Internships are the best-kept secret to bridging the world of work. Once you get on campus, check out the internship program so you can start planning. Every college should have a well-oiled program offering appealing internship opportunities related to your major and career field of interest, but you can always bring one you develop for consideration.

Imagine how cool it is that as a student, you can intern in an organization that could someday sign your paycheck! Keep in mind the impact of being immersed in the industry of your interest: the marketplace exposure offers you a tremendous edge over others who do not have this learning opportunity. You’ll gain real-world experience: it’s priceless, whether or not the internship offers monetary compensation. The bottom line is, internships provide built-in, top-notch knowledge and networking that you would never have access to any other way!

While some internships offer compensation and others don’t, even those that do not provide payment feature other benefits that make them invaluable. If you desire employment at a competitive agency or firm, the networking and experience alone often lead to an inside track for job offers.  Informal methods, such as personal recommendations and word-of-mouth referrals are easily tapped when you have solid experience as an intern. Remember, interns are typically privy to inside information, including internal openings, as well as upcoming plans for expansion and hiring.

So, what if your school does not offer internships, or at least not any in the organizations you like?  Forge a relationship with a professional contact and take it back to the college. Most colleges are happy to formalize the necessary paperwork and bring a new internship into the fold.

One of the least-discussed benefits of an internship is the direct learning that comes from seeing how the world of work operates in action. Understanding how companies and organizations function in real life can be a stark contrast to what is taught in your classes. Learning how to navigate an organization’s culture and values can never be fully understood until experienced. It is essential in understanding whether a potential employer is a good fit for what you need.

When you are a keen observer, you can watch and attain firsthand a basic understanding of the expectations of a profession and career path. Interacting with professionals in your career field will cultivate preparedness for the professional experiences that will come with a post-graduation job offer.

Don’t forget the benefit of gaining an inside track to individuals that you wouldn’t likely connect with on your own. Having access to seasoned professionals can lead to mentorship relationships that will serve you well for your entire career. Read my blog on mentorship here.

Lastly, there is professional learning and, just as important, personal learning that occurs when working closely in a professional setting on a regular basis. Essential life and professional lessons can be learned in a more informal, less judgmental environment when you are just “learning the ropes” as an intern. Accountability is generally less stringent and there is more of an attitude of teaching and critiquing when you’re an intern versus correction as an employee.

What you see and experience will become the foundation of your professional knowledge base, which is all the more reason to try and do more than one internship. Internships are the least utilized and best-kept secrets on college campuses. Take advantage of this fast-forwarding professional experience to jump-start your career!