For many college students and recent graduates, an internship is a near-requirement for future full-time employment. Without an internship, even some entry-level positions are out of reach. So it can be easy to treat an internship as nothing more than a stepping stone on the path to a "real" job—something to endure, not enjoy.
But internships offer all sorts of benefits beyond post-college employment. Sometimes, an internship can expose that a planned career path or industry is not, in fact, the best one for you. Internships can help you build a network of colleagues—and friends—that may last a lifetime. The experience of an internship can make you comfortable and confident in an office environment. But you won't get all those benefits if you're just showing up and counting down the days until your internship is over.
Here's how to make the most of your internship experience and keep the focus on your whole career, not just an initial job placement.
Expand Your Knowledge
Try to learn about a range of things during your internship. Educate yourself about the industry and the variety of job opportunities within it. If you're interning with the marketing department, seek out employees on the editorial team or the programming department. Observe how their work differs from your own.
Aim to understand the company as a whole. How is it organized? What's the company culture? Which employees are considered stars? What makes a good worker? Keep your future in mind: Would you want to work at a company like the one where you're interning, or would you prefer a different management or organizational structure? During interviews, you'll get questions about how you like to work and what environments suit you. The knowledge gained during your internship informs your response.
You may discover during your internship that the company or industry is not for you. If that's the case, don't look at the internship as wasted time. The sooner you discover which paths aren't for you, the better.
Build Confidence in Workplace Practices
If you've always been in school and worked part-time jobs in retail or food service, an internship may be your first exposure to office culture. It's…different. The more you're exposed to how offices function, from the pre-meeting small talk to knowing whom to copy on emails (and when), the more comfortable it will feel once your training wheels are off in a staff position.
Keep in mind, too, that knowing industry jargon is hugely helpful when it comes to decoding job postings, writing effective cover letters, and sounding like a seasoned pro during interviews. So keep track of the tools used in the office and the buzzwords that come up during meetings.
Broaden Your Skills and Log What You Do
During your internship, you might write your first newsletter or computer program, create a schedule, or even run a project. But some internship programs reserve tedious grunt work for interns. Rest assured, no matter what work you do, you're gaining knowledge and skills that are different than what's learned in the classroom.
Even simple tasks such as reaching out to staffers for the information to include in a daily email can still look powerful on your resume. To that end, keep track of everything you learn and do during your internship. It may be helpful to keep a journal. Or, just keep a digital note or draft email including the date every time you perform a new task. For instance, "11/9—learned new Excel formula;" "11/22—attended conference and presented key points in staff-wide meeting." These notes will be invaluable when you're writing a job description for your resume.
Finally, remember that the purpose of the internship isn't just for you to help the company—it's for you to learn. Take notes during meetings and, if something is unclear, ask questions to clarify later. If colleagues mention interesting, relevant news stories, resources, or tips, you should follow up and learn more. All of this research and follow-through will make you a better, more informed candidate during interviews.
Ask for Feedback
As an intern, you've practically got "newbie" in your title. That may be frustrating and can sometimes limit you from more exciting projects, but it also means that you're expected not to know everything. Make the most of that expectation by asking plenty of questions.
Also, seek out feedback from managers and colleagues. Find out what you can be doing better. While it's hard to hear criticism, this knowledge will help you improve. Besides, it's better to find out now than during a full-time job where poor performance may mean you're sent packing. Plus, you'll have something to say when interviewers ask, "What's your biggest weakness?"
Finally, if there's any time in your career that mistakes aren't devastating, it's now. Ideally, of course, you won't make mistakes. But, most likely, you will. If and when you do, just acknowledge the error in a forthright way and ask your manager what you can do to fix the situation. Then file it away under lessons learned.
Give It Your All
The best internships offer challenging, interesting work. But, sadly, that's not always the case. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're struggling to stay engaged:
- Ask for more: Volunteer for additional work and projects if you've completed your assigned tasks. Or, better still, generate a list of helpful projects or tasks and ask your manager if it's OK to move forward with them.
- Be assertive: Meet with your manager early on, if possible, to try to get a sense of expectations. Remember, part of their job is to ensure you have a meaningful experience. If you know you're interested in meeting with certain people or achieving certain resume-worthy goals, mention it to your boss. Just be mindful of their schedule—most office workers are overworked as it is.
- Don't look bored: Depending on your responsibilities, this might be a challenge. No matter how tedious the work is, don't let that show on your face or in your attitude. Don't check your phone during meetings or social media at your desk (unless, of course, that's part of your job responsibilities).
Form Connections and Find a Mentor
If you're part of a group of interns, you might form relationships that will last a lifetime. Don't miss the chance to socialize with your peers—at appropriate times. Expand your social circle beyond interns, too. Ask coworkers to coffee or sit with them at lunch. Attend company-wide social events and mingle. (Warning: If there's booze served, even if you are of age, partake sparingly. Being the intoxicated intern at a work event is not a good look.)
Finally, be on the lookout for career mentors who can give you advice, write recommendations, and help you make important connections. If you have a coworker who knows their way around, ask how they got to where they are and what advice they'd give you. These conversations are the start of a mentor-type relationship, which can be a powerful force throughout your career.
Starting Your Career Journey
An internship is more than just another task to check off on your way to a college degree. When you make the most of your internship opportunity, you're taking the first step toward a meaningful and rewarding career.