How to Make the Most of Your Internship Experience

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 9/20/2022

You already know that serving a semester-long or summer internship is a smart way to prepare for your career after college. Experts agree that internships are an invaluable opportunity to learn about occupations and industries, connect with other professionals, and set yourself up for employment after you graduate. The following advice for interns is designed to help you realize all of these objectives once you land an internship and go to work.

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Start With Setting Expectations

Let's begin with the story of Katrina and Seth, two smart interns who got very different results, all because of their expectations.

Katrina is a communications major who was thrilled to land an internship with a magazine publisher. During her first week on the job, her supervisor handed her a stack of old issues of the magazine and told her to study them.

Insulted by not getting a writing assignment, Katrina immediately decided that the internship was a total waste of time. From then on, she spent most of her days socializing, so her boss continued to assign her boring clerical tasks.

Then there's Seth, a journalism major who landed an internship at the same company. During his first week, he received the same assignment as Katrina, but he started his second week by asking for more challenging projects. Delighted with his initiative, his boss started teaching him how to edit articles.

Later, at a pitch meeting for the entire staff, Seth suggested two story ideas based on his review of those past issues, and his ideas were approved. Seth spent his summer writing and wound up with nine bylined articles for his portfolio.

These two interns had the same opportunity, but only one set goals and turned it into a meaningful experience. In large part, Seth's success came from his willingness to learn, speak up, and take initiative. Yet Katrina's failure was not entirely her fault. Neither she nor her supervisor clearly communicated their expectations, resulting in a total disconnect between the two.

If your supervisor doesn't review your job description and set goals with you during your first day or week on the job, you should feel free to broach the subject with your boss so you can make the most of your internship. Together you can determine what's expected of you and define several specific objectives for this learning experience. Some possible goals include:

  • mastering one or more technical skills.
  • developing two or three soft skills.
  • completing or contributing to a specific project.
  • learning how all aspects of the organization (not just your department) function.
  • finding a mentor.

If you're studying business administration, accounting, or public relations, you may be required to serve an internship, which can help you gain valuable skills.

Learn All You Can

In addition to particular goals, your overall objective is to develop some authentic work experience, so let's explore what to do in an internship. This first set of tips focuses on learning all you can through this professional development opportunity.

1

Seek knowledge wherever you can find it. Your manager and other team members know that you're there to learn about the role, the company, and the industry, so feel free to ask them lots of questions. Ask people to explain why they use particular processes, what the purpose of a certain method is, and how things get done. Compare what you've learned in your college courses to what's happening in your workplace, and discuss that with your colleagues. You can also learn by paying attention in meetings, exploring industry publications and podcasts, and attending professional events.

2

Develop hard and soft skills. Hard skills are usually technical in nature, such as using a software program or piece of equipment. Soft skills often relate to how you think and how you interact with others. Some examples include analytical thinking, problem-solving, active listening, and persuasive speaking. An internship is a perfect time to work on both types of skill sets by asking your supervisor and other co-workers to give you opportunities to practice.

3

Ask for feedback. Criticism can be hard to hear, especially when you're doing your best, but it's a necessary part of the learning process. Ask your manager and others to critique your performance and offer constructive comments. Understand that your colleagues are providing this feedback because they want you to succeed, so take their comments to heart and apply what you learn about yourself.

4

Learn from people beyond your team. Organizations that engage in internship programs want to support their interns, so it's perfectly okay to ask other people within the organization for information. If reaching out on your own is a little outside your comfort zone, ask your boss to help you set up informational interviews or job shadowing experiences. Two other ways to learn from others are to attend larger staff meetings and listen to the conversations that occur, and volunteer to work on additional projects with other teams if you have time.

5

Reflect on your internship experience weekly or perhaps daily. The best way to process what you're learning and keep track of lessons learned is to write them down. Stacey Kaye, a job search skills coach and founder of CampusToCareer.net, recommends keeping a journal. "During your internship, you'll be involved in many interesting projects, learning industry terms and relevant processes. By the time your internship ends, you may not be able to remember everything you learned along the way. Therefore, be sure to take a few minutes to journal about projects, key learnings, people you worked with, and outcomes. This tactic will help you add strong descriptions and accomplishments to your resume and provide meaningful content to talk about during future interviews."

Healthcare degree programs, such as bachelor's degrees in nursing and dental hygiene, often require internships, giving students hands-on experience.

Build Your Professional Network

Throughout the course of your internship, you'll have the chance to get to know many people within the organization. Not only can these relationships make your work life more enjoyable, but they may also be able to help you in shaping your career path.

1

Connect with people throughout your organization. From the people in your department to fellow interns to members of the executive team, anyone you interact with may turn out to be a great contact for networking. Each day, try to take a few moments to get to know someone new. Introduce yourself as an intern, and ask each person who they are and what they do. Most professionals enjoy talking to newcomers to the business so show them you're eager to learn. Once you've established a relationship, invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn so you can keep in touch.

2

Look for a mentor. It's fairly common for interns to form bonds with their supervisors, who may become mentors after the internship is over. However, you may find a mentor among all of the other people you meet. Look for someone who is a good listener, generous with sharing information, and encouraging.

3

Make friends. The relationships you start during your internship don't have to be all about networking. It's also great to make friends on the job, especially during breaks and outside of work. You may be able to assist them with projects, and they may be able to answer your questions and help you solve problems.

Set Your Course

As much as you want to benefit from an internship, you also want to contribute to the organization you're working for. If you make a positive impression on those around you, they are more likely to give you better opportunities now and glowing reviews and recommendations in the future. Here's how you can put your best foot forward.

1

Demonstrate a professional attitude in all you do. Arrive at work on time, stay focused, and put in a full day. Dress appropriately for your work environment, and don't take personal phone calls. Be friendly, and avoid conflict and gossip. Evan Cruz, founder of Join the Island, adds, "Don't badmouth other people or organizations and have a positive attitude. Debbie Downers are not allowed! I was never a difficult person to deal with during my internship at the City of Coral Gables. As a result, my colleagues were willing to connect with me once my internship was over."

2

Understand that you'll probably start with easy assignments and work up. When you've just started, your supervisor has no idea of what you can do, so they'll probably ease you into your workload with what appear to be mundane tasks or grunt work. Once you demonstrate your willingness to take on any project and your ability to get things done efficiently and correctly, you'll hopefully be rewarded with a few more challenging assignments and greater responsibilities.

3

Manage your time wisely. Sometimes you'll have just enough to do on your plate, but not always. If there's a lull in your workday, ask your supervisor if you can have another assignment or help others with their projects. If you have too much to do, ask your boss to help you prioritize what's most important and should be finished first. Use your communication skills to show that you're committed to contributing to the organization's goals.

4

Speak up and take initiative. Managers will be impressed if you see a problem and volunteer to solve it, or if you notice something that needs to be done and ask to do it. You should also feel free to share your ideas and make friendly suggestions when appropriate.

5

Document your projects. One of your background objectives for an internship may be to build a portfolio of work examples. As you complete projects — even something as small as a one-page report — ask your supervisor if you're allowed to take a copy home for your portfolio. Some items may be confidential, but many will be available for sharing.

6

Ask for a reference letter two weeks before the end of your internship. Kaye explains that managers are often very busy, which can make them a bit forgetful, so be sure to get their input while you're still on the job. "It can be challenging for a supervisor to write a glowing reference letter when you have already left the position," she notes. "They may forget your cheery, can-do attitude and your ability to problem-solve during team meetings." In fact, you may even want to write a rough draft listing some of your accomplishments that your boss can revise as needed.

Seize Every Opportunity

One last piece of advice for interns: Never pass up an internship opportunity, whether it's a part-time or full-time job offer or a paid or unpaid position. As Brittany Ouimette, a public relations and copywriting specialist, notes, "I said that I would never do an unpaid internship during college, but then I did. The opportunity fell into my lap, and I took it. That internship led to an entry-level job with a company where I learned far more than I could have expected, which laid a strong foundation for my future career."

Laying a foundation for your career is what internships are all about for college students. If you follow these steps to make the most of your internship experience, you'll be sure to reap the rewards many years into the future.

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