Curious about what work will be like after college? You might benefit from an internship.

An internship is a position offered by a company or organization, usually to an undergraduate or graduate student, that allows the student to gain experience and get an insider's look into what a full-time job might entail. Though some internships are paid, most are unpaid. Internships often last for a short period of time, such as a few months during the summer between school semesters; some may last for up to a year.

Internships can be full-time or part-time. They are always supervised, and usually only 25 percent of the time spent in the internship can be spent on clerical or administrative duties. The idea is to get students working on projects that give them a strong sense of what their future career in that field would truly entail.

Why would I want an internship?

Hands-on learning in a particular field can immerse you in your future work, helping you decide if a career path is really the right one for you. During that time, most participants will learn new skills and gain fresh knowledge that can help them make better choices as to what they want to do after earning their degree.

For instance, let's say you are studying public policy in college. You might intern with a law firm for the summer, but then decide you didn't like the hectic pace and lack of face-to-face work with clients. You might then choose an internship with a different place — such as a health services center — and be inspired to continue on that path after graduation.

An internship also allows you to build a strong network of professional contacts. Such contacts can be invaluable when looking for a new job, seeking out recommendations or striving for professional advancement, to name just a few situations. In fact, internships can earn you a position all on their own: many businesses that offer internships go on to offer a full-time position to particularly hardworking interns when their education is done and they are ready to move into the workplace.

Finally, some colleges actually require internships in certain fields. In most cases, those internships are applied toward degree progress as college credit; for example, a three-month full-time internship during the summer might count as a full college credit.

Where can I find good internships?

There are several places to track down internships, whether paid or unpaid. Many companies will post internship opportunities on websites where you might typically find job postings. Another option is the career services center at your college, which will almost always have a list of local internships available through area businesses.

Keep in mind that many internships are highly competitive, so applying for one early makes sense. Be prepared with a strong resume and interview skills; a talk with career services can help you polish up both for the rigorous pursuit of internships.

When choosing an internship, it's important to understand the rules for paid and unpaid experiences. Unpaid internships must meet stringent guidelines set forth by the federal government, such as forbidding companies from benefiting financially from the internship, and not allowing the internship to take the place of paid employees. Check with your state for local labor laws that have bearing on paid or unpaid internships.

No matter what internship you choose, pay close attention to all aspects of the experience, including the feedback received from the employer, to help you make better choices about your life after college.