Graduation is just a few months away. Four years of night-long study sessions -- and weekend-long parties -- are about to end. After several years of being broke and living in tiny dorm rooms, I bet you just can't wait to transition into your first real live . . . internship.

You didn't really think they were going to hire you to run the place fresh out of school, did you? Ha. You're lucky if they are willing to "hire" you at all. Internships have become a fact of modern work life, with even experienced workers slogging through them when they switch careers.

Here are answers to a few basic questions about making the transition through professional post-adolescence.

QWhat is

an internship?

AIt's a (preferably brief) training period for someone breaking into a new profession.

Why would I want one?

It solves the age-old conundrum of how to get a job when you don't have any experience, when all the jobs being offered require experience. Many employers hire their best interns, or they steer them to jobs elsewhere.

Will they pay me?

Maybe. Many internships in "glamorous" careers such as publishing, music and broadcasting don't pay. Minimum-wage laws don't apply because internships are supposed to be for the benefit of the worker, not the employer. Tell that to the intern whose skin has turned sallow after a summer serving as a glorified temp in front of the copy machine.

If it's unpaid, how am I supposed to pay for rent? And food? What about my student loan?

If you're not lucky enough to have rich and generous parents, you will probably need to get a second job, perhaps waiting tables. Budgetwise, it's safer to think of your internship as an extra semester or two of college than as your first job.

When is the best time to start looking?

As soon as possible. Sixty percent of students surveyed by career publisher Vault Inc. this month said they began their searches six months to a year ahead of time. Of the remainder, about 30 percent said they started looking two to five months ahead. Only 8 percent are waiting until the last minute -- or will admit it, anyway.

Where should I look?

Everywhere. The big, prestigious employers will often have formal internship programs. They are more likely to pay, and consequently they receive hundreds of applications for each position. These programs are competitive, and many require that you have at least one other internship under your belt before they will even consider you. (That always struck me as a bit perverse, but they can afford to be picky.) Check with your school's career center for more information about these programs, as well as help with the application process.

However, don't limit yourself to big-name employers. Find people who are doing the sort of work that interests you and ask if they would mind having an intern. Sometimes the best internships are ones you create yourself.

How can I tell a good internship from a bad one?

Respectable internship programs give you real work to do, as well as regular mentoring. Bad ones stick you with all the piled-up clerical work.

During the interview, ask what your responsibilities will be. Will you get any training? It's a good sign if a company permanently hires a lot of its interns. If it will put you in touch with former interns, that's even better.

And once I get there?

Take internships very seriously. Dress professionally. Turn off your cell phone. When you have down time, seek out more work. Treat it just as if it were a "real" job -- because it's your best shot to win one.

Holiday Cheer or Jeer?

Does your office celebrate the holidays? Do the company traditions have you ready to party, or ducking under your desk praying for Jan. 2? E-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com if you're willing to share your experiences for a story on the subject.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers at 2 p.m. Dec. 3 at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/jobs/careertrack.