At their best, internships are a great way to make connections, gain new skills, build experience on your resume, or boost your grad school applications. And at their worst? Well, you might end up sorting the mail for 40 hours a week with not even a “thank you” to show for it.

So how do you make sure that your next internship is of the career-building variety? Of course, you won’t know exactly what to expect until you get there—but there are warning signs to look out for and common pitfalls to avoid. Here are three red flags you want to dodge:

The Horror Story: Bait-and-Switch

During the interview process, you were promised the world: exciting perks, plenty of networking opportunities, and the chance to work on exciting, high-profile projects.

But when you arrive, you’re stuck filing and FedExing, and the only time you see another human is when you’re fetching coffee for your boss. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Think again. As one recent grad recalls of her intership, “I ended up having to clean my supervisor’s office, maintain light fixtures, and run his personal errands. This was not what I signed up for when I took the internship at a commercial real estate firm,” she says.

How to Avoid It

Yes, you'll probably have to do some menial tasks at any internship, but you’re there to learn, so look for an internship that will give you some concrete responsibilities and hands-on training—not one that makes vague promises of “exciting opportunities.” During the interview process, ask point-blank questions about the opportunities you’ll have to sit in on meetings, attend brainstorming sessions, or participate in the company’s core work. Be wary of an interview where you hear all about the company’s big new initiatives, but not a word what you specifically will be doing.

Find out what the your typical day will look like, and ask about what types of projects other interns have completed. If possible, talk to former interns from the company, or ask your school’s career center for recommendations on internships with reputable companies. The more questions you can get answered ahead of time, the less likely it is that you’ll be blindsided.

The Horror Story: There’s No Structure

You show up on the first day, ready to get to work! You’re excited, have tons of ideas, and are ready to get your feet wet on a big project—all you need is someone to give you an assignment. But, instead of being greeted by your co-workers and an eager mentor, you feel like no one even knew you were joining the team. And you find yourself sitting around and checking your email for the better part of a week.

How to Avoid It

While you might not have a jam-packed schedule or responsibility for high-visibility projects from the get-go, there should be some clear direction about what you’ll be doing. So during the interview process, or on your first day, make sure to ask about the specific projects you’ll be working on. Also know who your direct supervisor will be—and if you don’t have one, ask for one. You should always have a go-to person who can answer your questions and help you find assignments.

Also know ahead of time whether you’re joining a formal internship program or if you’ll be the guinea pig. If you go the latter route, you might not be given a lot of direction at first. You may have to seek out opportunities on your own and ask others how you can help them, instead of waiting to be handed projects or assigned a mentor. And that’s OK—just adjust your expectations to ensure you’re prepared for, and not disappointed by, the experience.

The Horror Story: Free Labor

You didn’t necessarily expect a paid internship, but after you put in your 50th hour of answering phones and scheduling your boss’ meetings this week, you’re starting to feel like your company is getting away with free labor. In this tough economy, some companies will advertise a position that requires multiple years of experience, specialized skills, and sometimes even a degree, but offer little or no compensation. The college graduate I spoke with said, “they initially brought me in as Administrative Assistant for 20 hours per week, but after firing an Account Manager, they increased my workload and hours, but still didn’t pay me anything.”

How to Avoid It

Keep in mind that there should be some level of compensation for your internship. This may come in the form of a reference or recommendation letter, course credit, tangible experience and skills, or a stipend, but don't take "we're awesome colleagues!" as payment for your services.

To determine what you should expect, find out the norm in your industry. In the business world, interns are usually paid, assuming they have some level of experience. Some fields, particularly medical fields, require rotations, internships, or practicums prior to the official hire. Brianna Howard, an aspiring Occupational Therapist explains, “Most OT programs require 50 hours of observation to apply, and an (unpaid) internship is really the only way to get those hours.” But fulfilling this requirement usually results in a job offer, which acts as compensation, even if you aren't paid a stipend at the time.

Make sure you investigate ahead of time what you will actually be getting out of the internship, as well as the payment terms. If you’re getting some serious hands-on reporting experience from an important newspaper, you might be willing to forego the cold, hard cash (at least for a semester). If you’re fetching coffee and changing light bulbs, and there’s no end to your “internship” in sight, you should think twice about not getting paid. There's something to be said for gaining experience and course credit, but don't fall for companies looking for free labor.

Yes, it’s a tough job market out there, but don’t settle for an internship that’s not going to provide you with a good experience. After all, it’s your stepping stone to the great things that will come next.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.