Yesterday The Washington Post wrote up an article on internship placement companies in D.C. and the students that fork over thousands to join them. It's kind of disheartening to hear about all these out-of-towners who are paying their way into the District for a job that they aren't even getting paid for in the end.
For those of you out there who are contemplating using one of these companies to find a "guaranteed" internship position, there are much better ways to spend your (parents') hard-earned cash. First and foremost, do not doubt the power that is Craigslist. Yes, the site has had it's moments (a/s/l anyone?), but if you are checking out the jobs section, you may be shocked to find very legitimate internship and job offerings. The two or three most valuable internships that I have participated in were found on Craigslist. Basically, don't knock it until you try it.
Another thing that I wanted to bring up was your outreach efforts. As students, internship opportunities in both the District and otherwise are thrown at us all the time. We are constantly inundated with emails from academic advisors, professors, alumni, parents and friends telling us about great jobs at companies that are actively looking for an intern. Herein lies the problem. When companies are looking for interns, everyone knows it. Thousands of students are finding out that the spot that you want is open and the competition becomes cut-throat.
My advice to you? Do not be afraid to be the courageous student who reaches out to a company to inquire about possible internship offerings. If there is a company that you would love to work with, there is nothing wrong with sending along an email explaining who you are and asking if they ever take interns or "need help around the office". Not only will you be taking the initiative to pursue a company, but chances are, you won't have to climb over thousands of other hopefuls in the process. Obviously, this doesn't guarantee anything, but it's worked for me and others I know in the past.
Some helpful links for students in the area: