Most college students realize the value of internships, which provide real-world experience in a potential career field or allow students to explore different jobs before graduation. Having contacts and references before the job hunt or grad school applications begin is invaluable.

But what is the best way to land an internship? In the current economic climate, undergraduates must compete with laid-off, experienced workers for valuable internships. Some students are turning to placement agencies, like the University of Dreams. The company reports that this year, it received over 9,000 applications, a 30% spike from 2008.

For approximately $8,000 each, students are guaranteed placement at an internship in a field of their choice, housing, five meals per week, and seminars and social activities.

University of Dreams Chief Marketing Officer Eric Normington explains that the organization connects interns with the right people in companies like Nike and MTV, by “securing personal relationships with hiring managers”.

Students choose to live for the summer or a semester in 16 different cities in the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. According to their web site, the company offers over 2,000 internships in fields ranging from advertising and public relations to finance and real estate to music and television. Students are connected to the 6,000 program alumni, allowing them to leverage the power of the University of Dreams network.

Normington prefers to think of the University of Dreams as an investment. He says, “Internships are no longer an option, but a necessity.” The company believes that any investment in education, whether it’s tuition or a program like theirs, will provide a good return.

The University of Dreams boasts that 47% of students in the program in 2008 were offered full-time jobs. One of those lucky graduates is Korre Heggem, University of Nevada, Las Vegas alum. In 2007, he interned at Halcon Entertainment, a visual effects studio, and was hired full-time. He credits the “hard work and dedication of the University of Dreams” with placing him at that company, where he later won two Oscars for visual effects work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

But programs like this are not the only path to internships or the only way to post-college success. One invaluable resource is the career services office. Nancy Dachille, Director of Career Services at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA says, “We are constantly being contacted by organizations looking to hire interns.” Her office does not think paid placement services are worth the cost because of all the other mandatory expenses students have.

Assistant Director of Career Development at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, Lisa Boyle agrees. Since the services offered at Arcadia and other colleges, like access to job databases, resume critiques, mock interviews, and on-campus recruiting are free to students, she says, “We do not recommend services with a charge.”

One recent grad who had success with the career development office is Kara DeSalvo, who graduated in 2008 from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. She worked with the career placement office to research summer positions at companies near her hometown in northern New Jersey. The career office was in communication with hiring managers about internship opportunities and alerted DeSalvo about a position at L’Oreal. She applied and interned there for two summers.

A hiring freeze prevented her from working at L’Oreal full-time, but a recruiter from Maybelline New York-Garnier received DeSalvo’s resume, was impressed with the two internships, and now DeSalvo works as a business analyst.

Networking is not just something for executives, but a way that many students have landed internships. Hersh Parekh, a 2009 graduate of Boston University, was interested in government work but didn’t know how to break into the field. Luckily, he had a friend who was interning for Senator John Kerry. His friend reached out on his behalf, and Normington secured an opportunity as a Constituent Services Intern.

Rachel Stark, a 2009 graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, wanted to intern at a major publishing house in New York. Stark says, “I became extremely vocal about my aspirations, making sure each of my teachers knew about my dream of becoming an editor.”

She asked her professors to put her in touch with people in the industry. She set up informational interviews with editors and publicists, asking how they broke into the business, and whom else she could talk to. By getting to know people on the inside, she became more than an anonymous resume when she applied, and eventually landed an internship at Scholastic books.

Cold calling probably takes the most persistence and works the best for small companies. Experience.com, a web site dedicated to helping students find internships and entry-level jobs, recommends students contact companies where they’d like to intern and even suggests students create their own internship opportunities if there isn’t a formal program at the company. Start-ups and other organizations with small budgets will tend to give their interns more responsibilities.

Max Smith, 2009 graduate of George Washington University in Washington, DC, relied on cold calling to get a radio play by play internship with the Clemont Mavericks baseball team.

Smith says, “Now I have opened up an entirely new group of people that I can go to should I need anything in the future. In addition, I hope to end up as a play-by-play broadcaster, so it gave me great experience that would have been difficult to find elsewhere.”

Whether it’s a placement agency like the University of Dreams, the career development office, or pounding the pavement, there are so many ways to find an internship that there’s no excuse not to try.