9 Tips to Make the Most of Your Internship
As a savvy “Starting Out” reader, you likely already know the major flubs to avoid during an internship, such as showing up late for work or telling your boss to get lost. What you really want to know is how to find the right internship -- and shine brightly enough to nab a great job after your internship is complete.
We’ve rounded up top advice on how to succeed at internships, with perspectives both from former interns and from those who manage interns. Whether you’re searching for an internship, in the midst of one or about to wrap up your gig, you’ll find nuggets of wisdom here to help you stand out.
1. Realize that a bigger employer doesn’t mean a better internship.
Knight Kiplinger, editor in chief of Kiplinger publications, says: I learned from my own internships in college that the best internship is at a small, understaffed organization where they will work you hard and give you significant tasks to perform. A small, lean office will view you as a valuable addition to their staff for a few months, rather than as a go-fer on whom they can load menial tasks. They can’t afford not to use their interns effectively.
I saw this again, later, as an employer hiring interns. Thirty years ago, when I was the Washington bureau chief for a small newspaper group, I would offer internships to college kids who sometimes also had an offer from a big, prestigious news organization. I told them that they should take my offer because I would send them out on two or three reporting assignments each day, and they would end the summer with a fat folder of published newspaper stories under their own bylines. The smart ones accepted my offer and advanced their careers; their friends who had taken internships at the big, prestigious news bureaus spent the summer delivering mail and sharpening pencils.
2. Watch out for scams.
Kellie Duff, art and photography assistant for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, says: My first summer during college, I found a design internship on Craigslist creating brochures and publications for an individual’s company. The owner promised me a $2,000 stipend at the end of the summer. I showed up on my last day (along with three other interns), and he was gone! I filed a claim with the Department of Labor, but because his company had filed for bankruptcy, there was nothing the Labor Department could do. I also found out that he had filed for bankruptcy in the past -- which I would have known if I had done more research before starting to work for him. And maybe I would have had a better chance at getting the money if I had made up a contract at the outset.
3. Do the job well, no matter how small.
Stacy Rapacon, channel editor for Kiplinger.com, says: Unfortunately, you're not always going to nab a first-rate internship that will allow you to dive into specialized work. But, given no other option, I think any work is better than no work at all. At my first internship, for a small public-relations firm in New York City when I was a senior in high school, I got acquainted with office grunt work. I stuffed envelopes, made copies, sent faxes and lugged crates of mail to the post office. I hated it. But I was 17, inexperienced and grateful to have landed the position. I made the best of it. I watched and learned from the firm’s owners’ interactions with clients. And learning how to do all those little but necessary office tasks, plus being able to put it on my resume at that young age, gave me a leg up when applying for internships and part-time work throughout college.
4. Be proactive and social.
Marc Wojno, senior associate editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, says: I supervise the interns for the magazine. I like the ones who take the initiative to ask for work when they're not busy and who don't hide in their cubicles waiting for managers to assign them work. Above all, I like interns who take the time to talk to and get to know the staff. If interns work well with others, it’s a good reason to have them come back after graduation.
5. Be curious and enthusiastic.
Joan Berne, copy chief for Kiplinger Business Forecasts, says: I supervised interns for a previous employer. The ones who impressed me were eager to learn. They asked questions about the magazine. The ones who were a big turnoff thought they already knew everything and were gracing us with their presence for a few months before they moved on to bigger and better things.
6. Use the internship to pinpoint the kind of work you don’t want to do.
Patricia Mertz Esswein, associate editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, says: After I graduated from college with a degree in American Studies, I interned with the Minnesota Historical Society. I worked in the photo archive, cataloguing a collection of photographs and negatives by a Minnesota photographer. It was fascinating work for a few months, and I enjoyed the people with whom I worked. But I learned that I didn’t want to be in such a quiet, constrained environment. It was a useful exercise that pushed me to turn to other endeavors.
7. Take criticism -- and admit your mistakes.
Sandra Block, senior associate editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, says: I worked with a lot of interns at my previous employer, USA Today. The best interns -- the ones we hired or who got another job -- didn’t try to duck responsibility for their errors. They owned up to their mistakes and accepted criticism. However, we once had an intern who, after being admonished for making several errors in his copy, said, “Tell me something I’m doing right.” Sorry, this isn’t Little League. Not everyone gets a trophy.
8. Don’t overextend yourself.
Jane Bennett Clark, senior editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, says: If you don't have time to do an assignment, or you have conflicting assignments, say so. I worked with one intern who kept agreeing enthusiastically to do an assignment and then disappearing. I finally did the job myself, but I wondered whether he was working like crazy for another editor or not working at all.
9. Keep your connections alive.
Andrea Browne, channel editor for Kiplinger.com, says: I had interned at the Washington Post during the fall semester of my senior year of college. After the internship was over, I kept in touch with my supervisor and some other people I worked with directly, and six months after graduation, the Post offered me my first real job. Even if they can't offer you a full-time position, the people from your internship may provide you with references during your job search, so be sure you stay in contact. Your correspondence can be informal, such as an occasional “check-in” e-mail letting them know the status of your job hunt or other internships you’re doing.