With the June solstice just days away, many of us are already feeling the heat of summer. From beach days to lighter class schedules, summer can be the perfect time to soak in the sun and relax before life resumes its craziness in the fall. However, for many, summer can also be a great time for college students to gain real world experience (and earn extra cash!) through job shadowing and internships.
During the summer before my senior year, I interned part-time at a public relations agency, which allowed me to fulfill the role of an entry level employee while learning a lot about my craft and adding new writing samples to my portfolio. Throughout college, I participated in three other internships as well, each building on the skills I acquired during the previous one.
The people you meet at your internships will serve as important contacts throughout your career, and the experiences you have (both positive and negative) will guide you in your professional life later on. Because of this, it is important to give each internship your all, and learn how to stand out in the best way possible! This month, we’ll discuss 15 tips you can bring along to any internship you pursue.
The Freshman 15: How to Shine at Your Summer Internship
1. Dress the part!
I’ve talked about this time and time again, but the way you present yourself plays a huge role in how you are perceived. When I worked part-time in Career Services, I was amazed at what some of the students wore to job fairs – skirts that were too short, clothes that were too see-through (hint: anything see-through is too see-through!), outfits that were about three levels too casual. If it’s something you would wear to a club, it’s probably not something you should wear in an office environment. If your office allows casual clothes from time to time, follow the lead of the other employees, and if you are allowed to wear jeans to work, at least make sure they don’t have holes or tons of embellishments. As an intern, you are likely younger than most (if not all) of the people in the office, but if you dress that way, you probably won’t be taken as seriously regardless of the quality of your work.
2. Arrive early.
When I was a cheerleader in high school and our coaches scheduled practices, they always stressed that early was “on time,” and “on time” was late. In other words, arriving at least a few minutes early was the expectation, not the exception. This can apply to your professional life as well. Showing up a little early demonstrates that you care about the job at hand and that you’re willing to put in the extra time and effort.
3. Do your research.
You may receive a formal introduction to the company when you arrive on Day One, or your internship coordinator may throw you an assignment right away. I’ve experienced a mix of both throughout my internships, and the best way to handle it is to prepare yourself ahead of time. Familiarize yourself with the company by visiting its website and social media pages, as well as any relevant news articles about them. This will make things less overwhelming as you adapt to a new environment, and will allow you to ask more specific questions and have better conversations with the full-time staff. It also shows that you have dedicated time outside of the office to learn about the company and that you care about what you are doing.
4. Keep copies of everything.
Because my internships involved a lot of writing opportunities, I was able to keep physical and electronic copies of my press releases, pitch letters and published articles for my own records. As long as your work is not confidential, make sure you collect copies of everything you do so that you can refer back to them later on. Future internships and employers may want to see samples of previous work, so you will be able to present those much more easily if you already have them (instead of scrambling to ask former internship employers to email them your way). When I interviewed for my full-time job after college, I was able to provide a portfolio of past work that I can now refer back to if I need inspiration for current writing assignments. I can also look back at those pieces and see how much my writing has improved over time!
5. Ask others what you can expect.
If you have a friend or classmate who has interned with this company in the past, ask them about their experiences! Your peers can be your best resources, and chances are, they will be happy to share. You can learn a lot about a company’s culture this way, which plays a huge role in how comfortable you feel in the workplace and whether or not you see a future there. Conversely, I have returned the favor and answered questions for friends pursuing internships and full-time employment at some of the places I have worked, and it has been rewarding to do so. If you don’t know anyone who has interned there, see if your friends know anyone who has, and request introductions through LinkedIn or in some other way. You’ll be amazed at how willing people are to help one another. If the company is big enough, you may also be able to read reviews by employees on sites like Glassdoor.
6. Take notes.
Take notes on everything – what you did each day, what feedback you received from your employer, what assignments you have received for the next week. These notes will help you perform your job better, but they will also help you remember some of the seemingly minor day-to-day tasks you fulfilled as well. You may wonder why those could be important, but in future semesters, you may come across another internship or job that requires that experience, and you’ll be able to include it on a more targeted resume. For more of my tips for a winning resume, click here.
7. Do not badmouth the employer.
Even if your experience is less than ideal, you don’t want to burn bridges with potential contacts. Don’t post that your internship “sucks” on Facebook or say negative things about specific people through social media. In person, be careful what you say as well – you never know who knows somebody who knows somebody else, and regardless of all that, you don’t want to be regarded as the difficult person to work with. I don’t care how “private” your social media is; once you publish something on the Internet, it is never really gone.
8. Take on new roles that are slightly outside of your comfort zone.
An internship is a learning experience, so you have to make the most of it! If the employer believes in you enough to entrust you with a task that you’ve never done before, then you need to believe in yourself enough to do it! Ask questions and do some research along the way, but allow yourself to try new things and learn from them. There is a first time for everything, and even in my current role, I find myself doing things I didn’t think I was capable of doing. On my first day at one of my internships, I was asked to work the teleprompter for a local talk show, even though I wasn’t interning in television. I was apprehensive about being allowed anywhere near all of that expensive equipment, but now I can say I’ve mastered the art of the teleprompter! Learn as much as you can every day, and you will get so much more out of your internship. (Tweet this!) It will also show the employer your versatility, and you may be asked to return for another semester.
9. Be willing to take criticism.
We love to be showered with praise, but realistically, this isn’t how we grow in our professions. When you receive constructive criticism, take it. It can be hard to hear, especially in the beginning when you are still adjusting to a new work climate, but it is the only way you’ll get better at what you do. Don’t be overly defensive or sensitive – it’s (probably) not personal.
10. Maintain a neat workspace.
This may sound silly, but when your desk is reasonably organized, people automatically assume you’re a reasonably organized person and worker as well. You could be the best intern the company has ever had, but if your cubicle looks like a tornado has gone through it, other employees may make negative judgments. Keep your space neat and take pride in it, especially if you share that space with someone else.
11. Accept tasks with a smile.
Be positive and don’t let yourself be “too big” for a task. While your internship should not consist solely of brewing coffee and taking down phone messages, realize that sometimes you may be expected to do those things. Be a team player. If you find that you aren’t doing a lot of what you signed up for, talk to your internship coordinator politely. Don’t complain – instead, tell him or her about your interest in a specific project or work function, and ask if you would be able to assist with that. Communicating with your boss instead of rolling your eyes or complaining to your mom via text will be much more productive and will allow you to actually change things.
12. Get to know others on staff.
You may be a marketing major who is interning in the company’s marketing department, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to know people in human resources, information technology or other departments. Meet as many people as you can, and have real conversations with them about what they do in their role and how they got to where they are today. Show the initiative. You may learn that you enjoy another aspect of the company or simply that you’ve found a new mentor.
13. Learn proper email etiquette.
Even in a professional setting, I still receive the occasional email written in all caps! Proofread before sending an email, especially company-wide. “Reply all” if multiple people are included on an email. Make sure you’ve attached whatever you need to attach before hitting “send.” Sometimes I like to write the email in its entirety before adding the recipients so that I can avoid sending the email too early. And of course, spell out full words – no “netspeak” that the older generations are always complaining about! It makes our generation look lazy. 🙂
14. Make the experience your own.
Keep the lines of communication open. If there is something you would like to be doing at this internship and haven’t been able to do so far, just ask. The worst thing that can happen is that your internship coordinator says no, but then that leaves you right where you started. By asking the right questions, I ended up with so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise: I received on-air media training, I helped coordinate a press conference at a missile museum, I sat in on a radio interview and even transcribed a speech for Bill Clinton (and wrote an article about it). The people at your internship know that you are there to learn, so chances are, they will be open to personalizing the experience for you if you put forth the effort.
15. Keep in touch.
With the invention of email and social media, there is no excuse not to stay in touch with employers after the internship experience is over. One of my biggest regrets from college was not doing a better job of keeping up with some employers once the new semester began, and it is the greatest wisdom I can pass on to you. Chances are, you are not going to find a job through a job listing when you graduate – you will probably instead find that job through the contacts you make along the way. Even if the company you interned for isn’t hiring when you graduate, they may be able to pass your information over to someone else in the industry who is. They can serve as references and role models as you pursue your career further, so send them an email every now and then to see what they are up to.
For those pursuing internships this summer and in upcoming semesters, best of luck! Internships can be some of the most rewarding experiences you have in college, and you will be able to apply the lessons you’ve learned in the classroom. For more of my tips on how to stand out professionally while you’re in college, click here.