How to Make Co-ops and Internships a Better Investment in Career Development

by George K.

April 22, 2020


For college students that study business, summer internships are expected, almost mandatory, of anyone entering the industry (of course, there are some exceptions, like entrepreneurs and self-starters). Many students use summer internships to secure their first jobs after graduating from college.

The university I attended, Northeastern University, differentiates itself by offering 6-month internships, called co-ops, that are built into the curriculum. Students studying business can potentially graduate having completed 3 co-ops, totaling 18 months of work experience, and if they are successful, a post-graduate job offer. Northeastern University attempts to replace the status quo summer internship system with an internal program and providing students with a network of potential internships to choose from.


But after you’ve secured an internship or co-op, how do you get the post-graduate offer? How do you make your internship or co-op successful? How do you make your internship or co-op a great investment in yourself?

According to Harvard Business Review, making the most out of your internship includes being punctual, completing tasks with excellence, taking on more work, being resourceful, asking good questions, and building professional relationships.

According to PwC, staying focused and being professional among other things, are their tips for making the most of your internship. However, these goals are vague and aren’t very actionable. They are general and don’t provide a proper action plan. In most student’s cases, they do not have 6 months (a Northeastern co-op length) to make a good impression with their quality of work; they only have 10 weeks to “build a professional relationship” or “ask good questions.”

Even more so, these goals are now the bare minimum of what an intern should be doing, almost a given. All employees are expected to be professional and stay focused at their jobs. What can interns do to get the most from their internships and the most out of themselves?

To properly make the most of your internship, you need to invest in yourself. Investing in yourself means cultivating your personal, social, and professional capital. That includes creating actionable goals for your 10-week or 6-month period. Instead of “building strong relationships,” grab a coffee with a new person at your company every Tuesday. Instead of “taking on more work,” check in with your managers daily, when you come in and when you leave, so you both know how much is on your plate.


Personal Capital

Investing in your personal capital means understanding your strengths and weaknesses, as well as what you can bring to the table. I think the best way to understand how to invest in your personal capital is through an example.

As an intern for a consulting firm, some of the skills I brought to the table included Excel modeling, reporting writing, and basic graphic design. At my last internship at a consulting firm, I immediately made it known that I can do basic graphic design. I was tasked with not only regular intern duties but was now given control of the design of certain advertising flyers and client PowerPoint presentations (and I was a finance intern, very far from marketing!).

With these projects, I became better at graphic design and gained the trust of my managers and managers that I never worked with on marketing and graphic design (something I never thought I would or could be doing before I started).

I was able to invest in my personal capital by presenting my strengths and showcasing them through projects with my managers and did not stick to just finance, even if that was what my internship was centered around.

If you have an internship in New York City, and you know the best activities, ask managers if you can organize a teambuilding event for your team. If you are good at soccer, organize a work soccer team for your summer internship to showcase your soccer skills. Maybe your manager’s boss is a huge soccer fan, allowing you to make this connection.


Social Capital

Investing in your social capital at an internship might be the most important aspect of the actual internship. It’s incredibly hard to prove in 10 weeks that you can handle the work that would be representative of the job you are interning for. However, “building relationships” and “making connections” and “keeping in touch” are not effective goals or actions to set for your internship.

Developing your professional network through multiple internships during your college tenure is an effective way to secure a post-graduate job opportunity or know someone who can help you with that.

At my personal internships and co-ops, I made sure that I grabbed coffee with someone I never met at least once per week. There is no reason to stay in your lane during an internship. Limiting your connections to those you work with immediately limits yourself and your future. I also made sure to keep in contact with previous managers at least 2 times a year.

This way, if I ever needed a reference or a recommendation, I could easily pick the conversation from when we last spoke or emailed, rather than the last day of the internship.

Professional Capital

Finally, your professional capital is incredibly important. You need to generate value at your firm. Cultivating your professional capital can mean making your team rely on you to become a valuable member.

For example, I was able to author and create a report that was updated quarterly at my last internship. I’ve had future interns and current employees reach out to me to see if I can help them with updating the report for a future quarter if an issue arises. Of course, I am willing to help, but it goes to show that even being 1 year removed from an internship, your old job is reaching out to you. Try to make a project or a process that is dependent on YOU. The harder it is for a company to part with you, the more it will make them realize that they need YOU.

Key Takeaways

  • Develop your personal, social, and professional capital through actionable goals.
  • Personal
    –     Demonstrate all of your strengths in the first week of your internship. If you are good at event planning, ask to plan a happy hour, if you are good at marketing, ask to create some PowerPoints, if you are good at soccer, create a company soccer team for teambuilding. It is best that what you are good at has nothing to do with your actual internship.
  • Social
    –     Grab coffee with a new person at the company every week. At the end of your 10 weeks, you have 10 new connections.
    –     Reach out to previous jobs at least 2 times per year.
  • Professional
    –     Create a process or project that is dependent on you, making it harder for the company to let you go.

About the Author

George is a recent graduate of Northeastern University’s Class of 2020, studying mathematics and finance. He completed 3 co-ops for a total of 20 months’ work experience, working at a tax firm, a bank, and a consulting firm.

For personal reasons, George has asked to stay anonymous, but he was glad to share his takeaways with students who can be smart in using their internship and co-op experience as a triple investment in their edge for today’s job market.