How to Get the Most Out of Your Internship

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For many college students and recent graduates, an internship is a near-requirement for future full-time employment. Without an internship, even entry-level positions are out of reach. So it can be easy to fall into the mentality that an internship is merely a stepping-stone on the path to a "real" job—something to endure, not enjoy.

But internships can offers 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—who may last a lifetime, offering countless opportunities (both career-focused and personal). And, internships can help make you comfortable and confident in the office environment. You won't get all those benefits if you're just showing up and counting down the days until your internship is over, though!

Here's how to maximize your internship experience, and keep the focus on your whole career—and not just an initial job placement.

Seek Opportunities to Gain Company and Industry Knowledge

During your internship, try to learn about a range of things. If you're interning with the marketing department, seek out employees on the editorial team, or the programming department, and try to learn how their work differs from your own.

Aim to learn about the company as a whole—How is it organized? What's the company culture? Which employees are considered stars? What makes a good worker?—as well as the overall industry. Keep your future in mind: Would you want to work at a company like the one 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 helps inform your response.

You may discover during your internship that the company or industry is not for you. Don't look at the internship as wasted time if that's the case—it's far preferable to discover which paths aren't for you early on in your career. 

Become Confident in Workplace Practices

If you've always been in school and worked part-time jobs in retail or food services, 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 who to CC on emails (and when), the more comfortable it will feel once your training wheels are off, and you have a staff position.

And, keep in mind that knowing industry-focused jargon is hugely helpful when it comes to decoding job postings, writing effective cover letters, and sounding like a knowledgeable pro during interviews. (Here's what all those buzzwords using in job postings actually mean.) So keep track of the tools used in the office and the buzzwords that come up during meetings.

Broaden Your Skills and Track What You Do

During your internship, maybe you'll write your first newsletter or computer program, create a schedule, or run a project (if you're lucky!). But some internship programs reserve tedious grunt work for interns. Rest assured, no matter what work you do, you are gaining knowledge and skills that are different than the ones learned in the classroom.

Even simple tasks—reaching out to staffers for the information to include in a daily email, say—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 have a draft email, and note in it every time you do a new task with the date. For instance, "11/9, learned new Excel formula;" "11/22: attended conference and presented key points in staff-wide meeting." Later, when you're writing up a description for your resume, these notes will be invaluable.

Finally, remember that the purpose of the internship isn't just for you to do work to help the company—it's for you to learn. To that end, take notes during meetings, and if something is unclear, ask questions to clarify later. If colleagues mention interesting, relevant news stories, resources, or tips, 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 sometimes limit you from more exciting projects, but it also means that you're expected to not know everything. So feel free to ask questions, always.

You can also ask for feedback from managers and colleagues. Find out what you can be doing better. While it's hard to hear negative feedback, knowing your weak points can help you improve. Better to find out now, then during a full-time job where poor performance may mean you'd lose the job. (Plus, you'll have something to say when interviewers ask, "What's your biggest weakness?")

Finally, know that if there's any time in your career that a mistake isn't a huge problem, it's now. Ideally, of course, you won't make mistakes, but if you do, just acknowledge the error in a forthright way, and ask your manager what you can do to fix the situation.

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:

  • You can 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, this internship is a two-way street: If you know you're interested in meeting with certain people or achieving certain resume-worthy tasks, mention it your manager—part of a manager's job is to ensure you have a meaningful experience. (Do be aware, however, that people in the office are generally over-worked, not under. So be respectful about how much time you take up.)
  • Don't look bored: Depending on your responsibilities, this may be a challenge. No matter how tedious the work may be, don't let that show on your face or in your attitude. Don't check your phone during meetings (unless that's part of your job responsibilities) or social media at your desk.

Form Connections—And Maybe Even Find a Mentor

If you're part of a group of interns, know that you might form relationships that will last a lifetime. So do socialize with your peers (but not at the cost of your work—use lunch time and coffee breaks for conversations, not cubicle-time).

Go beyond the interns for your social circle, too. Ask co-workers to coffee, or try to sit with co-workers at lunch. Attend work-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 mentors, who can give you advice, write recommendations, and help you make important connections. (Here are some ideas for how to find career mentors.) If you have a co-worker who is helpful answering questions about on-the-job tasks or works with your regularly, ask how they got to where they are, what advice they'd give you, and so on. Having these kinds of conversations is the start to a mentor-type relationship, which can be a powerful force throughout your career.