10 tips to get the most out of your internship

If you’re thinking about leaving college without doing a couple of internships, don’t. You will be at a huge disadvantage if you emerge into the post-grad world without work experience.

But it’s also not enough simply to do a few internships. You also need to be impressive during your time there.

Here are 10 ways to get the most out of an internship.

1. Understand what to expect from an internship. Generally, the idea behind an internship is to give you some basic exposure to day-to-day work in your field. In the vast majority of cases, you will not be doing glamorous, substantive work; you will be there to make other people’s lives easier. This means you may get stuck doing things like photocopying, filing, arranging meetings, and other things that may strike you as drudgery. In exchange, you get exposure to the field and work experience to put on your resume.

2. However, if you excel at these boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work. Now, you may wonder what being good at photocopying has to do with your ability to, say, do independent research. Here’s the connection: When you come in as an intern, you haven’t proven yourself in the work world. But if you do a great job on the boring work, you’ll show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality. Keep up a sustained track record of that, and eventually someone may let you try something more interesting. But do a bad job on the basic stuff, and no one will trust you with anything more advanced. So it’s important to go into the job feeling that nothing is beneath you.

3. Pay attention to the office culture. Observe how others in the office act and roughly mirror it. For instance, if people modulate their voices when others are on the phone, modulate yours. If people are compulsively on-time for meetings, you should be compulsively on-time too. There are lots of little things like this that will help you appear professional by simply observing and mirroring what you see. Ad while these things may sound small, they’ll likely make you stand out compared to other interns they’ve had.

4. Focus. Don’t use social networking sites or text with friends throughout the workday. You may be confident that it doesn’t distract you or impact your work, but experienced managers have watched enough people to be confident that it does.

5. Take your work seriously. In school, if you made a mistake on a test or a paper, it only affected you. In many jobs, mistakes can be much more serious. If you do make a mistake, make sure you handle it correctly.

6. Ask for feedback. Every so often, ask your boss how you’re doing. What could you be doing differently? Make it easy for her to give you input that will help you grow.

7. Ask your coworkers about themselves. How did they get into the field? What do they like about it? What do they find challenging? What advice do they have for you? Most people love to talk about themselves and will be flattered that you’re asking for their advice. And it will make them want to help you.

8. Dress appropriately. There’s no “intern exception” in the dress code, and yet I’ve seen interns come to work wearing flip-flops, ultra-low-rise jeans, visible bra straps, and worse. If you look like you’re dressing for a class rather than a job, you’re signaling that you don’t take your job seriously.

9. Ask for advice. Talk to people about your career plans. Tell them you’d love any advice they have, either now or in the future. Your coworkers can be helpful to you by telling you about job leads, recommending you for a job, and helping you figure out career choices. But a lot of people won’t offer this kind of help if you don’t explicitly ask for it, although they’ll be happy to help when you do.

10. Thank people. Talk to your manager about what you’re getting out of your internship, and thank her for giving you the opportunity to work with her. People love hearing this sort of thing, so don’t be shy about telling them.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    One doesn’t need internships to leave college with work experience. Personally, I could not afford any internships – but I found that the experience of working through school was a big plus when I graduated. Now that I make hiring decisions that is a quality I look for first.

  2. Kimberlee Stiens*

    Anonymous: Internships are often paid! And if they’re not, the chances are good that they’re illegal anyway. Work experience of any kind is good, sure, and I’m sure that just a job with the same sort of experiences as an intership will work just as well. Though its worth noting that most jobs through school will be work-study, and employers increasingly know this, and in my experience you don’t have to really do anything or have any qualifications to get a work-study. Still definitely better than nothing, but a job outside your school signals you had to compete to get it.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’d have to disagree that internships are often paid. Many of them are specifically for college credit only. Maybe they were when times were good, but now many are not. The student has to pay for the credits to earn rather than get a stipend through the company of internship.

      I don’t know what exactly would be illegal, but if you think so, then they are getting away with a lot.

      Work-study is usually for those who need help paying their college tuition. To some degree, on the graduate level, an assistantship is the same. A student can work for a department on campus, and in turn, the department pays for so many credits.

      1. Kimberlee Stiens*

        I’m not totally sure on the rules for providing college credit, but I do know that an internship has to pretty much be a burden on the employer (a position created almost totally for the benefit of the intern) in order for it to be legally unpaid.

        The six qualities that have to be met: http://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/TEGL/TEGL12-09acc.pdf
        (Page 8 has what you’re looking for).

        Not sure about the credits thing, but wage rules are pretty clear.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s true that the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer. And if it’s not, they can reclassify you as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for all the work you did. (There’s one huge exception to this — nonprofits, which can have all the unpaid workers they want.)

          However, in reality, companies are violating this law all over the place; unpaid internships are very common, and most people don’t even know about this law. (Although the Department of Labor is supposedly cracking down on it.)

          1. Working Through College*

            Truth. At my school, all the shiniest internships go to kids whose parents can afford to pay all their expenses for them. Companies have no incentive to level the playing field (by paying, or helping with housing, etc.) because they’ve already got hundreds of smart kids who can afford it banging down the doors for internships.

            Then when we’re all out looking for jobs, my resume with my grocery store cashiering and working in the copy center will look frankly stupid next to someone who had 2 internships at Fortune 500 companies.

            Also, Kimberlee, show me the college student who’s really willing to start a DOL complaint or a lawsuit at the place where they’re supposed to be getting their first work experience in their field!

          2. Anonymous*

            I find your comments interesting and was wondering if you can comment further – either here or in a new post. You wrote: “It’s true that the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer.” How can that be assessed?

        2. Anonymous*

          Kimberlee – The guidelines you linked fit my past internship well. I cannot complain there. Furthermore, the place where I had my internship had an internship program, and supervisors were hired specifically to oversee the interns. I do not believe it burdened the company. But, I did it for college credit, even though I could’ve been paid for it. So how would that fit in where I could have been paid for what I was receiving credits for instead?

          College credit is usually set up through the school, and a professor works with the student to get the most out of the experience – that can include further work on top of working at the office or site of internship.

          And let’s face it, the stipends these internships pay don’t amount to much. So even if we are getting paid at these internships, it’s more than likely less than minimum wage.

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  4. Anonymous*

    As an intern, you would have to be given some type of job responsibilities. Wouldn’t any type of responsibility benefit the employer regardless of how menial the task the intern is doing?Wouldn’t this always violate DOL standards that the employer cannot benefit?

  5. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Their rule is that the *net* benefit has to be the worker, but not the only benefit. So the company can benefit, but the worker has to be getting *more* out of it than the company does. So, for instance, an internship that was very heavy on training might qualify.

    Some of the criteria are:

    * The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
    * The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
    * The intern does not displace regular employees but instead works under close supervision of existing staff
    * The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded.

    Here’s an article that may help explain further:

    http://www.wagehourblog.com/2010/04/articles/dol-enforcement/dol-provides-guidance-for-unpaid-internship-programs-under-the-flsa-for-forprofit-employers/

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