internships, text-speak, the Karate Kid, and more

Internships can be incredible learning experiences, but they can also harm your reputation if you don’t conduct yourself professionally during them. Here are the top 10 mistakes interns make, and how to avoid them.

1. Scoff at boring or menial tasks. You might wonder what being good at photocopying has to do with your ability to do higher level work. But if you excel at the boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work. That’s because when you start as an intern, you typically haven’t proven yourself in the work world. But if you do a great job on the boring work, show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality, you’re more likely to be trusted with more interesting work. So it’s important to go into the job determined to do every task well, no matter how menial.

2. Dress inappropriately. If you look like you’re dressing for a class rather than a job, you’ll signal that you don’t take your job seriously, so pay attention to how higher-ups in your office dress and mirror that level of formality. Flip flops, exposed midriffs, and, visible bra straps generally aren’t appropriate for the office.

3. Ignore the office culture. Office culture is the invisible force that tells you “how things are done around here.” You can pick up on it by observing how others in the office act. For instance, if people lower their voices when taking phone calls or avoid walking through the halls on the phone, do the same. If they’re precisely on-time for meetings, you should be too. While these things may sound small, they’ll help you come across as someone who fits into a professional setting.

4. Be too casual. Even informal workplaces tend to be more formal than a campus atmosphere, and interns need to adapt. That means don’t put your feet up on your desk, use text-speak in emails, swear, or use cavalier phrases like “my bad” when you realize you made a mistake.

5. Segregate yourself with the other interns. It might be tempting to hang out you’re your peer group, but make sure that you get to know other employees too, including those who are older. More experienced coworkers are generally better positioned to give you career advice, help you connect to a future job, and provide strong references.

6. Don’t ask for feedback. If your manager doesn’t offer up much feedback, ask how you’re doing and what you could do better. And welcome critical or corrective feedback; that’s how you’ll learn and get better at what you do.

7. Neglect to thank people who help you. If a coworker takes the time to help you learn something, make sure you offer a sincere thank-you. People who feel appreciated are more likely to go out of their way to help you again.

8. Don’t pay attention if something doesn’t involve you. Part of the value of an internship is that you can absorb a ton of information about how things work in your field, even things beyond the scope of your immediate work. So pay attention even when something isn’t directly relevant to your work – like during meetings that would otherwise be boring.

9. Talk more than you listen. You might think that you have plenty of answers, but before you offer up new ways of doing things, soak up as much information as you can about how the organization works and why things are done the way they’re done.

10. Don’t keep in touch once your internship ends. Once you’re back at school or in another job, make sure that you stay in touch with the manager and coworkers from this internship. The occasional email about what you’re up to can maintain the relationship and build professional relationships that can help you for years to come.

Also … if you want to listen to a recording of me being interviewed last night on Intern Pro Radio, you can listen to it right here. We talked about what it means to have a good work ethic, what managers should think about before hiring interns, how to get something out of an internship even if you’re just filing and making coffee, the Karate Kid, and much more. The segment with me starts at 16:20 and lasts until the end of the show.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. ES*

    Great advice. Another perspective for #1 – yes, the menial stuff is boring, but it still has to get done! If you do a good job at it, I will definitely give you more challenging, interesting projects, but that photocopying really does need to happen. I don’t give out projects just to create work to do – there’s always a reason.

  2. Ivy*

    I’m actually doing an internship at the moment! I’m doing well on all the things you listed except #5: Segregating yourself with the other interns.

    It’s not like the only people I talk to are interns. I do chat with others in the office whether they are coworkers or work on my floor. When it comes to going out of the office however, I tend to stick to the couple of interns I have become friends with. So coffee breaks and lunches are spent with interns while office time I chat with others. Am I still considered to be segregating myself?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, at a minmum, you’re denying yourself one of the advantages of the internship, which is to build relationships with people more experienced than you. You can certainly do that on office time, but you’ll develop deeper relationships with them (which will often pay off more) if you occasionally grab lunch or coffee with them too.

      Plus, there’s something about always getting coffee/lunch with other interns that minimizes your own role in the office — you’re kind of labeling yourself Intern rather than Employee.

      1. Ivy*

        My internship is double the length of the other interns. Would it be alright to wait until the others leave (in a couple of months) to start going for coffee with the regular staff? I am rarely the one to suggest coffee and I usually exercise during lunch. Usually I go when I get asked to go (which is regular enough for me not to need to approach anyone). I would rather not go out of my way to refuse to go with interns (because they are interns), only to go around the office asking regular staff for coffee. As well, my office isn’t very coffee/lunch orientated. Meaning people rarely go for coffee, and lunch is spent exercising or meeting people out of the office.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You don’t *have* to do any of it — it’s just a question of being aware of what impression it might be creating. Which isn’t a terrible one, but not a particularly useful one either.

          Why not pick out someone on the staff (not an intern) who you click with or would like to get to know better and ask them if they’d like to have coffee with you now? It’s not about just taking a companion when you happen to be getting coffee anyway — it’s about asking that specific person to spend some time with you, and coffee is a good reason.

          1. Ivy*

            Haha I know I don’t “have” to… but I really want to make the most of this experience! I know I won’t do everything perfectly, but I also don’t want to miss doing something so simple that can make a difference.

            My other problem is that most of the people on my floor are executives, directors, and managers. Most are at least 20 years older than me. I am still trying to get used to the corporate environment. As a student and part-time worker you only really interact beyond professionally with people close to your own age and/or status (status might not be the best word but you know what I mean). Also, I have my own office which is great in some ways, but it also kind of disconnects me from others (no talking over cubicle walls).

            Not making any excuses… just telling you my feelings.

  3. jennie*

    Off topic, but did you notice some bad career advice from the “Ask Amy” column this week? She advises against asking for a raise because other employees are making more, but then says the only way to get a raise is to leverage an offer from another firm.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! I usually find that career advice by advice columnists who don’t specialize in career issues is often really, really bad. The first part of her answer (about not having so much entitlement and understanding why a paralegal is paid less than a lawyer) was good, but then she totally imploded with that counteroffer advice.

  4. Meaghan*

    I maintain that people using “text speak” has to be some kind of bad urban legend. I’m 25, and I can’t imagine anyone my age actually being stupid enough to send their boss an email that says “did u c this? lol.” or some such nonsense.

    Then again, I steadfastly insist on proper spelling and punctuation even in my text messages, so maybe I’m in the minority of my generation, but still…

    1. Charles*

      Not a bad urban legend and not really new either. I remember telling folks to knock off the “c ya!” at the end of their emails 20 years ago!

      Although it has not become the norm; I do think that it has become more frequent than it used to be.

      1. KayDay*

        I normally try to keep my texts, and especially my emails, in “real” English. However, I’m very forgiving when people shorten words using really common abbreviations (“u,” “w/” ” ‘cuz” ) when typing an email/text on their phones . But when ppl nvr use vwls and r overly familiar, ROFL, that really gets on my nerves!

        (Actually, I personally don’t understand why we say “I” but not eye; but “you” and not “U”. The inconsistency really irks me.)

        1. Natalie*

          It is entirely irrational, but I cannot stand “ppl” ever. I make allowances (in my head, of course) for someone typing on a phone, but not for someone using a full keyboard.

          1. fposte*

            Heh. I always hear it in Billy Crystal’s faux-foreign accent, pronouncing it “pipple.”

      2. Jamie*

        I can also vouch for the fact that it’s not an urban legend, although I also wish it was.

        Not just from interns either – I see this from people who are definitely old enough to know better. (Well, actually I think anyone old enough to have a job is old enough to know better, but you know what I mean.)

        1. Kelly O*

          It’s definitely not an urban legend; I see it every day.

          Can we please add the corollary that you can only type in ALL CAPS if you are KANYE WEST and even then it’s questionable? BECAUSE I READ IT LIKE YOU ARE YELLING ALL THE TIME.

          Okay, so one more thing – the non-usage of paragraphs. They were created for a reason. Use them. Trust me.

          Your large blocks of text speak in all caps with no paragraphs and little punctuation sent from Outlook do not give me the greatest confidence in your ability to do what I need you to do.

          1. Jamie*

            I’ve actually relaxed to the point where I barely notice the all caps thing, if the message is brief.

            Maybe because in our ERP we need to be in caps lock, so many just pop over to email without switching that it doesn’t bother me for the THANK YOU and OKAY emails. If it goes to whole sentences then it starts to feel like yelling.

            Or maybe I’m just okay with people yelling their thanks and agreement to me. That’s possible, too.

            1. VintageLydia*

              I’m visualizing people just coming by your desk and yelling “THANK YOU!” and then leaving. Made me giggle, anyway.

    2. KayDay*

      In my experience, I’ve generally found that the only people who use text speak in emails are older than us (maybe because they didn’t grow up with text or email, so now they think it is appropriate for any form of electronic communication). One of my senior colleagues, in her 40s, regular writes, from a full desktop keyboard, things like “have u checked with M to see if report is finished? Pls reply by 2morrow. tx!” And this same person is an excellent writer when it comes to full written reports! I’ve never met anyone of the texting-generation doing this.

    3. Student*

      It’s not an urban legend, and it’s not restricted to youngsters (though I’m happy to believe that there’s an age correlation). Some of the professors at my university write the most ridiculous emails, full of “u” and all the other texting shortcuts. Many of them do not understand that the email subject line exists for a reason. In contrast, I’ve only had one student out of ~45 turn in homework with text-speak.

      1. Jamie*

        Subject line! Apparently this is the day all of my pet peeves are addressed here today.

        Why oh why do people refuse to use this wonderful and informative field?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I once had an intern who would use this as the subject line of all his emails to me:
          Message from Kevin

          I finally explained to him why this was not helpful.

          1. Charles*

            That’s about as helpful as “Hi!” in the subject line!

            Off-topic; but this does remind me of a training that I did several years ago. It was showing folks how to use their new database for import duties and tariffs.

            The index key words had to be created manually. I explained that they needed to put themselves into the shoes of those who would be looking things up; for example: if you were to be indexing AAM you might include words such as “advice,” “manager,” “Green, Alison, ” etc.

            One woman just didn’t get the concept; just plain didn’t get it. One of her entries was for “all kinds of oil” for which she put four key words: “oil,” “all,” “kinds,” and “of.”

            Yes, let’s check the index for “all,” “of,” or “kinds” and see what the duty is!?

          2. JT*

            I have a friend who is 45 and a former colleague who is, I think, about 38, do that that – writing “From [their name]” as email subject lines.

            I don’t think it’s a young person’s issue – just a clueless issue.

            1. JT*

              Responding to myself: what I said above is directed to people supervising or working with interns. Interns should suck it up in the near-term about any (ethical and legal) task they are asked to do. But if you look into an internship and hear it’s mainly about stuff where you don’t learn anything, think hard about if it’s worth your time and energy.

        2. Anonymous*

          Why oh why do people refuse to use this wonderful and informative field?

          Well, in the case of my supervisor, I believe it was because mail didn’t prompt for it, and left it blank by default.

    4. Laura L*


      Yeah, that’s how I always felt. I’m 28 and rarely use text speak in text messages and never really have. I didn’t even use them in IMs back in the day.

      I’ve still never seen people use it in a professional setting and I don’t understand why they do, but I do believe it happens.

    5. Rana*

      Unfortunately, judging by some of the emails I received when I was teaching, it’s not uncommon. Usually, though, it’s less a problem with text-speak per se and more just sloppiness about spelling, punctuation, capitalization, combined with inappropriate informality.

  5. Charles*

    Not that I would recommend this for all interns. But . . .

    Several years ago I helped a couple of interns put together a mini-training program. Their internship’s main focus wasn’t at all about training, nor was I suppose to be working with them; but, as soon as I heard they were requested to do “some training” I (as a trainer) offered to help them. Really all I did was review the program and give them some pointers. Long story short, their training program went very well and they thanked me with a gift card. A $50 gift card – that was really sweet!

    Like I say, I wouldn’t recommend or require interns to do this; but, here it is several years later and I am still re-telling the story. So, yea, do thank folks who help you – you will be remembered! (advice for non-interns as well)

    1. Anonymous*

      Just to add to this excellent advice – the (genuine) thank-you is far more important than the (token) monetary gift. So please don’t go hungry or something just to afford a gift card!

      1. Charles*

        True; a genuine thank you is more important than a token gift.

        That’s sort of the reason I said I wouldn’t recomment or require it. But, in this case the gift card was genuine as was their thanks.

  6. Sandrine*

    10. Not keeping in touch once your internship ends. Once you’re back at school or in another job, make sure that you stay in touch with the manager and co-workers from this internship. The occasional email about what you’re up to can maintain the relationship and build professional relationships that can help you for years to come.

    This, so much! In 2003, I did an internship in Oxford with a company I was VERY happy to work with.

    Almost ten years later, we still communicate from time to time :) !

  7. Lilybell*

    And don’t do what an intern in my office did last year: ask the Managing Director’s assistant (me) to get you coffee on your first day. I was nice about it, but let him know I was not there to assist him and that I only work for the MD and getting coffee is not in my job description (I’d be more than happy to get coffee for my boss and I always offer drinks to visitors). I think I was too nice; he still didn’t get it, and on his third day called and told me (not asked, told) to look up 200 company addresses and enter them into a spreadsheet for him -which was a project he was given to do. I wasn’t as nice about it that time.

    Even though my title is executive assistant, I am also considered an assistant vp because I supervise the other admins. I got a secret thrill when my boss told me to have the intern do all of the background work for one of my new projects. You should have seen the look on his face when I gave him his list of duties to work on under my supervision. He actually went to my boss and asked if he really had to report to me – my boss gave him the smackdown of the century and gave him a pretty mediocre rating at the end of the summer (for other reasons as well).

    1. fposte*

      Wow. You got an idiot. I suspect he would have had a much ruder awakening than you gave him at some places.

      It also sounds like he really wanted to make a point of being more important than the support staff, so I hope he’s grasped that he really, really wasn’t.

      1. Lilybell*

        You are right about his self-importance. Most of our interns come from the Ivy League. The vast majority are fantastic with great attitudes, but once in a while we get one with a swelled head and huge sense of entitlement. They don’t realize that every person here was also an academic super-star; our hiring process is ridiculously competitive. I didn’t add this to my OP because I didn’t want to go on too long, but the intern that asked me to get coffee graduated this May (he interned for us last summer) and applied for an SVP opening we have, which is hilarious because he would never even be considered for an entry-level position here. This position requires a PhD and at least 15 years of high-level executive strategic planning experience. My boss and I had a good laugh when I saw his resume on our job site.

      2. Rana*

        Wow. One of the things I learned early in my working life is to respect support staff. Even if one doesn’t care it’s the decent thing to do, it’s an excellent example of not pissing off people with the ability to make your life difficult!

    2. Ivy*

      Wow. Just wow. The sense of entitlement is palpable. If anyone is getting coffee for anyone, it should be the intern getting the coffee for the others at the office. Then he hands off the work he has been given to someone else. Buddy you are at the bottom of the food chain! You haven’t even proven yourself capable of doing a simple task yet! I also cannot stand the fact that he appears to be looking down on you. Even the execs at my company show more respect to their assistants! I can’t even imagine treating someone that way…

      1. JT*

        I don’t think interns should be getting coffee for anyone except in an emergency (perhaps with guest in the office where everyone has to chip in), unless they are interning for a career that really requires that. We have interns do menial but important/substantive work, plus some interesting work. Internships are supposed to be educational and provide learning about a job. Not be a way to get lowest-rung employees.

        “Buddy you are at the bottom of the food chain! ”

        No. They are outside the food chain.

          1. Anonymous*

            Even for paid internships, I would say that it’s practically unethical to hire, say, a “Software Development Intern” only to have him fetch coffee. Job duties should be clearly outlined from the get-go. There’s a difference between menial office tasks and almost subservient ones.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Job duties absolutely should be clearly outlined from the start, and coffee fetching probably isn’t going to be part of a “software development internship.” But in plenty of roles, it’s not subservient to get coffee; many people do it routinely as part of their job.

              1. Anonymous*

                Oops, didn’t see this for a couple of days (I’m the Anonymous above)

                I didn’t mean to make a blanket statement like that (and I certainly didn’t mean to offend anyone in those roles). What I really wanted to say was that entry level work does not necessarily entail coffee-fetching, and that people, no matter age or rank, should adopt the attitude that someone lower (or perceived to be lower) on the food chain should be getting them coffee unless it is a part of the job. That’s where the subservient comment came from.

    3. Charles*

      Two things;

      First, that intern clearly didn’t learn that the word “executive” is in your title, not his.

      Second, kudos to you for not getting his coffee and accidently adding salt instead of sugar. Not that *I* would have done so ;)

      1. Lilybell*

        Ha, thanks for the laugh. Since you guys liked my story, I’ll share my sister’s. She is the #2 at a large federal agency in DC (it’s a pretty conservative place even for DC). One of her interns showed up one day the first week wearing: an unbuttoned man’s dress shirt with a large belt cinching the waist and a sports bra underneath (remember, it was unbuttoned) along with a pair of weird fancy spandex bike shorts and 4-inch stilettos. Talk about clueless. My sister spoke with her and she took everything she said to heart – and ended up being her best intern that summer.

    4. ES*

      I had an intern that was similar. Didn’t ask for coffee, but the same sense of entitlement was definitely there. Drove me nuts!

    5. Anonymous*

      You sound like you knew how to handle this so well. I have a son in this age group and from experience, I know they don’t always understand the right way. I am amazed at this site, so many people here know so much more than I do. I don’t think I would have had the nerve to expect anyone to get me coffee or anything when I was that age though.

      I listened to Alison’s interview on internships and I thought she did a wonderful job. I am way pass this age group but am starting over looking for employment. I wish I had a guideline or something. Like I said, I feel so many people here know much more than I do on how to do things.

      I have gotten Alison’s book and downloaded her interview tips which I hope I get the chance to use. I am in the process of helping a parent right now too. I am in the sandwich generation, I have my family and still need to help a widow parent. That being said, I may have to resume my job search in late August or September.

      I know Alison knows the right way to do things and I really would like to ask her opinion. If she was looking for employment starting over what three steps would she do to give her the best chance to find a job. I know she would have no problem, but for someone like me that has been out of the job market what three things should I do to give myself the best chance? Maybe, this question could help someone else too. I really appreciate any suggestions. Thank you Alison for this blog and all the advice and help you give.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Thank you! I bet you know plenty more than me on other topics though! :)

        I think if I were starting over looking for employment, the biggest thing I would do is volunteer — to build connections and skills and stuff for my resume. Temping too, although that depends on how easy it is to get placed by a temp agency in your town. If you haven’t tried either/both of those, give them a shot!

  8. Jamie*

    “If they’re precisely on time for meetings, you should be too.”

    Excellent advice – and even if they aren’t, do it anyway.

    If everyone showed up on time for meetings we could take back productivity one prompt arrival at a time.

    Oh – and this may be the wrong forum as it’s advice to interns, but I have some advice for the people facilitating interns: If you want to drag other managers into helping find something for them to do a little notice would be nice. Don’t just stand in my office door with one of them peeping from behind you and leave them with the assurance that “IT is always busy – Jamie will find something for you to do.”

    I am busy, but I don’t always have something entry level and more then 10 seconds notice that I have to train would be appreciated.

    1. Anonymous*

      Don’t just stand in my office door with one of them peeping from behind you and leave them with the assurance that “IT is always busy – Jamie will find something for you to do.”

      I humbly submit: Could you write something which will determine which of my automation scripts can get stuck in infinite loops?

  9. Anonymous*

    Don’t just stand in my office door with one of them peeping from behind you and leave them with the assurance that “IT is always busy – Jamie will find something for you to do.”

    Well, this is why you don’t want to find them something to do….

  10. Anon1973*

    #6 Not asking for feedback
    When I returned to graduate school, at the age of 33, I took an internship and after a few weeks asked for feedback. I received a written reprimand. “I hired an intern because I am busy. If I have to take the time out of my day to give you feedback then I wouldn’t need an intern.” I was also told that as an intern, my goal was to “learn how to work in an office environment.” Um, yeah, I’m a 33-year old graduate student with over 10 years professional work experience. You knew that when you hired me.

    Based on that, I quit the intership.

      1. Anon1973*

        In retrospect, there were some flags. I job-shadowed the woman prior to accepting the position. During the course of the day, I asked questions about the industry, current trends, and her approach to specific real-world problems. I disagreed with some of her opinions on these issues.

        However, she never once mentioned her philosophy on internships or that she would be too busy to provide feedback. I was rather surprised by the reprimand. We had a great working relationship until then and I didn’t see it coming.

  11. Anon1973*

    I am, too. The internship I took just after that turned out to my dream internship. I learned a lot, networked, and it greatly helped my career. As an aside, the woman was eventually let go from her position. I hope she found something that was a better fit.

  12. Jennifer*

    I think something that goes along with #1 – having issues with menial (or what the intern thinks is menial) – is stating on a regular basis that this isn’t what you want to do. I work at a newspaper and the intern I sit next to constantly says that she wants to design for a magazine. She doesn’t like the news design shifts that she’s scheduled to do and wishes she had more shifts doing the features pages, and obviously, day shifts as opposed to nights and weekends. My issue is that when I was an intern, I wanted to design magazines too but my opinion changed when I saw the freedom I had at a newspaper. Her opinion isn’t going to change if she isn’t open to all the things she can do here and the suggestions and advice she’s getting from her experienced co-workers. You know, the things you learn as an intern.

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