Skip to Main Content
by Cathy Vandewater | May 18, 2012


With the all hubbub surrounding unpaid internships, it's clear there's a disconnect between what interns want and what many employers are offering.

Labor laws dictate that an "internship" must pass a series of litmus tests to be considered legally unpaid, including providing structured training; and the intern no displacing a paid employee (or performing the same job for no pay that they would otherwise be entitled to compensation for).

But how can you tell going in whether you'll learn anything at an internship, or whether it's a waste of time?

The indictors are there, if you know what to look for. Keep these questions in mind for your next opportunity—and don't be afraid to ask more questions if something looks dodgy. Your time is valuable!

1. Do the interns end up coming aboard?

The real meaning behind this question isn't just what your chances are of eventually getting hired; it's whether the company views its interns as disposable. If they choose interns carefully, then train and bond with them, they're much more likely to hire.

The giveaway: You'll have to ask at the interview. Try to phrase it as "So has anyone here ever been an intern?" and follow up with questions about how they came to their current role. You should emphasize interest on the journey, not the end results (a job). And if they say yes, they've hired in the past but can't promise you a position, take heart; it's still a good sign for a worthwhile experience.

2. Is it paid?

Again, while it's great to be paid for your work, compensation is more important as an indicator of quality. Companies that pay their interns are investing in them; they're taking on more responsibility, more paper work—heck, more taxes. They'll be more likely to see you as an employee, not a throwaway.

The giveaway: Payment should be clear from the job description. If it's not, look for an emphasis on mandatory college credit—many unpaid internships use school credit as a compensation loophole, with no upgrades in program quality.

3. What can I expect to learn?

Though everyone goes into internships with a vague sense that they need "experience," it can be hugely helpful to your search to figure out what you need to learn. If you have a specific end in mind—a job title, for instance—look at an internship as a stepping stone to that career, skill-wise. An editor, for example, often manages material on a publication's website, or working with freelancers. Does this internship involve working with content management systems, or handling editors' correspondences? Have a mental checklist of at least a few skills or experiences you'd like to come away from the internship with.

The giveaway: A list of responsibilities in the job description is a great sign. If the company has taken the time to list a few examples of what an intern might do, it shows they've put thought into the program, and expect to do some training.  Be wary of postings that promise you'll learn "everything" about a certain industry though—that's a sign that nobody intends to actually train you, but rather expect you'll learn by osmosis.

A few other good signs that an internship has merit (or doesn't):

1. Your friend who works there recommended it

This also boosts your chances of getting hired— reports stats of 1 in 10 referrals eventually getting the job. (Compare that to one in 219 for job board opportunities).

2. The posting and interviewer are snark-free

If the job description reeks of bitterness ("we're looking for someone who CAN ACTUALLY BE ON TIME.") or the interviewer badmouths previous interns, run. This is the respect you can expect to receive every day on the job.

3. There's no "intern alley"

If your interviewer reveals that interns sit among coworkers, there's a much better chance they'll be treated as such.

 --Cathy Vandewater,

Read More:
Internship Programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act (BLS)
Dear Class of 2012
Tips for Interviewing on Skype


Want to be found by top employers? Upload Your Resume

Join Gold to Unlock Company Reviews