How to Build an Effective Summer Internship Program

Summer is right around the corner, which means college students across the country are laser-focused on locking down an internship. When done right, internship programs can be an enriching experience for both interns and your company. Plus, they can be an invaluable way to build your company’s brand amongst future top talent.

But getting there requires a strategy. How do you provide interns with field experience and contribute to company productivity? Whether your internship program is in the works or you’re considering hosting one in the future, here are the top six tips to keep in mind:


1.  Establish Clear Goals

When internship programs go wrong, it usually comes down to poor planning. Your first step is to establish a clear vision for the role interns will play (which is also helpful once you address the legal regulations around intern compensation). Start by asking your team these four questions:

  • Who wants or would benefit from an intern?
  • What kind of work would the intern do?
  • Is there a project the intern could complete by the end of the internship?
  • Would you consider offering the intern a full-time position at the conclusion of the program?

Concretely answering these questions will help you understand if an internship program is the right fit for your company. Remember—the answers may vary from team to team, but nailing down these details upfront will ensure that you point your resources in the right direction. Once you understand your goals and feel confident that an internship program is a good fit, you can move forward with confidence.


2. Understand the Legal Requirements

You’re likely familiar with the intern-related lawsuits that have been in the headlines, from Condé Nast to Viacom. The good news is that as a result of these lawsuits, the guidelines for running a compliant internship program are clearer than ever. Most importantly, unless the intern is doing menial office tasks or merely shadowing employees, the intern most likely needs to be compensated. In many cases, paying your interns hourly is the safest bet. You can also consider offering college credit or a stipend, though each of these options comes with its own set of regulations.

Once you decide how to compensate your interns, consider consulting your in-house legal team or an external legal professional for a second opinion.


3. Take Hiring Seriously

Hiring anyone to join your team is no easy task. And while interns may be a part of your company for a short stint, it’s still critical to find the right fit—particularly if your internship program is a path to longer-term employment.

Begin with a clear job description and understanding of the required qualifications and competencies. Because you’ve already established internship goals, make sure to hire someone who can onboard, train, and complete a project within the allotted time period.

We recommend following your normal comprehensive interview process, which may include:

  • Initial phone screen
  • In-person interviews
  • Work sample submission
  • Background and reference checks

For candidates who won’t be in the same city until the internship begins, a video call can be used in place of the in-person interview. If there’s also potential to hire this intern full-time at the end of the program, make sure that you ask about their long-term interest from the get-go. While it may seem excessive for a temporary position, this diligence guarantees that everyone will get the most out of the experience.


4. Onboard Efficiently

With an internship program, the first 90 days may be the only days the intern has with your company. That means interns must adapt to your company culture, workload, and values in a fraction of the time. With this in mind, teams should distill their normal onboarding process down to the core ideas, and try to bring interns up to speed within their first week.

Before your interns tackle their main objectives, consider warming them up with a relevant project that will help acclimate them. For example, have interns start with a project on competitor research. This kind of low-stakes project provides an orientation to the market and also allow the intern to jump right in. With the manager’s guidance, this decreases the time it takes for the intern to ramp up and confidently tackle bigger projects.


5. Balance Management with Mentorship

At the end of the day, the goal of an internship is for a student to learn. Internships allow students to spend time in the field that they hope to pursue after school. Companies who hire interns play an important part in shaping future industry professionals, and managers should consider the impact they can have as a mentor.

The best ways to ensure the internship is mutually beneficial is to have clear conversations on setting goals and expectations. This should be a two-sided dialogue where interns define what they want to learn during the program, and managers set guidelines for the intern. After establishing these concrete goals, managers should hold weekly 1:1 meetings with their interns to discuss concerns, feedback, and check in on progress. This way, managers can course-correct and mentor their interns on an ongoing basis.


6. Take Time to Appreciate

At the end of an internship, both parties should be able to look back and see exactly how the internship met initial expectations. If your interns have made a meaningful contribution to your company, be sure to acknowledge their hard work with a thoughtful gift, team celebration, or letter of recommendation.


As HR professionals, you play a fundamental role in structuring and overseeing your company’s internship process. If you keep these tips in mind while building your internship program, everyone benefits. The company plays a vital role in mentoring a future professional, enables the completion of a project that is valuable to the team, and helps to associate the employer brand with a positive work experience.

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