Summer Job or Internship—What's Best for College Students?

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Whether you should get a job or an internship during your college break depends on your situation. If you're trying to decide, start by figuring out exactly what you're looking to get out of the experience. Here are some tips to help you figure out which one might be better for you.

Identify What You Want or Need

It's important to identify what you want from a summer job or internship. Some factors to consider are:

  • What are your immediate needs?
  • What are your long-term goals?
  • Do you want to gain experience in a specific field?
  • Are you looking to make money?
  • Do you want to start making professional connections?
  • Do you want to receive college credit?
  • Are you exploring whether or not you want to enter a particular line of work?
  • Are you looking for a job you can return to during future breaks from school?

Once you've determined what you're looking for, consider the advantages and disadvantages that summer jobs and paid or unpaid internships have to offer—and pick the option that aligns the most with your goals.

Comparing Summer Jobs vs. Internships

Summer Jobs
  • Guaranteed to make money

  • Likely to make less money than at an internship

  • Can't offer college credit

  • Standard application process

  • Generally easy to get

  • Good networking and connections for future positions

  • Possibility of returning during future breaks

  • May not connect to your field of study

Summer Internships
  • Likely to make more money than a summer job

  • Possibility of making no money at all

  • May receive college credit

  • Can be more difficult to get

  • Good networking and connections for future positions

  • Unlikely to return for a second internship at the same company

  • Growth and exploration in the field that you're studying

Students who work in paid internships are likely to make more money than those who work in standard summer jobs. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the average hourly wage for a paid intern in 2019 was $19.05 per hour. As reported by ZipRecruiter, that's higher than the $16.38 hourly average for teen summer jobs in 2019.

However, if your internship is unpaid, then you won't be making money at all. But you may also be eligible to receive course credits for an internship—which, if transferable, will save you some tuition money. That's usually not an option in a standard job.

Internships can be more competitive and demanding, so you should start applying for them much sooner than you would a standard summer job.

Getting just any summer job can be relatively easy, meaning that you go through a standard application and interview process. And while students are often welcome to return to the same job during each break from school, the same doesn't necessarily apply to internship positions.

Both a summer job and an internship can help you build your network and make professional connections that can be beneficial to your future career growth. However, that's more likely to happen in an internship, which aligns with your field of study.

If you go the standard job route, you may end up in something like a retail job that doesn't have anything to do with what you're going to school for. But if you're looking to make money doing something relatively easy with flexible hours, then that wouldn't necessarily matter.

Paid and Unpaid Internships

Potential compensation can be the most significant difference between a summer job and an internship.

The Highest Paying Internships

Glassdoor.com publishes an annual list of companies with the highest paying internships. Facebook topped the 2019 list at $8,000 per month, with Amazon in second place at $7,725 monthly.

If you take a standard summer job through an employer, then there's usually no question about whether or not you'll get paid. For an internship, it gets a little bit trickier: Employers only have to pay you for an internship if you're considered an employee—and not all interns are.

So how do you know if an unpaid internship is legitimate? Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor outlines the following seven guidelines for unpaid internships:

  1. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship time.
  2. Even though it includes the actual operation of the employer's facilities, the internship should be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  3. The internship experience is tied to the intern's formal education or gives academic credits.
  4. The internship must accomodate the intern's academic calendar
  5. The internship must last only as long as it provides the intern with learning experiences.
  6. The intern does not displace regular employees but works under the close supervision of existing staff.
  7. Both parties must go into the relationship understanding that there is no entitlement to employment at the end of the internship.

It's wise to consider all the possible benefits of an internship before deciding if forgoing income in an unpaid position is worth it. Sometimes, what an unpaid internship lacks in financial reward it can make up in connections, references, recommendations, and course credits.

On the flip side, students who work paid internships are more likely to get job offers after graduation than those who work unpaid internships, according to NACE. The association's research shows that 66.4% of 2019 graduates who had a paid internship received a job offer, while 43.7% of unpaid interns received one.

Getting Ready for Summer Work

You should begin looking for a summer job or internship as early as winter break. If you don't have an updated LinkedIn profile, then you should jump on that right away. Many employers will take a look at your LinkedIn to get an idea of who you are and what experience you have and see any recommendations from former employers. Also, be sure to clean up all of your public social media profiles.

The best way to get started looking for an internship is to contact anyone and everyone you know who works in the field or fields that are of interest. Also, find out if the school you're attending has any internship programs with companies in your field.

Start looking a few months before the school year is over to get the most options and available positions on the radar.

It's important to convey to a prospective employer eagerness, enthusiasm and commitment to an internship, especially in highly competitive fields.

If you're looking for a summer job, then you may be able to get away with looking a bit later. Ideally, you'll be aiming for something that looks good on your resume or is in your area of study. One option to consider is signing up with online sites such as Tutor.com, Yup.com, Care.com or several others to tutor in the subjects you're studying.

Whether it's a paid internship, unpaid internship, part-time job or full-time work, showing initiative and motivation to continue learning and improving skills during the summer break will help you expand your resumes and broaden your knowledge.