Congratulations! You’ve nabbed an internship. Your preparation and hard work paid off. But if you think you can rest on your laurels now, think again. You need to be just as savvy during your internship as you were in obtaining it.
Lauren Berger, author of All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience, calls herself The Intern Queen. And rightfully so—Berger had 15 of them during college. She says in her book that an internship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that you should use it as a springboard to your future.
We talked to a variety of career experts about how to make the most of your internship. Here is their insight and advice:
WHAT SHOULD INTERNS REMEMBER ABOVE ALL ELSE?
When you started college, you may have heard that “showing up”—attending class— is the number one item crucial to success. When it comes to an internship, it’s attitude, hands-down, says Lee E. Miller, career columnist for The New Jersey Star-Ledger and founder of employability-expert.com.
“Attitude is critical,” according to Miller. Most interns are qualified to actually do the work, because they self-select into areas for which they are qualified and because employers select interns they might want to employ. So, Miller continues, what makes the difference in who gets hired is how you approach the position. Miller recommends that you demonstrate a positive ‘can-do’ attitude by: 1) doing outstanding work, 2) going out of your way to look for work by asking individuals if they need help, 3) coming in early and staying late when people are working under a deadline, 4) showing curiosity by asking questions, without becoming a pest and 5) smiling and always being positive.
WHAT CAN AN INTERN DO TO START ON THE RIGHT FOOT?
Author Berger recommends that you make sure everyone in your department knows who you are. (If that’s not realistic, at least try for those people who are relevant to your position.) Further, if someone doesn’t take you around the office and introduce you, take yourself around. And start keeping track of people you might consider professional contacts.
Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, co-founder of career coaching and consulting firm SixFigureStart®, suggests you get to know your colleagues by asking simple, open-ended questions like: “How did you get your start here?” and “What are the two or three critical skills you need to succeed here?” Also, get to know people in departments that your department depends on or feeds information to. “If no permanent openings are available in your department, perhaps there will be openings in a related group,” she adds. Her final tip? “If you’re shy, put a candy dish on your desk. You’ll make many friends in the office – especially after 3:30 p.m.”
IF AN INTERN REALLY WANTS TO BE PROACTIVE, WHAT ELSE CAN HE OR SHE DO?
Don Asher, author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market and The Overnight Resume, recommends that you find out how many prior interns were offered a permanent job at the organization. “If the answer is zero, then you are being exploited. You can keep going to work if you want, but more importantly, you should start looking for another internship or a job. If you get something better, walk out the door the minute you find it. You don't owe that organization anything,” he says.
Don’t stop at simply finding out how many former interns were hired, he continues. If some interns were hired and others weren’t, sit down with your boss and pose the following: "I want to be one of the interns who is offered a permanent position with you. What do I need to do to make you comfortable advocating that I am one who is hired permanently?" Then, whatever your boss specifies, do it. “There is nothing wrong with making your ambition known,” he says, “especially when your ambition is to turn an internship into a job.”
WHAT’S A BIG MISTAKE SOME INTERNS MAKE?
Expecting the employer to spoon-feed them. If you want to get hired, you need to show initiative, advises Miller. “Most employers don’t have time to spend with interns unless they are adding value to the organization, which is why some students are disappointed with their internships. So you need to seek out opportunities to demonstrate your potential value to the organization through the work you do,” he notes.
ARE THERE STEPS AN INTERN SHOULD TAKE AS THE INTERNSHIP ENDS?
SixFigureStart® executive Thanasoulis-Cerrachio suggests that you gather contact information to use when following up. “During your last week, ensure you have everyone’s email address by forwarding the addresses to your personal email and putting them in a folder identifying the company,” she explains. She has found that many interns fail to do this and have no way to follow up. Send an email thanking your main contacts for their help and let them know you’d like to stay in touch.
Thirty days after you leave, send an email updating the group on your progress at school, she adds. Follow up during the year by sending articles of interest, holiday greetings, and the like. But as Miller says, don’t overdo it.
Author Asner cites three takeaways you should shoot for. “You want a job offer, a letter of recommendation for your files, and evidence of a signature accomplishment—a project or work product you can point to and say, ‘I did that’," he offers.
WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE A JOB OFFER WHEN YOU LEAVE?
Always remain optimistic, insists Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. People will remember if you turn sour or are disgruntled. “Things may work out a year later, or five years later, when you’re already employed and making a good income. Networking is about establishing long term, mutually beneficial relationships of give and take, with the emphasis on the give. So look at every contact with a very long time horizon versus a short one that is dependent upon you getting what you want.”