By Kaelan Guetschow
So, you’ve landed your first internship. First of all, congratulations, it’s one of the last steps you need to take before launching your career. However, transitioning into the professional realm can be a difficult process and for many interns, it’s hard to make the most of the opportunity presented to them.
Here are 10 ways to make sure that you take full advantage of an internship opportunity:
- Think long term – Internships are a launching pad
It might seem obvious, but being an intern is nothing like being in the classroom. It’s your first chance to test the knowledge and skills you’ve been building in school while learning and adapting to a real-world environment. With that being said, your first internship (and any kind of job shadowing or internship experience) will tell you a lot about where you might want to go with your career. One of the main takeaways from my time as a marketing intern at Vistatec is that it has shown me lots of areas that I’m interested in working on in the future.
Having that information has really helped me think long term and adjust my plans and goals for the next five years. Unfortunately, not all internships are created equally, and you may not find any passion for the projects that you work on.
Don’t think of that as a failure or a waste of time. Instead, put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with invaluable connections, and who knows, one of those connections might just help you land a job someday.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
One of the first things that my boss told me when I started my internship was “Kaelan, I don’t care if you need to ask the same question five times before it clicks, because if you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re going to fall behind.” Ever since hearing that, it’s been my mantra during my time at Vistatec. I ask questions whenever I can – not only to get an understanding of how something needs to be done but why it needs to be done.
This way, I can gain a deeper understanding of how my tasks fit into the process and the bigger picture. It puts my tasks in context, and I feel a bigger sense of accomplishment because of it. One of your goals should be to absorb as much information as possible. That’s impossible to do without asking the right questions at the right time. Don’t be afraid of asking a question that you might think is dumb. At the end of the day, your co-workers and colleagues would much rather help you learn how to complete a task correctly than having to go back and fix it for you because you wouldn’t reach out and ask for advice.
3. Be a self-advocate
You’ll find that you have a new sense of freedom and responsibility from your first internship. There might be projects you’re in charge of, meetings to lead, and schedules to keep track of. Although you’re only an intern, you need to remember that when it comes to completing tasks and projects on time, your time is as valuable as anyone else’s in the organization. Therefore, it is vital that you learn how to advocate for yourself and your time.
This doesn’t mean that you can storm into your boss’s office whenever you need something from them. Frankly, that won’t get you far. Learning how and when to approach people to review your work or ask questions is one of the greatest skills you can gain. If you’re observant and ask early about the best way to get on people’s calendars, this shouldn’t be an issue for you. However, one of the most common mistakes that interns make is asking for something once and then never follow up. If you need something done from someone and they aren’t being receptive to your initial request, don’t just give up. Follow through with them – 95% of the time, your first request simply slipped through the cracks.
Besides the experience and opportunity to refine your skills, networking should be your top reason for getting an internship. Whether it’s by getting a killer reference that sets you apart from the crowd of applicants, or an old co-worker finding a position for you in their new company, networking will pay off if you do it right. You may notice that when you first start your internship, people don’t spontaneously introduce themselves (especially in a larger organization). It’s not because they don’t care that you’ve arrived, but they all have projects and work that they’re focusing on.
Don’t be afraid to approach people and try to connect with them! I’ll admit that networking in a new environment can be intimidating, but it is vital that you introduce yourself to as many people as you can. Before you arrive at your internship, set up an account on LinkedIn and take the time to polish your profile.
Add a professional-looking profile picture, write an interesting bio that highlights your skills and what you’re looking for professionally. This will ensure that anyone you network within the office can see that you’ve taken the time to really think about how you want to present yourself online.
5. Set goals for yourself
Going through an internship without personal and professional goals is like driving a car with a flat tire; it won’t get you very far. Goals help give you tangible and measurable objectives to work towards and use in the future as evidence when talking about what you did at the organization. Setting goals also ensures that you’ll always have something to work on and by setting the right goals, you’ll gain the right skills that are going to be relevant to your future career.
When setting goals, make sure that they are attainable, yet challenging enough that you’ll gain something out of them. There’s no point in setting a goal that can be completed on the first day or can’t be completed at all. More importantly, your goals should be adaptable. Since there are so many moving pieces in any organization, you may have to shift your focus to other projects that don’t always align with your original goals.
If your goals are adaptable, this won’t be an issue. Assess your new objective and modify your original goal so that it fits into what you’re working on. Of course, if you notice that you’re getting asked to make coffee runs all day or are working on things that don’t align with any of the original goals that you set out for yourself, it never hurts to talk to your supervisor to see if there’s anything that can be done to help you get back on track.
More than likely, you’ll be able to figure out a solution that’s mutually beneficial. Just remember, your supervisor isn’t there to get in the way of you and your goals. They want to see you succeed just as much as you do.
6. Stay focused and be present
If you don’t take anything else away from this article, I want you to at least remember one thing: No matter what else is going on around you, no matter what else is going on inside your personal life, it’s essential that you stay focused at your internship and be present every single day. Since it’s your first internship, the company is taking a risk by hiring you. They don’t know how you operate or what your work ethic is like. Especially if there were underperforming interns at the organization in the past, your supervisor or co-workers may be hesitant in trusting you and giving you important projects to work on.
The worst thing you can do is to confirm those preconceived notions. An internship isn’t a place where you can just slide by. In order to gain the most out of it (and leave with what could be a life-changing letter of recommendation), don’t drift off in meetings, don’t half-ass your work, show everyone that you mean business. This might mean that you show up early and leave late. It might mean that you have to work on tasks that may bore you to death. Take it in stride and show everyone that you have grit and the capacity to handle anything that they may throw at you. It’ll be worth it in the long term and it’s a great lesson in adaptability and work ethic.
7. Learn how to prioritize your work
Not all tasks are created equal and learning how to juggle multiple projects at once is one of the best skills you can gain from your internship. Keeping yourself organized and prioritized can be stressful, but one of the best ways to do this is by using some sort of task management system. It could be a calendar, a spreadsheet, or even a program like Asana. Use the tools at your disposal to make sure you can track what still needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. This way, you can always make sure you have the time set aside to get your work completed on time.
Dividing things up like this also shows your boss that you’re on top of things and that you can handle what they’ve thrown at you. Although it may seem like a boring task, I always take a moment to plan my day in the morning before I start working on things. That way, I know when I have time to meet with people and what exactly needs to be done before I leave for the day.
8. Mistakes happen, learn from them and move on
At some point or another, you’re going to make a mistake that could feel like it will end your internship. I’ve got news for you; 99% of the time, it won’t. Mistakes happen all the time and the best way to deal with them is to learn from them. First of all, don’t try to cover your mistake as you’ll only make things worse. Own up to them and see what you can do to fix them. Even better, use it as a learning opportunity and reflect on what you did, and how you can do things differently in the future.
Fixing your mistakes shows the people around you that you have accountability and care about the work that you’re doing. Once the dust has settled, the issue has been fixed, and you’ve reflected on what you’re going to do differently in the future, move on. Don’t fixate on what can’t be changed. The energy that you’re using to do that is much better suited for something productive.
9. Push yourself
There can be times in your internship that you feel like walls are coming down around you and that you’re drowning in the amount of work that still needs to be done. Your first instinct may be to run away. I absolutely urge that you don’t do that for a couple of reasons. Pushing yourself develops grit and stamina. Grit and stamina are two of the most important skills that you can develop while in your internship. They are a sign of character and resolve.
Frankly, if you plan on going into a field that typically has long hours and lots of deadlines, you’re going to want to push yourself as much as you can now (within reason of course – remember, you’re just an intern after all) so that later on when you’ve got that highly demanding job, you won’t crack under the pressure. Pushing yourself also shows the people around you that you want to perform at the highest level that you can.
This all ties back with what I said earlier about networking and getting an amazing recommendation: put the work in now so that you’ll be in a better position down the line. Have that long-term vision of where you want to be three to five years from now. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to push yourself to get through even more challenging obstacles that life inevitably throws at you. Get some practice in now.
10. Constantly seek out feedback
Asking for feedback consistently is just as important as setting goals and asking questions – if not more. Without it, you won’t maximize your experience and won’t learn how to improve upon your work. Take this article for example. I went through it with my supervisor at least a couple of times to see what could be done to make it the best article that I could post. Doing this helped me to learn what I could improve upon as well as what I’ve done well and should continue to do in the future. It also showed my boss that I was eager and wanted to produce the best content that I could.
However, it should be noted that feedback is useless unless you take it and act upon it, especially in the case of critical/constructive feedback about what you need to do to improve your work. Sometimes it feels overwhelming absorbing everything that you still need to work on. It’s unhealthy and unproductive to think about it that way. Instead, think of it as advice on how you can refine your skills and grow professionally.