Internships are a rite of passage for most college students. The experience serves as a bridge to full-time employment—sometimes with the same company. But no matter where you land for your first job, they’re still invaluable: You gain work experience, begin to build a professional network, and have the chance to explore areas within your chosen field to help you further narrow down what type of work you want to pursue—or not.
“Internships can provide the opportunity to learn what kinds of jobs are available with your college major and give you a chance to figure out not only what you want to do but what you might not want to do,” says Lisa Mark, college and career counselor at Your Career Direction in Maplewood, NJ. To be clear, your internship tasks will more likely include data entry and ordering office supplies than high-level decision-making. Just bring a sense of curiosity and be open to all experiences.
Here are 7 things you should do during your internship to make the most of this first step in your career.
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1. Do your homework
Being prepared is a good professional strategy as well as an academic one. Before your first day (and definitely during the first week), do some research on the company where you’re interning, the department you’re in, and the person who’s managing you. (LinkedIn is a great place to start.) “There’s going to be a lack of connection [between] what you’re doing at your desk and what the company as a whole is doing,” says Mark. By showing that you’ve done your “homework,” you’re more likely to make an impression on your manager.
2. Take notes
Expect to learn … a lot. Whether or not you’re asked to write down the tasks you’re assigned, it’s a good idea to take notes so you know exactly what’s expected of you and so you can keep track of any questions that may come up—about your work, or about the company in general. “A lot of college students feel they should know everything already, but the truth is, they won’t,” says Mark. “Get a jump on your peers and get comfortable asking questions.” She suggests asking not only about your assignments but also about the work beyond your scope or job. For example, if the business is product focused, ask where the products are manufactured. What are the current annual sales? What are the projected sales goals for the quarter? Are sales goals currently being met?
3. Put your phone away
Checking your phone a lot during work hours is not professional. Your supervisor will see it as a sign that you’re not taking your responsibilities seriously, you’re bored, or you don’t have enough to do, says Mark. “If you’re not busy, you should be asking for more work or more responsibilities. That [indicates] curiosity, enthusiasm, and an interest in learning”—all really good work ethics that will impress your manager and may even lead to an offer of full-time employment after you graduate. Which, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, happens in nearly 60% of paid internships.
4. Ask for feedback
About 3 weeks into your internship, ask your supervisor for feedback. A simple “How am I doing?” sounds like an easy ask, but it can be hard—and you should do it anyway, stresses Mark. Hopefully you’re doing great, but it’s helpful to know whether (and where) there’s room for improvement, or if you’re doing anything wrong.
You can’t assume that your supervisor will initiate a conversation (and that’s OK; Mark says most managers aren’t great at this). If you’re proactive and ask him or her for a review, it makes it easier for them to critique your performance. You learn, and they get more focused work from you. It’s a win-win.
Or do what Courtney, a finance major at Quinnipiac University, did: Ask for feedback after every assignment. That way, you don’t have to wait for a mid-internship review to get yourself on the right track.
5. Sit in on meetings (if you can)
Ask if you can attend a meeting. Interns aren’t usually automatically included (and often may not be allowed if there are proprietary conversations taking place), but if you’re able, you should attend. Just by being there you’ll absorb a lot. “You’ll glean a lot of information, see how the organization operates, learn about the different departments and their roles, and get an inside view of what goes on, who does what, and who’s who,” says Mark.
6. Make conversation with the higher-ups
You want them to know who you are, says Ben, a communications major at Tulane University. “Skip the emails and walk around the office to speak [directly] with superiors about assignments,” he advises.
In casual conversations, Mark also suggests asking colleagues about their own backgrounds. “Internships are valuable for learning what you might be interested in once you graduate, and the trajectory of how to get there.”
Getting to know your peers will provide insights from their experiences as well as help you develop professional relationships. (Some call it networking; we call it building relationships.) Larger companies with organized intern programs will usually have lunch-and-learn meetings or intern outings. Attend them all, if possible. They’re great opportunities to meet other interns and managers from different departments in the organization.
Small company? There are plenty of ways to connect with other interns, from small-group lunches to happy hours. If no such company-sponsored activities exist, take it upon yourself to spearhead an intern gathering outside of work hours.
7. Ask for a reference letter
“It’s old fashioned, but it’s extremely useful—even in today’s high-tech job market,” says Mark. “When you apply for job, a prospective employer will typically go back to a former employer or colleague and ask for a reference. In terms of an internship, you’re there for such a short time that if any time elapses, your internship manager may not recall your specific skills,” she explains. Before you leave, try to get a letter of recommendation that you can use for a future interview. It’s as simple as asking, “Can I get a reference from you?” Even if you don’t use it, it’s still a good experience to ask for one, and receive it!