are given the opportunity to provide impactful work, it is mutually beneficial. Employers get the value add of the specific project, and interns grow while seeing the impact their work has on the organization.

How To Achieve It
This can be achieved through straightforward project planning.

  • Provide the applicable training interns will need.
  • Present the problem or work project.
  • Set expectations for how interns can do the work.
  • Give them the time to do the work.
  • Review the work.
  • Provide feedback.
4. The internship offers mentorship and guidance.

Why This Matters
Interns are looking for guidance and mentors through internship experiences, which are, of course, at their core learning opportunities. Mentors offer interns exposure to their industry and job function, can advise interns on career choices, and help them set goals and address challenges that come up along the way. Mentors, meanwhile, benefit and grow from these relationships, too. Mentoring enables the mentor to reflect on their own experience, develop people leadership skills, and share their experience and wisdom to further influence the company culture.

How To Achieve It
It’s crucial to have a clear manager of the intern program who oversees and coordinates activities, and makes sure each intern is paired with at least one mentor. We recommend an intern-buddy system comprised of other interns, recent grads, and other entry-level employees for extra support and guidance. In addition, it’s important to provide advisors like coaches to focus on the intern’s development and recruiters to support next steps. Don’t overlook last year’s interns as potential mentors. Their recent internship experience makes them highly relatable advisors to current interns.

5. The internship provides a social and philanthropic connection to employer and community.

Why This Matters
Feeling connected to the employers’ social impact and corporate purpose are key differentiators for interns when assessing a potential employer and evaluating an internship experience. Enabling interns to connect to the organization’s impact and philanthropy offer important information about what the organization cares about and how it is engaged in the local community, which make employers more attractive to candidates. This is particularly relevant for Gen Z interns, who tend to care deeply about impact.

How To Achieve It
Be sure to include interns in company events, gatherings, and volunteer opportunities, so they can make connections, become familiar with your organization’s purpose, and understand the overall organizational culture.

6. The internship program needs dedicated ownership and support.

Why This Matters
Creating a successful internship program requires dedicated ownership and investment of time, planning, and resources at all levels of your organization—from executive leadership to the day-to-day intern program coordination. It takes a highly organized village to plan for success, execute your program, track performance (of the people and the program), and seek continuous feedback on strengths and challenges.

How To Achieve It
You need buy-in from leadership within your organization, support at various levels, financial resources, and people. We try to involve someone from every level of our organization, including the following.

  • A peer to provide input on what matters.
  • An operational project manager to coordinate and schedule.
  • A manager to support the intern in their role.
  • Leaders and executives to advocate for the program and participate in the extracurriculars.

Whether networking or hosting a book club, the visibility and presence of leaders signals to interns that they matter and that the C-suite is accessible—messages that are vital culture signifiers.

These six elements are crucial to a successful internship that delivers on its promise, leads to job opportunities for candidates, and provides an effective talent pipeline for the organization.

Learn more about our internship opportunities, such as the Trading Experience for Women, the Technology Experience for Women, or our community partnership with Greenwood Project.

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