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How to find the right internship

Recent college grads have found the job market to be somewhat underwhelming. Gaining the attention of a prospective employer is never easy, and it's even less so when the economy is struggling.

One of the ways current students or even recent graduates can make themselves more attractive to prospective employers is to find the right internship. Internships are not always easy to get, and many of them don't pay. But students who find the right internship often look back and recognize that their internship was their first step toward a rewarding career, and a step that provided valuable insight into their chosen field. To find the right internship, consider the following tips.

* Work with your school. Whether you're in college or you're that rare high schooler looking for an internship, lean on your school for direction and advice. Colleges and universities have career centers that can help you gain an internship. They can assist you through access to job listings and by providing advice on crafting resumes and cover letters or tips on how to interview. In addition to your school's career center, speak to professors in your desired field and seek their advice. Many professors likely have experience in the field outside of the classroom and might even still work in the field, be it full-time or as a consultant. These professors can point you toward job opportunities or give you advice on what prospective employers are looking for from an intern.

* Start early. It's never too early to start looking for an internship. In fact, many companies hope to have their internship positions filled well in advance. For example, if you're looking for a summer internship, begin your search no later than January and continue that search throughout the semester.

In addition to starting early, don't just seek summer internships. Some companies make internship opportunities available year-round, so you might be able to get one that coincides with the school year, even if you had a previous internship with a different company during the year. Internship experience is invaluable, and the more of it you can gain the more attractive you are likely to be to potential employers after graduation.

* Do your homework. Chances are you're working toward a degree in a specific field. Research the leading companies within that field and learn about their internship programs. Visit each company's Web site and peruse their job listings. This is more direct and takes less time than searching for internship opportunities on the large job listing Web sites. Such sites might have internship listings, but searching through them can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.

* Do some networking. You might not have an expansive network of associates to tap into, but that does not mean you should go it alone. Talk to your parents to see if they or someone they know has heard about any internship opportunities in your chosen field. You might also be able to network via your school's career center, which likely has an alumni-networking service that enables you to contact past graduates currently working in your chosen field. In some instances, these alumni-networking services can be an internship gold mine, as past graduates might prefer to hire current students from their alma mater as opposed to applicants from other schools.

Competition for internships is often steep, and that's especially so when the economy is struggling and even recent graduates are hoping to land internships. But students can employ several strategies to find the right internships and take their first steps toward rewarding careers.