how to get the most out of your summer interns

If you have summer interns, have you relegated them to filing and fetching coffee because you’re not sure if you can trust them with real assignments?

With a little bit of effort, you can set up a structure that lets you give your interns meaningful, useful work and helps them learn (and then you can return to getting your own coffee). Here’s how.

1. When assigning work, invest more time than you normally might setting them up for success. Explain what the outcome of the work should be, what will make it successful and what would make it unsuccessful, and explain how it will be used and why it will matter. If you have samples of similar work, share them, to give your intern a better feel for what you’re looking for. And don’t assume knowledge! For example, don’t assume that the intern knows what a case study should look like or how it should be formatted, or what a mail merge is, and don’t assume that they know industry or workplace shorthand or jargon. Explain, and then explain some more.

2. Check in as work unfolds. Don’t just delegate and disappear. That’s a recipe for discovering at the end of the project that it wasn’t done the way you wanted. This is true with anyone, but it’s especially true with interns, who may never have done the type of working you’re giving them before. Check in and look at “slices” of work before it’s finalized – an outline of a memo, a rough draft, early data, whatever will give a lens into how the work is progressing and allow you to give input and course-correct if needed. Giving feedback at this stage can save you significant time in the long run, because it will help shape the work and ensure that the final product matches what you’re looking for (and makes it less likely that you’ll be coming in at the end and redoing the work).

3. Invite questions. Many interns aren’t entirely sure how many questions it’s okay to ask, or whether they can approach you with questions or need to wait for a formal meeting. Make it easy on them and explicitly invite questions. If you make it safe for them to ask questions without feeling inept, you’re more likely to get questions that will help them do a better job for you.

4. Ask them what they think. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because interns are brand new to the work world, you need to show them how everything is done. And you do need to give a lot of guidance (see #1), but you should also encourage them to share their own perspective. Make a point of asking for their input during meetings, if it’s appropriate (or if it’s not appropriate during the meeting itself, ask them afterward what they thought about it). When they bring you a problem they’re trying to solve, ask what solutions they’ve thought about or what they think might make sense to try first.

5. Know that managing interns well is a time commitment.

Interns aren’t there solely to make your life easier; they’re there to learn something about your field and get meaningful work experience. To keep their summer from feeling like a bust (and to ensure they don’t warn all their classmates away from your company in the future), you’re going to have to invest time in doing all of the above. But you’ll be cultivating the people who could be working side by side with you in the future – and ideally getting useful work from them in the meantime.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Lurker Ama*

    One of the engineers at work does pretty much all of these things for his current summer intern. I’ll often see him pull her over to the whiteboard and write out notes as he’s explaining things to her, and stop by her desk to see how she’s doing. He has a really strong mentor type of personality, and I wanted to share what he said when I asked him about how his interns do here (paraphrased from memory):

    “Generally speaking, interns are really bright, but they might work a bit slower. I have all these years of experience to draw upon, so if I encounter an issue, I can relate it to something I did 10 years ago and use that experience to guide my decisions. Interns don’t have that context, so most of what they deal with, they have to come up with new solutions to address.”

    From what I’ve seen, he approaches his job as mentor by setting up situations where his intern can come up with her own solutions, guiding her if she struggles, and reviewing what’s been done to reinforce the lessons. The rest of the engineers view her as an equal contributor so whatever he has her doing is also of value to the company.

  2. Cambridge Comma*

    And make sure you don’t give your female interns the admin tasks and your male interns the higher profile ones (putting this here in the vain hope that someone where I work reads this and takes note).

  3. BabyAttorney*

    I had a mentor my 2L summer who seriously set me up for success. He let me sit in on countless meetings, discussions, phone calls, negotiations, and fed me contract review work every time I asked. He wasnt who I expected to develop a mentee bond with, but it was so organic and wonderful. Although I was there for five attorneys and the paralegals, he was the only one I could count on to give me consistent work with guidance, outlines, direction, encouragement, and never berated me for not reading his mind.

    Unlike another person I have worked for who I have never bothered to keep in touch with…..

  4. Sucky internships*

    Ok, so this was like a thousand years ago… but sharing basically for “don’t do this” purposes. As a student, my future plans were for Teapots. All I wanted was to open my own Teapot business, and I was *thrilled* to get assigned to this arena for what was basically an internship. Meanwhile, I was a Coffeepot Guru elsewhere because Money. I was putting out metaphorical fires all over the place, and had a huge amount of responsibility on my shoulders.

    For the Teapot internship, they put me on maintenance and errands because I didn’t have computer training (even though I had all of this Coffeepot experience, which my supervisor knew about). I spent the bulk of that internship washing windows. I learned nothing, I was completely bored, and I wasn’t assertive enough at the time to call them on it. I tried to look at it as a vacation from my regular job. The experience completely soured me to working with Teapots, and even though I love them, I never ended up working with them again.

    The next semester, I signed up for a Lemonade internship, (I didn’t even like lemonade!), and I actually learned legitimate office skills that I could transfer to a paid job later in life. *The More You Know*

  5. Ad Astra*

    This is great advice. One thing I might add: Look for opportunities to help your intern build her portfolio (or whatever word people in your industry use to describe a collection of work samples). The knowledge and experience that comes from a good internship are incredibly valuable, but your intern needs to have something tangible to show for it, too. Look for projects that your intern can take ownership of and really show off her abilities, so she’ll have that stuff when she’s applying for entry-level jobs (or more advanced internships).

    It also might help to tell the intern when you think a project could have portfolio potential, because you’re guaranteed to get the intern’s best effort.

    This might not apply in every industry, but it does seem like many industries that expect internships are also industries that expect portfolios. I know that’s the case with design, marketing and journalism. Anyone in engineering, architecture, or finance care to weigh in?

  6. Jillociraptor*

    This is really good advice.

    Another thing you might think about is how doing what Alison advises might be a development opportunity for one of your staff members. You probably don’t want someone who’s never managed anyone in any capacity before in charge of your intern program, but if you have someone who wants to grow toward the ability to manage others, it could be a great learning opportunity for them to manage and coach the intern on a discrete project that falls under their charge.

    Of course, this adds another level of oversight and coaching for you as a manager, but it’s a way your intern program can benefit your team/department beyond the discrete work products of the intern.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      I should have added: this works for things beyond management. Each summer when we brought on an intern, my manager and I thought through everyone on our team and whether there was anything they in particular could get out of working with that intern (including passing off an appropriate backburner project), in addition to how each staff member could help or coach the intern. It was a great way to get a unique kind of PD for our team, and also surface some interesting projects and types of support for the intern.

  7. ahill*

    My company works with a program that provides inner city youth (16-19 year olds) with internship opportunities and we’ve gotten some awesome kids through the years. This year we have one kid who is excited to work and be there and the other one, not so much. We’ve been trying to find something he can at least tolerate doing but he seems to be uninterested in the more basic tasks we give him. When we’ve tried things that were a little more involved, even with one on one coaching, it has gone poorly. We all want him to have a great time and learn some stuff but this time it’s just not working.

  8. TimeAfterTime*

    Great advice. I feel awful for the 2 interns my manager brought into our group – not enough work for them to begin with, and then she left on a 2-week vacation one week after they were onboarded. Oh, and did I mention that one intern is our director’so niece, which meant the other team members and I were scrambling to find something for her to do so we wouldn’t look bad?

  9. NicoleK*

    This is great advice. + 1000 for tip #5. I feel awful for the intern that reports to my new coworker. Intern has been with the organization since the beginning of the year. New coworker joined our organization in May and is tasked with supervising an intern. I don’t know how much supervisory experience new coworker has had or if new coworker has ever supervised an intern. New coworker’s attitude is that intern should know how to do x in y hours (cause new coworker is able to do it) and is frustrated when task isn’t done in y hours. New coworker seems to think that the intern is there to make her life easier, take on tasks that she doesn’t want to do, so that she can focus on her pet projects. New coworker is planning to get rid of intern so she could bring her friend on board.

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