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Why Every College Student Should Intern at a Startup

When you’re weighing your options for a summer internship, it’s easy to gravitate toward a big-name company. Who wouldn’t want Procter and Gamble, JP Morgan, or Google on their resume?

But there’s a lot to be gained by working for a smaller company, especially when you’re first making your entrance into the workforce. Working for an up-and-coming tech company may not have the brand-name recognition that your friends in finance and consulting are looking for, but it will give you a host of real-life experience that will be hard to get in any other industry. Here are just a few reasons why working for a startup this summer makes a ton of sense.

You’ll Have Real Responsibilities

At an early-stage startup, time is valuable, and every team member is critical—including interns. This means that you’ll be working on projects that directly impact users, and probably immediately.

Rolling your first feature to production or publishing your first blog post can be scary, but working through these fears and learning to take responsibility as an intern has a lot of benefits. Not only will being able to show ownership of important projects help you land a job post-graduation, but you’ll also gain the confidence to know you can take on a new project and run with it. Later on, while your peers are referencing leadership in the framework of student groups they’ve run when writing cover letters, you can describe the real work you’ve completed—and rocked.

You’ll Learn a Lot About How Companies Work

As an intern for a large company, your exposure is often limited to the small portion that you’re working on directly. With hundreds of interns and thousands of employees, there’s no way to effectively expose yourself to all aspects of the business.

But in an early-stage startup, it’s almost impossible not to. Whether it’s overhearing design debates at the next table or chatting with the head of engineering over lunch, being part of a small team means that you’ll naturally be around every part of the company, and most startups actively ensure that everyone stays in the loop.

At InstaEDU, for example, we have short team meetings on Mondays and Fridays, so that everyone knows what’s coming up that week, and then what was accomplished. We also order lunch for the team once a week, and either discuss a project from one of our teams or brainstorm around an upcoming challenge. And our interns get to be part of all of it.

You’ll Get to Try Out Multiple Paths

If you’re still unsure about what you want to do after college, this cross-team exposure will help you identify other areas you may want to explore. For example, as a marketing intern at a small startup, you may find yourself writing blog posts one day (communications), researching keywords the next (marketing) and then setting up user interviews the day after (user research).

Being part of a small startup also means you have access to employees from every department if you want to explore an area you didn’t previously know anything about. Maybe you’re an engineering intern, but setting up lunch with the head of design or CFO can teach you about other areas—and how they might potentially interact with your chosen field. And, even if you do know what you want to do, understanding other roles will make you a much more effective collaborator going forward.

You’ll Build Great Contacts

The great thing about small startups is that some of them become big companies, and if you work somewhere with fewer than 30 employees, you’ll have a chance to get to know everyone. And these people can turn into great friends and great business contacts for years to come.

For example, I interned at Box in college and had the opportunity to get to know the founders and early team members well. The folks that are still there eight years later are running an enormous, successful business, and many of the people who have left have gone on to do interesting things as well. In addition, two founders that I’ve worked with are now investors in InstaEDU, and many, many other co-workers have served as mentors to me.

Even if the startup you intern at doesn’t succeed—well, that just means you’ll have that many more companies where you know someone when it’s time to look for your next summer internship or first out-of-school job.

It used to be that the cost of interning for a startup meant working for free or significantly decreased wages, but fortunately, that’s rarely the case anymore. So, get your applications in. If you can show intelligence, motivation, and talent, you’ll have companies ready to make you an offer before you can send out that second round of cover letters.

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Photo of interns working courtesy of Shutterstock.