Internships are a catch-22. Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’ll get a job after several weeks of working, sometimes you’ll never see or hear from these people again. Sometimes people will treat you like the “help,” sometimes they will take you under their wing to mentor you. Whatever the scenario, your internship is what YOU make of it and can become as big or as small as you want it to be. Whether you’ve scored a summer stint interning for the company of your dreams or you’re one of hundreds of young people who made it into a formal program, there are a few things you can do to stand out and make sure you have an awesome experience.
UNDERSTAND NO JOB IS TOO SMALL
Back in the day, it was common for interns to get coffee, pick up dry cleaning, or even walk their boss’ dog. Unless the job description includes running personal errands, you’re typically not going to be asked to do these things today. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be required to do things below your “brain power.” Menial tasks are given to interns for two reasons. First, no one else wants to them and secondly, managers are testing you to see how easily you complete the simplest tasks. For example, if I ask you to make 10 photo copies of a 12-page document with front and back copies, stapled, and collated, I want to see that you can pay attention to detail, that you can work the copy machine by yourself (you would be surprised how many people cannot) and that you can complete the task in time. You may think it’s just making copies, but a good manager will use it as a stepping stone to determine the level of your skill set. Managers are also watching your attitude to see if you will take on menial work projects enthusiastically. The better you are at the easy stuff, the more comfortable your boss will be at trusting you with larger, more important projects. Trust me…do this well, and you won’t be making copies for long.
IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, OWN IT!
An internship is intended to be like a science lab. It’s the practical application of everything you’ve learned in the classroom finally put into action. With that said, there should be somewhat of a teaching environment and the expectation is that you won’t get everything right at first. Most managers will have that mindset and be understanding when you make a mistake or error, but being understanding only goes so far. Try not to make mistakes habitual or you will be labeled the intern who can’t ever get it right and as a result, no one will trust you with an assignment for the remainder of your time there. But if you make a mistake (whether big or small) own up to it, learn from it, and make sure it never happens again. You’re playing with the big boys and girls now and that often means taking maturity seriously. The worst thing you can do is not take responsibility for your mistakes or, even worse, try to pin it on someone else. Even if you can live with yourself after doing so, someone will inevitably find out. A lie of omission will not only get you terminated, but it could get you blackballed in the industry you’re trying to break into.
GET TO KNOW ALL THE PLAYERS
You will likely be assigned to one or two people or even a division where you are working for several people in one group. Step out of your comfort zone and talk to people beyond your manager or the group who are assigned to. Once you’re in the company, find out who the major players are and send them an email explaining how much you’re enjoying your internship, what you admire about the company and your goals for the future. Don’t email them with the expectation of getting anything other than making their acquaintance and make it known that you’d love to be a permanent part of the team in the future.
Once, I had an intern who contacted the CEO of our company. Doing so led to her asking if he would be willing to speak to the summer intern group, which he did. The CEO of one of the biggest media companies in the world provided personal insight and stories to our group of summer interns, something no other group in the company received. If it had not been for that one young lady, it would have never happened.
SOMETIMES COMMON SENSE PREVAILS
As I’ve said earlier, internships are a keen opportunity for people to learn about careers within a specific industry. It’s the chance to find out if you really want to take the long stroll down this professional path or maybe it’s not a good fit for you after all. It’s OK to ask questions to ensure you are doing things correctly. It’s even OK to ask for feedback on your performance after a few weeks. However, there are times when you should use the sense God gave you and figure things out for yourself. The “small stuff” shouldn’t become your manager’s big problem, especially if it is something you could have easily solved on your own. Part of being a good leader is knowing when to handle a situation and when to call your manager in for reinforcement or help. If you’re unsure, ask another intern or someone outside of the company for quick advice before going to your manager.
Do you know how many times I’ve called interns into my office for a meeting or invited them to other meetings that often-times included my boss and had that person show up empty handed? If you are ever invited to a meeting, take a pen and small notebook with you to take notes. I guarantee you will NOT be able to retain everything that is said. And yes, I realize pen and paper are old school. Many of you may want to bring your phone or your tablet instead. Here’s the problem with that; I don’t know if you’re playing Solitaire or actually taking. Unless you’ve been granted permission to do so, I would keep the digital devices to a minimum. Keep it simple and purchase a small notebook where you include everything from meeting notes to to-do lists to who to call when the copier goes down.
LOOK THE PART
Your internship is an opportunity for you to transition from being a student to a professional. The easiest way to do so is to dress the part. Before you start your first day, you should ask about the dress code. Is it a conservative office where suits, hosiery and ties are the norm or is a business casual look more preferred? Even if your office is cool with your wearing jeans, I would keep it to no more than twice a week. Your manager and everyone else on the team already has the job they want, so they may tend to be more relaxed about their appearance. Remember, you’re still trying to convince people to hire you. Taking your appearance seriously is the kind of “extra effort” that will make you stand out and let your manager know how sincere you are about your future in the company.
Don’t forget to smile. Being in an internship around amazing people can be intimidating. While you should be humble, grateful and even serious about the opportunity, people want to know you enjoy being there. Don’t forget to smile, look at people in the eye and offer a sturdy handshake upon greeting them. Now, go ahead and conquer the world!
If you want more internship advice, send me your comments or hit me up on Twitter @WendyLWilson_