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Leveraging the Most From High School Internships

Many high school students in the GM Student Corps summer internship program soaked up the wisdom that their leaders had to offer. The 110 students worked alongside salaried retirees, who not only cleaned up parks with them in Detroit, but also served as mentors.

(For the full story about the experience, click here.)

"I'm grateful to have them," says Geneva Brooks, 17, of the retirees. Team leader Dawin Wright became a role model, teaching life lessons and offering advice on interviewing and body language, says the rising senior who hopes to study social work in college.

"He told us if someone is speaking to us, don't have your head all slouched down. It's respectful to show them you are paying attention," says Geneva.

One of the GM volunteers, Tom Parkhill, 69, planned to give students on his Student Corps team his business card at the end of the program. "They have expectations. Our job is to do what we can to make those expectations happen," he says. "You need door openers and people who can help."

The interns became aware of the value of networking over the summer. Gregory Thomas, 17, who wants to be an engineer, is eager to stay in touch with his teams' leaders. "If later in life I want to try to work for GM, I might get tips from them," he said.

So how can high school interns get those business cards and make the most of a summer work experience?

It can be challenging for high school students to establish those business relationships, says Megan Dorsey, a college consultant and founder of College Prep Results in Houston. Often employers don't hear the perspective of young people often, and students should be encouraged to speak up.

"High school students are often very timid," she says. "Try to be as outgoing as possible. Take any opportunity to go out to lunch with people and get to know them socially."

Students who have done an excellent job should make sure to stay in contact with their supervisor or boss. Ask if it's OK to ask for a letter of recommendation and thank them for the experience.

"Make sure you do the written thank you," adds Dorsey. "A lot of students are so comfortable with email they think that's sufficient. It's really not. A written, snail-mail note really means a lot."

Joie Jager-Hyman, founder of College Prep 360, has worked in college admissions and says letters of recommendations from a summer internship can be helpful in cases where students have been deferred or wait listed. Otherwise, the basic application doesn't usually ask for those types of recommendations.

But it's clearly advantageous to stay in touch with internships mentors. "It's a great way to continue a relationship that has been inspiring," says Jager-Hyman. Consider formally asking the person: Will you be my mentor?, she suggests. "Many will be flattered." Then decide what that will mean, such as checking in once a month or once every other month.

It's fine for the student to stay in touch with the employer periodically, says Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser with College Confidential.com. "Most busy adults don't have a lot of time for a new pen-pal, but it can't hurt to ask a mentor about how he or she could like to continue the relationship, perhaps suggesting occasional email updates over the year ahead," she says. "Some mentors will be eager; others less so."

Asking for an evaluation—formal or not—can be helpful, although a bit daunting for a teenager. "Performance evaluations are a part of many grown-up work experiences, so this can be a valuable way to get a glimpse into that world," says Rubenstone. The review could allow the students to identify strengths and weaknesses and decide whether to ask for a letter of recommendation. Also consider how enthusiastic a letter a boss might write before making a request, she adds.

Internships and job references are not required at college-admissions time, so high school students should only include them with the application if the references offer information that the rest of the application does not or if they help to set the student apart from the crowd, says Rubenstone.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's blog post: Turning your summer work experiences into a college essay.

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