how to make the most of your internship

Across the country, thousands of college students are preparing to start summer internships, which are a crucial way to get experience before graduation. But simply having an internship isn’t enough; you also need to impress your employer, form solid relationships with your coworkers, and pay attention to what’s happening around you. Here are eight tips for getting the most out of interning.

1. Figure out what you want to learn from the experience. Are you trying to figure out if you want to work in this field after graduation? Hoping to pick up a particular skill? Trying to get accomplishments that you can add to your resume? Being clear in your head from the start about what you want to get from the experience can help ensure that you get it, whatever it is.

2. Don’t segregate yourself with other interns. Get to know other workers too, including those who are older and more experienced. While you might prefer your own peer group for happy hours, coworkers who are a decade or more older than you are often better positioned to help with your career, whether it’s giving you advice or helping you connect to your next job.

3. Take your work seriously. In school, if you made a mistake on a test or paper, it only affected you. But at most jobs, mistakes are much more serious. If you make a mistake, don’t minimize it. Instead, take responsibility for it, figure out how you’re going to fix it, and make it clear that you understand its seriousness.

4. Pay attention to how things work around you. Pay attention even to things that don’t directly involve you – like meetings that would otherwise be boring – and absorb all that you can. This is one of the best ways to gain familiarity with the work world, and it will pay off later.

5. Ask your manager for feedback. You want to know your manager’s assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, because that’s valuable information that will help you do better in this job, and in the next one. Say something like, “I’d really value hearing your advice on where you think I’m doing well and what I could work on improving.”

6. Learn from your coworkers. Ask them about their own careers. 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 about their experiences. Best of all, it’s likely to make them want to help you. Speaking of which…

7. Ask for advice. Talk to people about your future plans. Let people know what you’re hoping to do after graduation, and that you’d love any advice they have. Your coworkers can be very helpful to you in the future – telling you about job leads, recommending you, helping you figure out career choices, and so forth. But most people won’t offer this kind of help if you don’t explicitly ask for it, although they’ll often be happy to help if you ask.

8. Thank people who help you. If your boss or another coworker takes the time to help you with something, give them a sincere thank you. People who feel appreciated are more likely to go out of their way for you again. If you don’t seem to care, they probably won’t bother again.

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

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Tax Nerd*

    Here’s some advice I wish I could give all interns. Most of it applies more to accounting, but hopefully most of it is applicable to other fields:

    * Dress appropriately. Err on the side of conservative until you figure out the dress code (written and not). For women in particular – short skirts, cleavage, hooker heels, spaghetti straps, and bare midriffs are probably not okay unless you’re interning at a fashion magazine. Scratch that, unless you’re modelling for a fashion magazine. Dress like the kind of professional who gets paid for their mind. Do not revert to college/partywear at after hours events – you will be judged on whether you can seem respectable outside of the office and after a drink or two (if you are of age).
    * Get to know people up the chain from you, and impress them. Not with tales of beer pong, but with your industriousness, thoughtful questions, and good attitude.
    * Ask questions! This lets the people above you know what you don’t know. More importantly, it signals to them that you are aware that you don’t know everything yet.
    * Draw some boundaries. Don’t “friend” your coworkers and manager on Facebook. Use LinkedIn instead. Facebook is for people at your level only, and I would personally suggest that you not even do that, but this advice tends to fall on deaf ears. (It becomes a problem when years later you and another person you interned with are both up for promotion, and you remember all the Facebook whining one of you did about the job.) Also, do not attempt to date your coworkers, but if you do end up in a relationship, keep it out of the workplace completely. No one wants the drama, and you both will be forever tainted for confusing the workplace with a dating pool.
    *Ask for work if you need some. Ask in person, and work your way up the food chain (unless your industry does it differently). If there’s nothing for you yet, find some online tutorials having to do with your field. Don’t just gchat with your buddies about how bored you are.
    *Don’t complain. If you have to get lunch for everyone or scan a bunch of stuff, do so without complaint.
    *Leave your parents at home. Even if they tend towards being helicopter pilots, don’t have them call your boss because you didn’t like something. Don’t admit that you still have your parents’ accountant do your tax return. Don’t bring one of your parents as your +1 to a company outing.

    1. AD*

      I’ll add a few:

      — Carry a note pad to meetings and take notes as needed.

      — Don’t worry about how the other interns perceive you if you become the “boss’s pet”. You want to be on good terms with everyone, but socializing is NOT your first priority.

      –Keep your ears out for projects, even tiny things, that can be done. For example, if you hear people complaining all of the time about how nobody wants to update the stupid company blog or something, you then volunteer to do that.

    2. Lexy*

      Really good advice Tax Nerd, thoughtful questions is especially important.

      I must quibble with one tiny part of one of your (great) points though…

      What’s wrong with having your parents’ accountant do your tax return? My husband and I are in our 30’s with a small business and we have the same CPA as his parents… he came to our wedding and is a great accountant as well as family friend, why replace him just so we can have a different CPA?

      1. Lizzie B*

        Lexy, I think Tax Nerd was suggesting that if you’re 23, make $20,000 a year, and use Form 1040EZ, your tax situation simple enough — and you should be self-sufficient enough and a good enough problem-solver — to file your taxes yourself.
        If you send your taxes for your parents’ accountant to do, that implies not only that your parents pay for the service, and probably many other of your financial needs as well, but that you have no idea how basic personal finance principles work, and probably do not assume responsibility for other areas of your life either.

        1. Tax Nerd*

          Lizzie B nailed it.

          It may also be a particularly sticky issue when you’re in the business of preparing tax returns. Not being able/willing/interested enough to do your own doesn’t send out reassuring signals to your supervisors, much less clients.

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