Make the most of your internship

With a new semester just getting underway at most colleges and universities, it seems like an appropriate time to devote some space to helping students get the most out of internships.

First of all, and most importantly, employers are now expecting that college students will have done an internship. That fact frightens me, as I see how few students in my own college are doing internships, even though there are dozens (if not hundreds) of opportunities for internships within our locale. So IF you are still in college, find a way to do an internship, either for credit during the school year or over the summer. And if you can make room for more than one, that’s even better.

In my book, I talk about the value of internships and provide suggestions for how to find them. I also make suggestions for how to demonstrate your experience in cover letters, on resumes, and during an interview—Tips 2, 5, 16, and 20 have the most direct connection to internships, but there’s more scattered throughout the book. Over the next week or so, I’ll share advice from others about internships, but today I’m going to talk about what you need to do while interning to get the most out of that experience.

1. Pay attention. One of the most important things you can do as an intern is fine tune your observation skills. Notice how people act and dress, who they go to when they have problems, how they communicate with one another, what kind of schedule they keep, where they congregate to socialize (either in the office or outside, at lunch or after work). All of those things pertain to the workplace culture of the organization, and to be successful in an organization, you need to fit in. Every organization is going to be just a little different, and you want to practice noticing the important aspects of the culture so you can decide if you fit in with the values and behaviors of this organization. . .or if you want to fit in!

2. Complete assignments on time. Your professors may have been willing to give you an extended deadline or an incomplete, but your boss probably won’t. If you’re given an assignment and no deadline is mentioned, ask when they want it and finish it by that date (or before). Another essential habit to develop is showing up at work on time and staying until quitting time (or later, on occasion, if requested).

3. Ask questions. If you’re given an assignment and you don’t understand exactly what they want done, ask questions right then. As an intern, or a new employee, you are not expected to know how to do everything. You are much better off asking questions than doing the work incorrectly and being asked to do it over.

4. Ask for feedback. When you complete a task, make sure you know what you did wrong as well as what you did right. This will help you learn quickly, make fewer errors, and impress your boss with your professionalism.

5. Look for opportunities to volunteer. Listen closely in meetings for mention of tasks that people wish they had time to do or wish someone had already done and, if it’s something you can handle, volunteer to take on that task. If you make sure that you don’t let the volunteer tasks interfere with your regular duties, this type of activity will demonstrate your concern about the overall mission of the organization and your willingness to be part of the team.

6. Build your network. Make sure that you meet as many people as possible in the organization and take advantage of opportunities to meet clients or customers. Be prepared to tell them about yourself, but first ask them to tell you about their careers. Almost everyone will be pleased that you’re interested in learning more about them and will remember you, especially if you can find a way to relate what you hope to do in your career with what they’re currently doing or have done in the past.