As a rising Freshman with a decent GPA and heavy on-campus involvement, I applied for paid-internships at big name companies such as Patagonia and HP naively assuming I was a shoo-in. Eight rejection emails later, my ego was in the dumpster and I was stuck deciding between working for Domino's Pizza as a deliveryman or an unpaid position at an upstart. After some soul searching, online research, and asking business professionals in my industry, I was able to compile a list of pros and cons which helped me in my decision and can hopefully help others in similar situations.
Unpaid Internships Are Great For Future Internships, Not Jobs
When I was first making my decision, my parents were very adamant that I take my unpaid internship over a steady source of income because it would give me "real-world experience in my future career field." While it is true that unpaid internships provide valuable career knowledge, unpaid internships do not necessarily correlate with higher employment rates. A recent post-graduate job placement rate study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students who worked unpaid internships have an almost identical chance of being hired when compared to students who had never worked an internship at all. Additionally, the same study found that those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively).
Students with paid internships far outpaced their peers with an average $51,930 salary. For a senior, this means you might as well work for a minimum wage job which will help relieve financial burdens, rather than an unpaid position that you assume will make you more employable. Conversely, a study created by the same organization found that unpaid internships do have some intangible positive outcomes such as networking, confirmation of careers, and understanding coursework; however, these benefit underclassmen the most and should not be taken into account for seniors.
Don't Necessarily Base Your Decision Off Money.
It is so commonly known that college students are cash-strapped that it has become a meme. Every college student in the nation has student loans, books to pay off, and chipotle debt. If the financial burden is so great that you must work any job that pays, then absolutely go find any job that provides a steady income; however, for anyone else, there are a wide variety of alternatives that you can utilize to subsidize the opportunity cost of an unpaid internship. Additionally, many internships provide a stipend, free food, or other benefits, while most accredited universities also will provide college credits to interns.
In closing, I decided to accept my unpaid internship position due to my financial state and academic year. This scenario differs greatly between every other college student. It is imperative to holistically calculate the cost, weigh the benefits, explore alternatives, and then make a logical decision on whether that unpaid internship is a sound financial investment, your future career very well may depend upon it.