After my Freshman year of college, I had an internship during the summer at a radio station writing copy for station commercials. After my Sophomore year, I had an internship at a radio station’s promotions department, having a voice in the direction of the promotions the station created. And after my Junior year, I had an internship at an advertising agency writing copy for ads.

In those three internships, I made 0.0 dollars.

But that was more than OK by me. Because I had also gained some advantages of real world experience that went beyond the resume and portfolio that many other students had.

The bad reputation of free internships

This is what the opponents of unpaid internship programs are missing: Focusing so much on the lack of compensation for the short-term rather than what it could mean for them in the long-term. Their primary argument against free internships is that these positions are primarily about fetching coffee, answering phones and doing data entry. Basically a mindless, exploitative position.

Whoa there. Not so fast.

Yes, there are absolutely some really lousy internship programs. But in that event, the fault lies with the employer for not having any structure and being content to watch students fall between the cracks rather than mentoring them.

I’ve got news for you, students. That outcome could happen to you whether you get money or not. So don’t assume that paid internships are automatically better than unpaid ones. It’s just not true.

Don’t miss the opportunity

I understand that interns have student loans and may not be in a position to go unpaid for a summer or semester. However, I am here to tell you that if companies are forced into a position to offer paid internships or nothing at all, there will be plenty of students missing out on the experience they could’ve had, whether they were compensated for it or not.

There are some well-intentioned businesses that are just not in a position to pay an intern – particularly small businesses. I should know. My small business was once in a position where we had a fair amount of overhead and we just didn’t have the budget for a paid internship. Did we feel bad about that? You bet we did. And apologized as much to every candidate.

We could’ve easily gone a different way and not done an intern program at all.

But if you think that would’ve been a good option, I can point to a slew of interns who are now successes in the real world, who have thanked me numerous times for that experience. We coordinated with local colleges to give these students credit for the hours they worked. Still, some of them went unpaid and traveled one hour, one way to get to their job. Why? Because they needed the experience and I did my best to reward them for that passion by making sure they got the most from their time with our agency. I considered them members of the team.

Besides college credit, we were at least able to compensate them for their travel and pay for some lunches now and then. It wasn’t much, but they said it was absolutely the best learning experience they had ever had – better than the knowledge their teachers had dispensed to them via dusty textbooks in the classroom.

They had a choice to accept that internship or not. They accepted. And were glad they did.

Employers need a defined program

When they can’t pay, it is absolutely imperative that those businesses provide an experience to the point of where the intern can have a lot to show for it by the conclusion. In our case, we made it our mission to ensure that the copywriter or graphic design intern had at least one portfolio piece, if not many, to show for their time with us.

This involves sitting down with the intern at the onset of the internship, if not before their first day, to discuss what goals the intern has for the months ahead. It doesn’t mean the company can accommodate all of them, but at least has a framework to create a customizable program.

If you’re a student and you go into the program with only a vague sense of your days to come, the fault lies with you for not asking questions prior to entering the program. And why wouldn’t you? Why can’t you?

Ask them what your responsibilities will entail. Ask them if you can receive a letter of recommendation if you perform a satisfactory job. Ask them what the possibilities are of being hired if you are that outstanding – they don’t have to promise you a job, but there’s nothing wrong with the question. Heck, ask them how much of the role is just about errands.

You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Yes, you can do that, because if you’re not going to get paid for it, the one thing you have is your time. Don’t be afraid to fight for the quality of it. Make sure they know that just because you’re young and willing to take an unpaid internship doesn’t mean you’re without goals you want to accomplish. Yes, you can demand better than accepting that the company’s name on your resume is good enough.

So I ask you:

Would you rather have a paid internship that involves menial responsibilities or an unpaid one that puts you in a very fulfilling, satisfying role?

I know you want the best of both worlds of pay and a quality role where you’re valued. That’s easy. Unfortunately, the ideal and what’s reality don’t always match. Which means if the opportunity before you is truly that good, be careful about how hard you want to dig in your heels on pay.

You may have your moral victory without a good opportunity to show for it.


Dan Gershenson is a Chicago-based consultant focused on brand strategy and content marketing. Dan has guided a variety of CEOs and Marketing Directors at small to medium-sized companies, providing hundreds of strategic plans to help businesses identify their best niches and areas of opportunity. Dan blogs on Chicago Brander, mentors advertising students and cheers relentlessly for the Chicago Bears. Dan graduated from Drake University with a degree in Advertising.