what your internship manager wishes you knew

College extracurricular activities and getting good grades are important, but one of the most important things that employers want to see on recent graduates’ resumes is work experience – which for most new grads often means internships. But simply doing an internship or two isn’t enough; you also need to impress while you’re there – and how to do that isn’t always intuitive when you’re new to the work world.

If you’re one of the many college students preparing to start a summer internship next month, here are eight pieces of advice that most managers of interns wish students arrived already knowing.

1. Working an internship is different than being in school. The rules and expectations for a job are different than what you might be used to in the classroom. In an internship, your work will impact people other than yourself, which means that it needs to be done well and done on time – whereas in school, slacking off only impacted you. Additionally, expectations and accountability tend to be higher, and employers tend to prefer employees who fit into their business culture (unlike in school, where individually is often rewarded).

2. This really does go on your permanent record. Part of the reason you’re doing an internship is to begin establishing your work track record, a professional reputation, and a professional network. The people you’re working with are the people who are going to be vouching for you to other employers in the future. That permanent record you heard about in high school but which never really seemed to materialize? Now it starts for real.

3. You might not use skills you learned in school, and that’s normal. Particularly if you’re a liberal arts major, much of what you learn in college is about teaching you how to think, rather than hard skills that you’ll be using on the job. If you go into an internship expecting it to directly relate to the classes you took, you might be disappointed. Instead, see it as an entirely new class, and don’t be shocked if it doesn’t reference too much from your academics. (On the other hand, you might find that it does build on your classes; it depends both on your line of study and on your internship.)

4. In fact, some things in your internship might be the opposite of what you learned in school. For instance, college often rewards lengthy explorations of a single topic. In the work world, though, shorter is nearly always better. Your manager will probably want you to quickly get to the point – providing the upshot and a few key points, rather than a lengthy paper. Another way work can be different is that in school, you’re often encouraged to pick a point of view and argue for it. At work, you’ll be expected to consider each side of an issue thoroughly and make a recommendation that account for the complete picture.

5. Part of the point of an internship is to get exposure to how things work in an office, and in your field specifically. Interns sometimes think that the learning component of an internship is confined to the specific projects they’re working. But often, far more learning happens simply by being in the office where you’re interning.

6. Effort is nice, but it’s not what matters. It’s great to try your best, of course, but it’s not the main measure by which your work will be judged. The quality of your work and the results you get are what matter most at work, not how hard you worked to produce them.

7. Getting feedback now will be less painful than getting it later. Part of the point of most internships is to learn how to function in an office, and that can mean a painful learning curve as you get used to a set of different norms. It can be embarrassing to be corrected on things like not paying attention in a meeting or using text-speak with a client, but it’s far better to get this feedback now as an intern – while the stakes are lower than they’ll be once you’re a regular, full-time employee.

8. Your internship gives you access to a network of people in the field you want to work in. Take advantage of it. Too often interns just quietly do their work and then end their internship without ever getting to know people in that organization. Instead, get to know the people you work with and build relationships with them! Talk to them about what they like and don’t like about their jobs, what they wish they knew at the start of their careers, and what you’re hoping to do after graduation. Most people will be happy to have these conversations with you and stay in touch after you return to school – but you need to put in the effort to make it happen.

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

{ 82 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Ahhh interns.

    Don’t forget the basics:

    – Dress nicely and professionally (you don’t need expensive suits, but do dress appropriately. Ladies – what you wear out on Friday nights is not ok for the office)
    – Show up on time
    – Don’t be hungover
    – Write well

    Generally where I work we’re pretty forgiving of interns – we know they’re learning. So if you screw up in your first few weeks, don’t panic. As long as you learn from it and improve over the course of your internship, you’ll be fine.

    1. class factotum*

      – Be nice to everyone, even the guy who mops the floors and the woman who delivers the mail. They all work hard and are essential to the successful functioning of the organization.
      – Do not let the words, “That’s not my job” cross your lips now or ever.

      1. Chinook*

        Also: Just because the Admin Assistant or Receptionist doesn’t have the same degree you do doesn’t mean she should be ignored when she is giving you advice. They often have been in the industry longer than you and know a thing or two about what you are doing.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          My dad taught me that at a very young age. Always be nice to the secretaries. Obviously you should be nice to everyone, but the secretaries in particular have more influence in the organization that you might realize, and they can make things really easy for you, or REALLY difficult.

          1. Jessa*

            Absolutely secretaries can get you things nobody else can. Never ever get on the wrong side of the admin staff (or the librarian in an law office.)

        2. Viv*

          And don’t assume that the Admin Assistant or Receptionist doesn’t have the same degree or a better one than you have. It’s been a rough few years!

          Just bought a grad card with a New Yorker cartoon for my nephew: “It’s an intern eat intern world out there.”

          1. AdminAnon*

            I have a dual degree in English and communication. Just because my job only requires a high school diploma doesn’t mean that’s as far as I’ve gone.

    2. KarenT*

      Yes, this. Basic professionalism is so key and in my mind the most important thing an intern can learn. It’s actually pretty rare for me to be unhappy with an intern’s work (I used to run our internship program, supervising about 6-8 interns per year. And yes, these were legal internships for college credit and many a former intern are hired on permanently. My current boss is actually one of them), but some of the basics you outline are usually missing. A few to add:
      -Show up on time. Also, show up everyday you are supposed to. And if you can’t, phone or email me. Otherwise I am sitting at my desk half fuming that you didn’t show up, and half worried you are dead in a ditch somewhere. I’m also counting on you to deliver your work on time. I posted once here about my intern who called in sick because her air conditioner was broken, which meant she couldn’t sleep because she was hot, so she was too tired to go to work.
      -Don’t be hungover. And when you are, don’t go around telling everyone.
      -When you apply for an entry level job that will report to me and don’t get the position, don’t ask if you can come and see me to learn what you can do to improve for next time and then spend the whole meeting complaining that it isn’t fair because you were here first and Bob isn’t as smart as I think he is. In fact, don’t use the words “It’s not fair” ever.
      -Don’t try to involve me in your politics and disagreements with your peers. Unless someone is acting wildly inappropriately, I don’t care.
      -When you are invited to sit on meeting with higher ups and it is made clear that you are there to observe as a learning opportunity (room full of VPs and directors), don’t take a minute to tell us what we are doing wrong since it doesn’t match what you learned in school.
      -No, we are not having a pajama day.
      -No hugging and exclaiming wildly when you run into people you like in the office hallway (this one is shockingly common).

      1. Julie*

        -No hugging and exclaiming wildly when you run into people you like in the office hallway (this one is shockingly common).

        I have seen this, too! I can understand why this happens, but yeah, don’t do it.

  2. Bryan*


    I had a professor who taught a class where there were many side stories about what it was like being in an office (she was an adjunct after having considerable office experience), and it was one of the classes where I felt I learned the most. It’s not even that anything was particularly surprising but just having someone say, hey it’s different.

    1. Chinook*

      My favourite university class when Iw as student teaching (internship for teachers) was the one taught by the guy who taught us in the morning and in a “mall school” for high risk kids in the afternoon. He was the only one to admit that knowing how to defend yourself against an angry teen is a good idea (and gave us tips).

      Speakign of which – do other internships have classes going on at the same time? When I was student teaching, we spent 2 or 3 weeks of the semester in our university class so we could be prepped for the environment and expectations and then went back to the classroom 3/4 of the way through for a week or so. Maybe they did this because we were workign with real children and could cause great damage if we messed up?

      1. Bryan*

        My graduate program required an internship but you could do it when you wanted. Most people did it in the summer but I did it over a spring semester doing two full days a week and typically had class or something the other days.

      2. A Teacher*

        Where I went to school for athletic training, we actually did clinicals at the same time that we were in class and in fact had 3 straight years of 20-50 hours a week of clinicals. We were one of the few programs to get out of the required internship program the university required of most majors because of the lengthy clinicals. My sister’s nursing clinicals were much the same–class a few days a week and clinicals for one solid day a week. Although, she did do a nurse externship that was paid between her junior and senior year.

      3. TV Researcher*

        When I was in school, one of the classes I had to take for my journalism minor was an internship class that met one day a week, and we had to schedule our internship around that and our other classes. However, because I found an internship with a 5 day a week paper, it was easy to schedule around. I think I worked two-three afternoons a week and since the stories had to be done by deadline, I rarely had to work “overtime.” That was a great internship. I learned a lot about newspaper writing (had an old-school editor who would not have been out of place on the Lou Grant Show – with the exception of her being female) and oddly enough, how to parallel park.

      4. University admin*

        It depends. Some programs, where internship/practicum is a major part of the curriculum (teaching, counseling), the internship could be almost a full-time thing. However, I work in an MBA program now that includes an optional internship and students simply register for a class that accompanies the internship. Whether or not they take other classes, or how many, is up to them.

  3. Jen*

    Number 8! Yes! And interns need to remember that ALL of their contacts can help them out. Not just the person who hired them or the higher-ups. Recent hires and even fellow interns can be great contacts later on. After my first internship, I worked at a part-time job in my industry. When I was hired for a full-time gig elsewhere, I was able to help get a fellow-intern hired at the part-time gig.

    1. Chinook*

      I can’t agree enough with recognizing that everyone you come in contact with may be able to to impact your career. Not as many can help you but I can guarantee that, if you treat someone badly and they end up at a company that you apply to, they will speak up about that treatment (which is why you NEVER snub the receptionist or office manager – we are mobile enough that you never know where we may turn up.)

      Case in point, I was the receptionist and then AA at an accounting firm with interns/first year accountants. I am now working at a company that uses accountants and have been asked about potential auditors. My response is to use my old firm as long as they can guarantee so-and-so doesn’t touch their file.

      1. Jessa*

        This, so much. You never know who is noticing bad behaviour and it will come back to bite you some day.

    2. Kate M*

      Definitely keep increasing your network with everyone you work with, but I’d caution against actually “networking” at work during work hours. I have an intern now that has gone to every one of the directors of my firm and asked them for coffee so that he could get advice. Not bad in itself – except that his work is shoddy and he is out while he should be doing other work. Interns should definitely make sure to get all of their work done first, and have something to make a good impression with, instead of focusing on just networking.

        1. Kate M*

          I’ve definitely spoken to him about his work product, although probably not as forcefully as I should. He also had a bad attitude when I tried to bring some of these things up with him, and he doesn’t like getting negative feedback (not that anyone does, but he should be able to take it graciously, especially when I also talk about the good things he’s done, which I had to dig for). I’m definitely working on being more straightforward with intern evaluations and feedback (now that I’ve talked to my HR person about exactly how much managerial power I have over them).

          As far as the coffees go, I felt hesitant to bring it up, because I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to dictate the Directors’ schedules (they can obviously take whoever they want to coffee), and most of them seemed happy to do it at the time, they just didn’t know the extent of his shoddy work.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ah, but you wouldn’t be dictating their schedules; you’d be talking about his. As in: “During the work day, I need you here focused on your assignments. It’s great that you’re networking with others, but it needs to be mainly on your lunch break or outside of work hours, with a few exceptions like XYZ.” Or alternately: “I need you to be getting __ done, and producing __ more quickly. I’ve noticed you’ve been having a lot of outside coffee meetings, and I think those are getting in the way of your work.”

            1. Kate M*

              Thanks – that really helps to have a script to go by, and to know that it’s not unreasonable to ask. I am fairly new at managing interns, so I definitely second guess myself too much, and I do realize that not giving them feedback (even and especially negative feedback) doesn’t do them any favors, so I’m really trying to work on that. Thanks!

              1. Jessa*

                He probably thinks that interning = networking, rather than interning = work where you may get to meet people that can help you in the future.

  4. matcha123*

    I worked part-time through high school and university, but never did an internship while I was in university. I always felt that internships were 1. For rich kids, 2. For business majors, 3. Something that I wasn’t to do.

    A number of my friends did do them, and after graduating and working a few years, I wondered if looking into them more would have helped me. I was always taught that a well thought out explanation of something was better than copy-pasting something. Imagine my surprise in my previous job when another department “beat” me to writing a report by literally copy-pasting text from websites into an EXCEL file :(

    1. Hunny*

      Copy pasting is great, especially to pull together information from a ton of sources on a particular topic. It’s knowing *what* to copy-paste and how all the pieces fit together where the skill comes back into play.

      1. matcha123*

        Yeah, it would have been nice to have been told that copy-paste was an option!
        I was told, “Can you write up a report about XYZ?” And when I asked about the content, formatting, etc. I was told, “Whatever you want.”

        But, I still feel that copy-paste is just cheating and sloppy. Maybe there is a way to do it right, but what I saw was random quotes pulled from websites with screenshots. Nothing about how to apply the researched item to the company, etc. :(

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      I did a summer internship every summer while I was in college, including grad school. I definitely wasn’t rich, wasn’t a business major (I was an engineer), and loved the experience. It paid better than most jobs, and allowed me to cover the cost of college myself. Probably the best thing about it was it gave me a great foundation on my resume when I was looking for my first post-college job.

      1. matcha123*

        That’s it! I was a language and linguistics major and didn’t see any way/means to do an internship. Engineering, yeah, engineering and business were the internship ones. ;)

    3. Sunflower*

      I did 3 internships in college but all were paid. I was a hospitality major so all my internships were basically rotating around a restaurant hotel or other sort of service sector. There was no way you could not pay the interns. I, once again, listened way too much to my parents about not taking a paid internship even if it was only a couple hours a week. I was also stuck in the mind-set that what the internship was didn’t matter- it said INTERN so it was gold.

      I definitely wish I would have taken an unpaid internship that was closer to what I wanted to do. I did learn a lot through my hospitality internships but I knew I didn’t want to be a hotel or restaurant manager and I should have looked for something that gave me more experience doing what I wanted to do. Especially since I was living at home all summer- once again, don’t listen to everything your parents say!!

    4. Rachel*

      Internships are totally not just for business school majors and other more “professional” majors, though! I majored in things that some people seemed to think would make me unemployable – English and Women’s and Gender Studies – and over the course of four years, held four internships in addition to working part time. Two were part-time and unpaid, while the other two were full-time for the summer and paid through outside funding (the nonprofits had no money to pay me, so I got some elsewhere). Internships were more about what I wanted to be doing after college, not what I was studying.

      1. matcha123*

        If you and Sunflower don’t mind me asking, did you both know going into university that internships were something that you would or should do? Was it something your parents or friends talked about?

        1. ArtsNerd*

          I figured out about halfway through undergrad what career path I wanted, so I was trying to figure out the best way to make my English degree apply to that field. It wasn’t a common undergrad major at the time, so I had to be savvy and take relevant-ish electives wherever I could find them.

          I don’t remember who put the idea of internships in my head – but it’s very possible that I was just looking at the web page of my local “dream employer” at the time, and saw internship application instructions on their employment page.

        2. Rachel*

          I got my BA in spring 2011 from a top-ranked liberal arts school, and by the time I started college internships were definitely a Thing You Did. Almost everyone I know held at least one internship during the four years, and many did more than I did! We were in the suburbs of Boston, which definitely helped that situation. My friends who went to school in rural areas could only do summer internships, and had much more trouble getting those positions.

          My school pushed it hard as well: during my freshman year, they introduced a funding program through the career center so that students with financial need could still take unpaid internships. That’s what funded my second full-time summer position: I got a $3500 stipend from the career center that was specifically aimed at people doing “social justice” oriented internships, and spent a summer doing communications at an advocacy organization for a cause that I really care about. That money paid all my bills for the summer near school and commuting into Boston.

          1. Melissa*

            I think I am seeing internships more enter the mind of recent grads as A Thing You Do. I graduated from a top liberal arts college in 2008, so I attended before the recession, and when I was in college I got the vague sense that internships were for more than just business majors but I had no idea what kinds of internships there were out there, and there wasn’t really an encouragement to do them. Now I attend and work at an elite university for my PhD, and the students here all do internships – both summer and term-time – and have it drilled into their heads that you need internship experience to get work experience.

            I really do think a lot of the cultural/college differences between their experience and mine has to do with the fact that I attended before the recession and they are all attending after. My cohort was also told that it didn’t matter what you majored in, follow your passion! Nowadays it seems new college students are obsessed with majoring in STEM fields or business and learning how to code.

    5. Fabulously Anonymous*

      I did not intern during my bachelor’s (I got my degree in 1996). My parents believed that internships were for doctors or lawyers, but for most people, the degree is what mattered – that’s what employers wanted to see. I even intended a resume review with ACTUAL company recruiters and was advised to remove all of my part-time employment as none of it was relevant; only employment AFTER the degree should be on a resume.

      When I went back for my master’s ten years later I did intern (all were paid). Best decision I ever made. The networking alone made it worthwhile.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Plenty of people who are far from rich have done internships. You can do them part-time and have a paying job in addition to them.

        I’m not saying there aren’t any problems with the current intern system, but saying they’re only for rich kids just isn’t true or borne out by facts.

      2. Observer*

        Our organization uses interns on a regular basis, and I can assure you that a lot of them are NOT “rich kids”. Lots of them are not “kids” either.

      3. SV*

        Not true. I am not rich by any means but I have a great paying summer internship with a very large company.

    6. Melissa*

      I wanted to do more internships in college, but I couldn’t afford to do the ones I wanted. I really, really wanted a State Department internship (I wanted to join the foreign service), but didn’t even bother applying because most of them are unpaid and I needed something that would pay me. So I spent two summers working as a summer camp counselor and my third summer working as a (paid) research intern, once I figured out that research is what I really wanted to do.

  5. Mimmy*

    Disclaimer: I am long out of college and even grad school, so my perspective might be a bit skewed, so apologies in advance if I’m way off-base.

    #3 – Might not use skills learned in school

    Wouldn’t this be different for professional Masters programs, like social work or counseling? Although even with those, the internship and coursework aren’t always aligned. Some social work graduates I’ve talked with say they felt really lost in their first post-grad job (I was just talking about this with a friend last night).

    #4 – Opposite of what you learned in class

    This is the part that boggles me. I’m terrible at writing succinctly, and I definitely have grad school to thank for that, lol. I can only imagine how confusing that would be for undergraduates–are schools making it clear that employers generally don’t WANT lengthy reports in their written communications?? Honestly, unless you’re planning on going into a research or academic career, I don’t see the need for such long papers (though I admit that I enjoy doing them–I imagine those who don’t enjoy them welcome the reprieve!)

    #6 – Efforts aren’t what counts

    This I respectfully disagree with somewhat. Sometimes less than favorable results are out of your control. Sure, it matters when you need to hit certain metrics, such as with sales or quality assurance. But I think there are some fields where you’re just not going to always get the results you want, but you still put in your very best efforts anyway.

    All that said, I think the other points addressed are right on. Use the connections you make at your internships and definitely use the position as a learning experience with regard to being in an office.

    1. Bryan*

      I think #3 applies less to graduate students but probably depends on the field and internship.

      My fiance is in the world of academia (history) and I constantly am saying how papers for history classes are teaching students the opposite of what they should.

      I would say effort counts more as an intern than in a full-time position but you should learn results are what matter.

      1. Hunny*

        My husband is in academia, and I think one of the biggest problems is that teaching and doing research are completely different skill sets but you’re only allowed to teach if you are good at and care about research. On top of that, a lot of professors view all students as potential future researchers and structure the classes accordingly.

    2. LBK*

      #4 I think the point is that lot of college assignments are essay, research papers, etc. that are pages and pages of information and support. I don’t think I’ve ever had to write something longer than a paragraph for work. Succinct writing is something that doesn’t generally get encouraged in school, particularly in middle school/high school for me. College was a little better where the longest papers were usually only 5-8 pages and most were 2-3, but I had a teacher that made us write 10-page responses to each chapter of a book we read in high school. A wasted of time if I ever heard of one, unless he was trying to teach us how to bullshit someone for hours in order to placate their insane demands.

      1. CanadianWriter*

        My college papers were 2-3 pages at the most, but this was for a hospitality program (where I swear I was the only person who wasn’t illiterate).

    3. Zelos*

      I’m not long out of college, but as for #6… Honestly, I think it’s a given that you put in your best effort at the job. Sure, you may not hit your goals sometimes due to extenuating circumstances, but you should be putting in your best effort whether it’s sparkly awesome exciting work or run-of-the-mill routine stuff that needs to get done.

      I’m just a peer (nowhere near management), but I’m not giving anyone mental brownie points for doing their best at their job.

    4. OriginalYup*

      #6, I think you and Alison might be saying the same thing, that one is expected to work hard and put forth a good effort at all times. But her point is that efforts and results might count equally in school, but results are more heavily weighted in the work world. People in or just out of school might be surprised to have worked very hard on something and still not get a “pass” at work (win the job applied for, receive a promotion or raise, etc.).

      1. A Teacher*

        Agreed. The district I teach in is of the mindset that kids “deserve” 50% credit for effort–not even 100% effort. I don’t think that translates to the real world very well and unless its really is 100% effort, I don’t follow it. Leaving an answer blank or refusing to answer questions because in many cases they didn’t study isn’t 100% effort.

      2. Tinker*

        I think there’s a thing there where both perspectives are kind of right — at school, there’s a bit more of a case where you turn in an assignment, it’s over, and there’s a degree of putting your hands up and saying “I tried” and maybe getting some credit for showing the right spirit even though you didn’t get all the way there.

        With work, the “working hard” pays off more directly — there are a lot more “partial victory” sort of cases where you’re dealing with problems that aren’t as neatly defined as they are in school, and your results are judged more by how well you keep the plates spinning and whether you drop the right ones than by how well you proceed through a defined path of problems, with separate credit for showing the right spirit.

        In that environment, diligence is what will save your ass, more so than brilliance — but diligence on its own matters less than the result thereof.

    5. Puddin*

      #4 – the essays and research papers are designed/supposed to demonstrate that learning has taken place. To me, this is an entirely different goal than communicating thoughts, plans, and actions like one would in a general business setting. I think the problem comes in when there is no class or even chapter of a class dedicated to succinct and purposeful writing techniques. If there is, like technical writing or the instructional speech as part of Comm 101, it is not presented in the context of how this skill is applied and useful in the business world. all imho…

      1. Melissa*

        Wellllllll in an ideal world, a research paper for a class wouldn’t just be to demonstrate that learning has taken place – the goal would ALSO be to communicate thoughts and plans. For example, some of my assignments have been very akin to what a researcher would write and publish in a scientific journal, and I’ve also been required to write a research proposal similar to what someone would write to a granting agency for funding. In some of the classes I’ve TA’ed we’ve had students write blog posts or action letters directed towards nonprofit agencies.

        But yes, I agree with you on the last. Part of the reason is because everyone outside of the English department believes it’s “not their job” to teach good writing.

    6. Melissa*

      #4 – In my experience, no, they are not. It’s one of the reasons I am thinking holistically about writing assignments in my own career (I want to be a college professor). In college, the experience is generally padding papers so that they turn out longer to meet some threshold. When I did an internship, I was asked to write a special feature for clients and it was definitely a new exercise for me to keep my thoughts to 1.5 pages, especially since I’m a PhD student planning an academic career and we *routinely* write 25-page papers for publication. (Definitely a reprieve, but sometimes writing something good and short is far more difficult than writing something good and long.)

      I did TA one class that required 2-page papers from students, and they were generally terrible. The students didn’t know how to express their thoughts in such a short format.

  6. Erik*

    Excellent advice, especially #1, #2, and #5. I’m in grad school now and it would surprise you how many of the FT MBA students act like they’re still in high school.

  7. Artemesia*

    Such good advice. I have worked with interns from both sides — supervising academically and as a boss. The two biggest things that mark someone negatively are assuming ‘college time’ e.g. assuming they get ‘spring break’ or don’t need to show up when they say they will (skipping work is not like skipping class as you affect others who count on you) and not setting the quality thermostat high enough.

    Trying hard hasn’t been enough since Kindergarten, but it really really isn’t enough in the workplace. The standard is good work and preferably excellent work. And if that is hard to do, the expectation is presenting penultimate work for further guidance. Slapdash night before assignments in class only affect your grade — on the job they make work for others.

    So few people excel at these simple things that by doing so, you really do put yourself in a place for strong networking and recommendations. I have seen many students hired by enthusiastic internship supervisors including my own daughter whose first job came from a DC internship.

  8. Gloria*

    I would also add to be enthusiastic about receiving any work given to you, and the work that you produce should be of professional quality. I of course always look over my interns’ work before it goes out to anyone, but the ones that I have to edit the least and are the most thorough are the ones I remember. Then, in the future, those interns get the more interesting assignments, because they have proven that they can handle professional level work.

    As far as being enthusiastic, in the past I’ve had an intern whose favorite phrase was “I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to do that.” (He’s the only intern that I’ve ever had say that to me, so I know it’s not me chronically over-burdening interns). And he would say that for every assignment. One of my favorite examples was when I asked him to go to the printer to staple and pass out about 20 small packets of paper I had prepared. He had about 10-15 minutes to do so before a meeting. Instead of just buckling down (however much you might need to for such a small assignment) and doing it, he walked ALL the way back across the floor to my office, and said that he didn’t have enough time to do it, and could I help him. I marched up to the printer, stapled everything while he watched, and handed them to him. With 5 minutes left to spare. He had several examples like that, but that one stuck with me and colored my view of him the entire rest of the internship. I couldn’t trust him to get anything done, because he couldn’t handle the simple tasks. So interns, be especially enthusiastic even about the mundane tasks, because those will be the ones to open doors to the more interesting projects.

    1. Simonthegrey*

      I have in the past taught a Written Communication in the Workplace class at my community college, and if I am scheduled to teach it again, I will use this entire post but also your comment as a reference for how the workplace is different from school. Most of the students in that class are…lower performing, often in it because it’s required for the ag mechanic or diesel mechanic programs, and they don’t want to be there. At least this might give them something to think about.

  9. ArtsNerd*

    Ooh! Can we share embarrassing stories from our own intern days?

    I got through an entire internship too embarrassed to ask where the restroom was once. I did eventually figure out that it was hiding off of a stairwell, but didn’t work up the nerve to ask for a key! I’m so annoyed with my past self for this now.

    (and as someone who always struggled with minimum paper length requirements in school, #4 was the Best Realization Ever.)

    1. CanadianWriter*

      I did a co-op (I think that’s the same as an internship?) at a golf course and I was supposed to take a little ten minute drive in my cart. Instead, I got so lost that it took me hours to get back, and would probably still be stranded out there if a customer hadn’t saved me. Did I mention that I also crashed the cart into a flower bed? Those were the days.

    2. Lauren*

      I worked in tiny, cramped office with another intern. Everyone could hear each other’s conversations. While we were working on a project together, he started asking me pointed questions about religion and basically trying to convert me. The problem is I’m already religious. I basically told him so, and the whole office overhead my awkward explanation of my religious background.

      They made fun of me long after he moved on, and even though they liked me/wrote me nice recommendation letters, it was most most embarrassing intern moment yet!

  10. T*

    My comment is as much a question as an observation. How does one (the intern) gauge an internship both before and during/after starting?

    I’ve worked with interns who picked up some of the bad habits of my supervisor. I don’t think this necessarily has to do with being new to professional work or new to an office setting. It has as much to do with being new to a certain field and what is considered best practices. I see the same thing where I currently volunteer. Work-study students and volunteers and interns are their to learn as much as to produce work, but if they are not being taught correctly what are the standards of the field, they can go away thinking how well they do such-and-such, but if they work somewhere else in the same field, they bring their learned bad habits with them.

    Now, I think a bad learning experience can still be a good learning experience (as in how not to do things), but that works only if the intern realizes what’s going on.

    Does anyone have suggestions for figuring out in advance what sort of internship one is really getting into, or more significantly, how to tell if the management, practices, culture, communication, etc., at an internship one is or has been involved with is good, bad, or whatever?

    1. Marina*

      I think a lot of that just requires experience. It’s the same thing as with a first job, if you have a poor manager at your first job you’ll probably go into your next job assuming the manager has the same goals, and will have a significant adjustment to make.

      Also there are very few fields where standards and best practices really are standard throughout the field… hence why these supervisors with bad habits still have jobs. Learning to adjust to your manager’s needs is probably a better skill to have overall than any specific industry best practice.

  11. Employment Lawyer*

    I found the lack of knowledge annoying. So I literally wrote a detailed handout on how to be a good intern. It’s phrased for legal interns but is useful for others as well.

    Feel free to use it for your own interns, but (as with all things) I would appreciate credit if you do.


    -Erik Hammarlund

    1. Lauren*

      I read through this and really liked it. I’m starting my third internship soon but it feels like my first…reading through good advice is helping deal with the nerves.


  12. Anonsie*

    #8 Really bums me out because I interned (unpaid) at the same place for years as a student, all of the staff except our supervisors seemed to really hate the idea that we essentially wanted something from the organization in the form of training and perhaps references. They just seemed to find it distasteful at its core and wanted nothing to do with us. I don’t really know why– I always figured they had a bad experience with some former interns because that was in place from day one.

    After I graduated I couldn’t find a job in that city (not a big place with a huge market, connections are pretty much your only way in most places) even though I really wanted to stay, I ended up having to leave to find work somewhere else.

    I would say this has something to do with the importance of selecting somewhere to intern, but again, it wasn’t a big city and I had no way of knowing that would be the atmosphere until I was already committed– since the two folks I interviewed with that supervised the interns were perfectly nice.

    1. De Minimis*

      At my former workplace full-timers were often somewhat resentful of interns because managers would go out of their way to give them good work assignments at the expense of the full-time people.

      1. Judy*

        I can certainly say that I’ve been frustrated with managers that did that, but I’ve not ever been resentful of the interns.

        I do believe the people here who had been interns did get quite upset that they got to do more creative “cool” work when they were interns, and then as entry level engineers, they had to do normal work.

        1. De Minimis*

          A lot of it was due to the recession, people were really struggling to find enough work to keep their jobs, so I think interns were viewed as a threat.

          But the business model relied on new people coming in each year and a certain number of current employees being let go to make room.

      2. Anonsie*

        I can guarantee you that was not the case for this internship– only our supervisors did the type of work that we were doing, and no one would have been jealous of it. We did mostly data entry and digging through old records trying to revamp an old cataloging system.

    2. TV Researcher*

      I had to deal with folks not liking interns at a couple of different internships. And both times, it was because they had negative experiences with other interns. The first was at a neighborhood paper, where the not-great intern was doing the internship at the same time as me (and was in my same internship class). That got to be awkward because I often came in to class with one or two articles that made the paper, while she… didn’t. Though, it was mostly her own fault. She complained a lot.

      This was in suburban Boston, and while you didn’t need a car it definitely helped. However, if you didn’t have a car, you could still get things done, there was just a lot more phone work or you were stuck with man-on-the-streets stories that could be done by going out on Main Street during the lunch rush. Granted, they were less interesting stories, but they still had to be done. But, she complained about that. She complained because she wasn’t being assigned interesting stories, but she would show up late or not at all. She also couldn’t figure out how to deal with the often harsh criticism of the editor (which was great, if sometimes hard to hear, though I did learn forevermore that cliches do not belong in news stories, even if it was a light story about an April 1 snowstorm). The end result was that at the end of my internship, they offered me an entry level job with the paper. I didn’t take it, as it was only half writing, as the other half involved indexing (which I had no interest in, and I had already decided to move to LA after graduation). But, the offer was not extended to the other intern.

      The other internship was at a production company in LA just after college. I happened to be best friends with the person who had had the internship the prior summer, but he had warned me not to say that I knew him, as he was not liked. His problem was that he just couldn’t handle the way he was treated by some of the executives (which admittedly was poor). One of the development guys was just the worst stereotype of a Hollywood insider (though at a junior level so his only real power was stepping on the interns). I dealt with it by ignoring his personality, swallowing his insults and going to the other execs for tasks. My friend took the tact of being confrontational, which might have worked in his favor in some offices (i.e. shown gumption), but not this one. Note: no one should be treated poorly by any office, but my friend should have realized that he was just not going to win in a war with this particular exec.

  13. John*

    What your internship manager doesn’t tell you is that internships alone don’t cut it.

    An internship is rarely the same as a job. I want candidates who have done the hard work that builds character and helps them understand the real working world…the drudgery, experience dealing with the public and often physical labor. Sorry, but interns tend to have it easy compared to real employees. They get a greater variety of assignments geared toward exposing them to new stuff…vs the repetitive tasks real employees do. They aren’t held accountable to the same extent that real workers are.

    Out of college I got a job in TV production. I did all the scut work while the interns sat around laughing with the producers and watching TV. I even had to fetch lunch for the director and producer of the episode that was taping each day because it was beneath the interns (and interrupted their TV watching schedule).

    While I worked harder in my internships, those weren’t the experiences that prepared me best for the real world. I know internships are valuable in building contacts, but any hiring manager who weights them too heavily has their head in the sand.

    Show me someone who worked summers and breaks and during high school. That’s someone who has drive and a demonstrated work ethic.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit*

      Eh, internships are different. Sounds like you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder about the lazy interns you worked with, but know that plenty of internships are incredibly demanding and challenging.

      1. Onymouse*

        Exactly. When I interned, I slogged through just as much drudgery as the full-time staff. The fact that those interns didn’t is a reflection on management. (and possibly because they were unpaid interns, and the company didn’t want to get sued for making them fetch lunch)

      2. Lauren*

        I would agree with you, Victoria. My last internship started with easy assignments, but once I proved what I could do, I was quickly assigned to more challenging work. By the end I was doing everything the staffers did (I worked in Congress) from handling constituent inquires to attending briefs and writing memos. Many interns work very hard, especially for no pay.

  14. annie*

    Along with #8, I would add to stay in touch if we do have a relationship! I have so many great kids I’ve known through the years that have disappeared into the ether, and I’ve occasionally struggled when we are making an entry level hire to come up with people who I’d recommend. Even an annual “happy holidays” email is fine, just so I have your current email address!

    Also, recognize that good managers and co-workers will want to stay in touch with you if they think you’re truly promising. I tell my really good interns that part of the reason I hope they will keep in touch is that they may be in a position to hire me, be a client, have some other business relationship with us one day.

  15. Kat*

    There’s some wise advice here already!

    I’ll add my two cents:
    Learn to take constructive criticism gracefully. Please, for the love of Pete, don’t get defensive, or angry, or start lying and blamethrowing, and so on. Even though you might want to do these things, you will gain nothing by expressing yourself this way.

    Remember that constructive criticism is given to you by people who want you to do better. It’s a good and useful thing, and a somewhat of a compliment that they think you are worth their time to critique.

  16. Claire*

    One thing I learnt in my first job out of university (not an internship, those are still quite rare in the UK outside of creative industries) is that the normal rules of plagiarism don’t apply. While you can’t rip off a competitors work you also shouldn’t reinvent the wheel and using previous versions of similar documents such as business plans and board papers is usually the right first step. It also means you can work to company style with regards formatting, style and content.

    Other big tip is always, and I mean always, go around with a pen and pad of paper. You cannot remember everything and you look less serious if your pretend you can.

  17. Mittens*

    What I’d say to every intern, to improve their learning experience: write. everything. down. Firstly this is about the tasks you’ve been given: when your supervisor is giving you assignments, write as much down as possible. This helps you remember the information but also helps you see if you have all the right information – what’s the priority of this, how do you want me to deliver it, what should I include, etc.

    But secondly, write down everything you’re learning. Almost treat it like a diary: “today I learned that I should write more concisely; I also learned that sometimes professionals need to tell their clients they’re wrong, and that’s okay, and can actually strengthen your authority. I also notice that my boss has a LOT of meetings with clients, and I hadn’t expected that, so I guess his work is more about networking, sales and client contact than I had anticipated.” The reason for this is that you won’t realise how quickly you’ll be socialized into your new work place, and soon things that seemed crazy before now seem totally normal. It’s great if at the end of the internship you have a big list of lessons you learned, it really helps you to see how you’ve changed and grown and how your perception has changed.

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