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Get the Right Internship at the Right Time

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- There's really no argument against a good internship opportunity.

Data from Internships.com show that 69% of U.S. companies with 100 employees or more see internships as a critical steppingstone to full-time jobs. Executives at those firms say they are more likely to hire an intern than an outside job candidate, making those career apprenticeship opportunities more critical than ever for college students and college graduates looking for a leg up in a tough employment market.

So how do you choose the best internship opportunities?

"Working at a big-name company looks great on a resume, but being able to say to a potential employer that you have had some meaningful hands-on experience in a particular field beyond fetching coffee and answering phones can be equally impressive," says Kathy Harris, a managing partner at Harris Allied , a New York City executive recruitment firm. "It really depends on where you are in your academic career."

Harris has some good "timeline" advice blending the importance of brand names with unique career needs.

"If you are a freshman or sophomore in college, go for the big-name company, because you still have time to gain practical experience during an internship before your senior year," she says. "If you are a junior, try to land an internship that will really allow you to hone your skills for full-time employment after graduation."

Harris says the best internships offer these advantages:

A 'reality check." A good internship enables a college student to walk in the footsteps of actual career professionals and see how they conduct themselves. "You get to see what it's actually like to work in the field you think you want to work in -- or you may realize that you hate it and that it's not for you," she says.

They are "gateway" opportunities to fulfilling careers. Companies hire from their internship ranks routinely, so getting a solid internship is actually the first big step in landing a job. "Given that HR departments offer internships to recruit the best students from the top schools, they are really a valuable steppingstone in securing full-time employment upon graduation," she says.

To get the best internships, Harris advises crafting a solid cover letter (emphasize accomplishments and career goals), and clean up Facebook or Twitter to eliminate your beer-chugging or inappropriate language. Character counts with hiring managers, so don't leave anything to chance.

Also, open a LinkedIn page and connect to as many companies and executives as possible -- showing you're a "serious" candidate, Harris says -- and check regularly with your school's job placement center on internship availabilities.