You did it. You scored that golden ticket – the coveted summer internship that college students fight tooth and nail to get, especially as rising juniors and seniors. Why all the hype though? Why not just work at a local 7-11 or a camp for the summer? Professional internships are valuable for many reasons – they can help you figure out if your burning desire to enter a given industry is justified; they can provide a leg up in getting a coveted full-time job offer upon graduation; and they are a great way to build skills, maturity and understand what it means to be accountable to others. But getting the internship is only half the battle. If you really want to get value out of your internship this summer and up your chances of getting an offer of full-time employment or, at the minimum, a glowing recommendation, here are a few simple things you can do to become a star intern:
Make a Great First Impression: First impressions matter. A lot. They can impact how your boss and others perceive you during your entire internship – even if you try hard to change that impression mid-way through. Here are some adjectives that you want the people you are working with using to describe you after your first week on the job: “hard worker,” “eager to learn,” “diligent,” “accurate,” “team player,” “willing to go the extra mile,” “smart,” “dependable,” and “easy to work with.” Other adjectives depending on the role you are in might be “creative,” or “analytical.” Importantly, you unquestionably want them to say, “Oh wow, what a great hire we made!”
Always Show Gratitude: New employees, especially interns, often require a significant amount of training and handholding before they can get up to speed and add value. When co-workers take time out of their busy work schedules to train you on a new system, invite you to a meeting, explain the business and answer questions, or even take you out to lunch, don't forget to express your thanks for their efforts. "Thanks so much for explaining the structure of the department to me. I have a better understanding now about how projects are managed and the flow of information here."
Strive to Get Work Done Before It's Due: Yes, sometimes striving to exceed deadlines will mean putting in some late hours or weekend work, but it is likely that the people you are working for have “paid their dues” early in their careers and will expect you to do the same. Being among the first to arrive and last to leave the office is also a great strategy and shows your commitment and desire to work hard.
Take Every Opportunity: Interns are often looked upon as "smart, cheap labor" and thus many people in the organization may ask you to help them with projects. View each of these projects as an opportunity to learn something new, work with someone different and build positive relationships across the organization. The more skills you pick up and the more people you please with your great work, the more you will become an invaluable resource and someone whom everyone is clamoring to have as a permanent member of their team. If you find yourself with downtime, after checking with your supervisor, make sure others know about your availability to help out and take on additional assignments.
Say "Yes" to (Almost) Everything: As an ETP (eager to please) summer intern, you will want to say yes to every assignment for the reasons outlined above. However, if you take on so much work that your work quality suffers and you start missing deadlines, this strategy will backfire. If you find yourself with so much work on your plate that you can't get it all done correctly and when promised, reach out to your supervisor. They can help you prioritize your work, offload work if necessary, or find additional resources to help get the work done.
Take Initiative: Interns are especially valuable because they bring fresh perspective to an organization. If you have an idea – maybe you’ve come up with a more efficient way of getting something done, a way to save money or just have some creative suggestions – find a way to share it...appropriately. By appropriately I mean modestly, because all organizations whether they are corporations, labs, schools, summer camps, hospitals, law firms, etc. are filled with people who have egos, priorities and agendas. Attending a department meeting and saying, “The way you’ve been running this program seems to be very inefficient,” may not win you many friends, especially if the program “owners” happen to be sitting right next to you! A better way to present your ideas might be to say, “I have some thoughts about how to make the XYZ program even better. If you are interested, I’d love to share them with you!” You just may make some magic happen!
Don't Complain: An intern's work can be hard and it can be boring. If you are lucky, you will land an internship that provides lots of mental stimulation and challenge. If you are unlucky, your work as an intern can be as boring as watching paint dry (my first internship was a job at a national TV ratings company which required me to transfer TV ratings statistics from computer printouts onto a spreadsheet - ALL DAY LONG). If you are like most interns, your work will be a mix of the interesting and mundane. Each assignment, whether it is getting coffee, making copies of the pitch presentation, or building a financial model, is important to the organization and, as an intern, you should do it all with a smile on your face. Keep the phrase, “not in my job description” out of your lexicon.
Be a Confident Learner: Interns are not expected to know everything when they walk in the door. When your co-workers are explaining things to you, listen closely and take notes (I recommend bringing a laptop or a notepad to every meeting). If you are given an assignment and you need clarification, by all means, ask questions. But then, have the confidence to take your best shot at the assignment and ask for feedback when it is done. People at work are busy and, senior executives especially, don't want to have to answer constant questions or hold your hand while you do your work. If you have questions after starting an assignment, ask yourself first, can I get the information by doing some research on my own or asking my peers in the organization? And, if you do make a mistake, own up to it and don’t blame others. “I just noticed that I should have used x to calculate y. Let me fix that and resend you the file asap,” shows that you are owning responsibility for your work vs. “I got the spreadsheet from accounting – they must have put in the wrong formula.”
Check and Double-check Your Work: Turning in sloppy work containing errors or typos will quickly erode the confidence that your employer has in you. After completing an assignment, check your work thoroughly before turning it in. If possible, and if time permits, ask a peer to look at it too and give you feedback. Developing a reputation for producing reliable, high quality work will increase your value to the team and the probability of being offered a full-time job after graduation.
Don't Gossip: Workplaces can be a hotbed of alliances and turf wars. My recommendation is to keep your head down and stay out of the fray. Nothing good ever comes from talking about people at work behind their backs and it could backfire if you are caught doing it. Your goal should be to smile and be polite and professional to everyone – from the receptionist to senior management. Speaking badly about the company or their competition in the workplace is also ill-advised and unprofessional.
Dress for the Job You Want, Not the Job You Have: Prior to starting this summer, ask your human resources contact about the dress code. Then, once you start, take your cues from others in the office, but err on the side of professionalism. For example, if half of your co-workers are wearing jeans and a T-shirt and the other are dressed in business casual attire, select the latter as your uniform. You will increase the likelihood of being asked to join an important internal or client meeting if you are looking sharp.
Focus on the Affirmative: How you communicate in the workplace is just as important as what you communicate. Using words like “can’t” and “won’t” tells others that you are a “can’t and “won’t” kind of person. If someone gives you a deadline that is unachievable, asking them, “would I be able to get that to you by ____?” instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” communicates that you are someone who looks for potential solutions and not roadblocks. This communications approach also works well when you are trying to navigate work commitments and office social invitations. It’s hard to turn down a coworker who extends an offer to go to lunch, but if you have an important deadline looming, instead of shutting them down with “I can’t,” you might say, “I’d love that but I have a big project due...how about tomorrow or early next week?”
Your summer internship is going to be filled with opportunities to learn and grow. Hopefully it will be fun, exciting and lead to the next great step in your career. If it doesn’t exactly meet all of your expectations, remember that it will still impart important life lessons and will help you learn more about work, about others, and most importantly, about yourself.
Best of luck!