When you first learn that you’ve been accepted into an internship program, it’s an exciting moment. Whether it’s for a couple of weeks, or an extended period, completing an internship is one of the best ways to explore the reality of working life and get your career off to a flying start.
As with anything in life, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out. So in this guide, we’re going to look at 11 ways to get the most out of your internship and provide insider ‘internship tips’ which you can use to get ahead.
1. Know what you want to get out of the experience
If you don’t know what you want to achieve by completing an internship, there’s a danger that you will drift through it and emerge at the end with no clear benefit.
If you already have clear career goals, the task is easy. You’ll be looking for work experiences that prepare you for full-time employment in entry-level positions in the field you’ve chosen.
However, if you’re not sure of the career path you want to take, an internship can be richly rewarding because you can learn new skills that will be useful when you start your job search.
How to set your goals
Begin by asking yourself questions such as:
- What questions do I want to answer by the time I finish my internship program?
- How does the knowledge I’ve gained in school/college/university apply in the workplace?
- What technical skills do I hope to learn?
- What would I like to learn more about, from my managers and colleagues?
- What do I think I might find it difficult?
So, before you start your internship, turn each question into a learning goal. For example, if you aim to learn or practice a specific technical skill, decide how you can gain it. Start with a general aim, decide on a goal, and, importantly identify how you’ll know if you’ve achieved your aim
- Aim: ‘Improve my presentation skills’
- Goal: ‘Prepare 3 presentations for the HR team’
- Measure: ‘My slides are used in the presentations’
Have these goals with you to discuss the first time you meet your supervisor and share them with him or her. The more you enlist their help, the more likely you’ll complete your internship experience satisfied, and with the belief that it has been time well spent
2. Understand the importance of time-management
One of the greatest shocks that people experience when they move from the world of education to the world of work, is how important good time-keeping is.
If you’re used to organizing your own schedule and choosing when you study and when you relax, you’ll /need to get used to something very different. And you’ll need to learn quickly.
In companies, as you’ll learn, it will be important that every team member can be relied on to be present when they’re needed by colleagues or customers.
Poor time-keeping may be viewed as a sign that you don’t respect or value the career development opportunity you’re being given, and the result could be that those around you will be less willing to support you and invest their time in helping you learn.
Try these strategies during your internship program to help you develop a reputation as a good time manager.
- When you go for your internship interview, ensure you arrive at least 15 minutes early. If it helps, make a test journey beforehand, so you know exactly how much time you’ll need.
- Same on your first day, ensure that you report for duty ahead of time. Being late will give a poor impression of your commitment to your internship program.
- If you have trouble getting up in the morning, sort it out by setting different alarms. You may also need to adjust your sleep patterns, going to bed earlier, so you report to work punctually, and you’re not half-asleep
- Observe the time limits for meal and break times, and be back at your workstation in good time.
- While you shouldn’t be expected to work beyond your agreed hours, make sure you complete any tasks and tidy your work area before leaving for the day.
- If you are going to be late for any reason, ensure you inform your supervisor in advance.
- Likewise, if you’re unwell and can’t report for duty, make sure you let your supervisor know, and keep them updated about when you’ll be able to return.
3. Network like a pro
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, as a humble intern and the person with fewer work experiences than anyone else, you have to stay quiet and remain invisible.
- A far better approach is to treat your internship experience as a real-life case study. Your goal is to learn as much as possible about your new environment, and the best way to do that is to connect with people who can teach you.
- Start by working out who’s who in the organization. Ask for organization charts so you can see the structure of the company, then begin to put names to positions.
- Ensure that, from the first moment you arrive, you start to learn people’s names. Make a note of everyone you meet to help you memorize.
- When you’re introduced to colleagues, help them to remember you by repeating “I’m (first name), pleased to meet you”, or similar.
- First, let those around you get to know more about you. Offer to help with their tasks. Ask if they can explain more about their role, at a convenient moment. Aim to integrate into your immediate team as smoothly and easily as possible and for sure it’ll be a good start for your learning process in your internship program.
- Don’t get stuck in your own department, though. Reach out to others in related departments to find out more about what they do, and what they can teach you.
- Never use emails if you can pick up the phone and never pick up the phone if you can just as easily have a face-to-face conversation.
- Caution: if you do need to email a colleague, keep the tone formal and pay attention to your spelling and punctuation. Don’t forget that you want to be judged as a professional member of the team, not a potential Facebook friend.
4. Sit in on meetings
One of the great benefits of the internship experience is that it can give you a fantastic insight into a company’s culture, that is, how people behave, and what’s important to them. This is not only interesting in itself, it can really help you as you embark on your career path.
One of the most useful ways to learn about this is to sit in on as many meetings as possible. These can include:
- Different interview types, with entry-level candidates, up to management level
- One-to-ones between supervisors or between your supervisor and a team member
- One-to-ones between your supervisor and his / her manager
- Team meetings
- Senior team meetings
- Formal presentations
- Goal-setting meetings
- Town Halls and whole-company meetings
- If the timing allows, a performance appraisal
Of course, you can’t just show up to most of these. That’s why it’s a good idea to discuss with your supervisor and ask for his/her support so you can be invited to attend as part of your learning.
When senior managers are discussing confidential issues, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to attend. However, when less controversial matters are being discussed, you could be welcome for all, or part, of the meeting.
Ensure that, whichever meetings you attend, you observe the etiquette that’s expected. Arrive on time. Switch your phone off. Yes, off. You are there as a guest, so be sure to give your complete attention to whoever is speaking.
5. Apply your coursework to the workplace
Here’s another reason to set your goals before you start your internship program. You are there to learn new skills and gain useful work experiences. Yes, you’re in an entry-level position, but you’re not going to stay there.
As an intern, you may be asked to assist with basic workplace tasks such as photocopying, filing, or (in a catering outlet) sweeping the floor. It’s normal that you should start with the basics.
However, you should keep in mind that there’s an agreement with your employer that you are there to learn, not to fill a gap in their workforce.
For example, if you’re aiming for a career in management, you should be given tasks and duties which help you gain the technical and interpersonal skills you’ll need for your career development when you start your full-time employment.
The chances are, you were selected for an internship program because of your academic course and performance. Ensure that you relate what you’re seeing in practice, to what you’ve previously learned in theory.
To maximize the possibility of this happening:
- As you’ve joined an internship program, find out what the company has got programmed for you on your first day. Have they prepared a training plan for you? Will you co-create one when you arrive? Don’t be afraid to ask for additional learning points to be added, if they help you achieve your aims.
- Make sure you are allocated a coach or mentor at the start of your internship.
- While your supervisor may have the best intentions, he or she is likely to be busy running the operation, so also ensure that you have a coach from the Human Resources or Learning and Development team, as a point of contact.
- Request a meeting with your coach, at least every two weeks if you have an extended internship, or every couple of days if it’s less than a month.
- Prepare well for these meetings. Make notes about what you’ve learned, what’s surprised you, anything you’re finding difficult and, importantly, what you’d like to do & learn next in your internship program.
6. Connect with a mentor
Senior managers are an invaluable source of wisdom, advice, and insider knowledge. During your internship, you have a unique opportunity to connect with them and benefit from their experience and wisdom.
Most senior managers view encouraging and developing the next generation of leaders as an important part of their role.
Ask if you can be allocated a mentor from the senior management team. When this happens, be proactive. Don’t expect him or her to chase you to set meetings or to check that you take any actions you may agree.
All mentoring conversations should be confidential. This applies to you as well as your mentor.
Your mentor for the internship program is not your manager and has no role to play in your daily performance. What he or she can do is:
- Help you to understand the company culture and the unwritten rules of the workplace.
- Help you to think through any issues, so you can resolve them yourself.
- Advise on your career path and long term career development.
Don’t expect your mentor to:
- Speak to your supervisor on your behalf.
- Intervene to resolve any issues you may be having.
- Train you on any practical or technical tasks (Your supervisor should do this).
The mentor–mentee relationship can be extremely rewarding for both parties, and it is quite common for the relationship to continue over years, long after one or both of the parties has moved on from the company where they originally made contact.
7. Contribute ideas, ask questions
As we acknowledged earlier, you’ll most likely be the person with the fewest work experiences. However, that’s no reason for you to assume you have to stay quiet and accept everything you hear.
- You’ll be far more impressive if you engage actively in discussions and meetings.
- You’re there to learn, so if you don’t understand something – ask for clarification
- A fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable, so if you have an opinion or an idea that goes against the majority, voice it. Be prepared to back up your case with facts and data. Even if your point may not be accepted, you’ll gain respect of your courage in speaking out. Not to mention your ability to think ‘out-of-the-box’ which is highly valued in many companies.
- You may be surprised at how much more senior managers and colleagues want to hear your viewpoint. It may be that you are closer to the profile of their customers, or future customers, so they want to know how you think.
- By speaking out, you’ll establish yourself as a genuine part of the team. If you’re hoping for a job offer when your internship program is over, the impression you make during this time can make or break your chances.
8. Learn to Prioritize
When you’re studying, you definitely need to be organized and set priorities. You make a list of what has to be done first, or what’s most important, or what has to be completed one step at a time. It’s relatively easy to plan and to prioritize. When you need a break, you take one.
But one of the differences between academic life and the world of work is that you may have to deal with multiple demands from a variety of people.
To make matters worse, it can be that each one of them needs work to be done urgently, as the top priority. Unless you learn how to handle this, it can be very stressful. You’re not completely in control of your workload, and you don’t get to decide when you are going to take a break.
That’s why one of the major learning points of your internship experience is likely to be how to prioritize work tasks. Here are a few internship tips:
- Start the day right. Be at your workstation promptly, and have the tools you need, ready.
- Make lists. Whether on paper or in an online planner, make a note of every task you need to accomplish. As new tasks are allocated to you, add them to your list. As you complete a task, delete it. Be disciplined about this. It will give you a sense of progress and order. It will also help to prevent you from becoming overloaded and overwhelmed during your internship program
- Communicate, communicate. Update your supervisor, regularly on which tasks you’ve accomplished, which are in progress, and which you haven’t started. Be very open about this. If you haven’t been able to start or finish a task, let them know. If you need support, ask for it. You won’t be reproached if you can’t do something, but if you promise and fail to deliver, it could affect your reputation.
- When multiple people ask you to help them, and you’re not sure who to prioritize, ask your supervisor for advice. As prioritizing is one of the skills you’re there to learn, he or she should be willing to guide you.
- Learn to say ‘no’. This is one of the hardest things to learn. When you can’t take on more tasks, or you have other urgent priorities, saying no, in a professional way, is a key skill. The art of refusing politely is essential. You have your allocated work, and your priorities, so, while you want to be flexible and helpful – just say no.
9. Learn to love constructive feedback
One of the most valuable career development tools you’ll have during your internship program is constructive feedback. Look for it everywhere.
Keep a journal during the program, and at the end of each day, make notes about:
- What went well
- What you enjoyed
- What you found challenging, how did you overcome obstacles?
- What you learned: was it related to the goals you set at the start
The feedback you received from others, whether colleagues or customers
The feedback you get from your supervisor, coach, mentor, and colleagues is golden, so seek it out. Don’t passively wait to be told how you performed, and don’t be afraid of constructive criticism. Ask open questions, such as:
- How well did I ………?
- What could I have done better…….?
- What would you have done in that situation…..?
- Next time, I’ll………… what do you think?
When you receive praise (and you surely will), accept it modestly. Also analyse what you did that actually earned it, so you can repeat and build on that strength. It will also come in useful for Point 10.
Most importantly, learn not to take any ‘negative’ criticism personally. You’re there to learn and grow, not to be perfect. Don’t let it spoil the experience and continue to enjoy your internship program.
10. Build your CV
By the time you’re completing your internship, the chances are you’ll be thinking about starting your job search and looking for permanent full-time employment. An inevitable part of the application process is preparing a CV that will impress potential employers.
For many, who are just starting their career path, this is daunting, as they don’t have a long career history.
Use your internship experience to build a strong CV. Go back to your original aims, and refer to your journal notes.
- List the technical skills you learned, in detail
- List the interpersonal skills, such as team-work, time management, customer service, problem-solving, etc.
- Ask the internship provider to give you a detailed reference, confirming what you did, and how well you performed.
11. Use what you’ve learned as you progress along your career path.
This is what it’s all been about. During your internship, you’ll have gained valuable insights into what makes companies work. You’ll have gained more self-awareness about what will make you a great employee, and where you might face challenges.
- As you go through the application process in search of the perfect job offer, you’ll be well-prepared for job interviews.
- You’ll be able to relate your academic work to real-life experiences
- You’ll be able to describe situations in which you demonstrated your interpersonal and ‘soft’ skills
- You’ll have examples of the technical or ‘hard’ skills that you learned and practiced.
- You’ll also be able to talk about the experience with a degree of self-awareness that will impress your interviewer.
Finally, the main benefit of your internship experience is that you’ll be able to apply everything you’ve learned and you’re on the road to a brilliant and rewarding career! We hope these internship tips will help!