I like to think I know a thing or two about internships. I’ve been on both sides of the table. I started my career as an intern, and I’ve managed more than a few interns in the years since. In that time, I’ve managed to deduce a handful of the ingredients in the recipe for internship success.

Chances are you’ll avoid the downtrodden, coffee-slave trope (does anyone actually do that at an internship?) and be assigned tasks related to the field you hope to be employed in. That said, you’ll probably be assigned more than a few dredge tasks that full-time employees don’t have the time or patience to tackle. (Your ability to read a spreadsheet and sorting skills will be A+, though!)  But you’ll learn a ton and walk away from your internship with valuable real-world job skills.

Here’s how to make the most of your internship experience.

find the right internship fit

How successful your internship is will depend on the company that employs you. So be picky. This is your chance to start off your career on the right foot. When you’re looking for an internship, it can be tempting to jump on the first offer that materializes. As newbies to the workforce, we’re taught any job experience thrown our way is a gift. Worse, we’re told that being paid is something we have to earn. A paid internship can seem like a special privilege. (The debate about whether companies should pay interns is one for another day.) Unfortunately, the pay (or lack thereof) isn’t a great criterion for selecting an internship.

An internship is a chance to build a foundation for your career. If you’re not enthused about the internship, it might not be right for you. Prioritize organizations that are open about wanting to train you and help you learn tangible job skills. If you’re excited about the possibility of working for the company full-time once your internship is over, you’re on the right track. Consider both short-term value (i.e. being paid, a short commute) and long-term value (i.e. learning career skills, potential to work for an organization you love) and make an informed decision.

absorb knowledge like a sponge

As an intern, your number one priority is learning as much as you can. Ask questions. Offer to shadow coworkers. Agree to take part in any project. Internships serve as a bridge between your academic learning and finding a job. Though school can teach you a lot, there are some practical experiences you’ll only truly understand once you’re actually out there in the workforce.

If a day passes by where you don’t feel like you’ve learned something, it’s time to tap on your manager’s shoulder and ask questions. At the end of the day, you’re trying to decide if their career is the right fit for you. Yes, getting hired at the end of your internship would be ideal, but if that doesn’t happen, you want to have real skills that you can take away and add to your resume. The skills you pick up during your internship will be what launch you into your next job. 

ask to learn about things you’re interested in

Here’s the thing about being an intern: it’s incredibly scary to speak up and ask for what you want. Not only are you new to the company, you’re also probably new to the industry. You’re just getting familiar with working full-time in the field. It can be intimidating to make requests when you’re the bottom of the office totem pole. What right do you have to make requests? You should take whatever tasks are assigned to you and be grateful, right? Stop right there.

Being an intern is the perfect time to ask questions and make requests. Here’s why: there’s a good chance that what you learn now will determine your future career trajectory. If you familiarize yourself with accounting software, that’s what’s going to end up on your resume. And guess what? Employers will see you have accounting experience, and you’ll be considered for accounting roles.

If you’d rather learn about something else you see your coworkers doing, ask! Unless your manager is a terrible person, they want to help you gain valuable skills and develop your career. If your request is reasonable and there’s work to be done in that area, more likely than not, your request will be granted. Trust me. When you’re managing an intern who’s interested in the work and asking questions, it’s a pretty great feeling.  On the other hand, if you don’t ask for what you want, there’s a good chance you’ll be assigned whatever tasks are left over. They may not be the most stimulating.

try anything at least once

Before interning, I had big ideas about the field I wanted to work in. You see, I thought I wanted to work in advertising; the kind of glossy Mad Men-esque advertising agency that I’m still not 100% convinced exists in the post-internet era. I was certain I’d be working on national ad campaigns featuring massive billboards and sleek TV commercials. The idea of working in digital advertising wasn’t even on my radar. If I hadn’t taken on an internship where the bulk of my responsibilities were focused on digital marketing, I can say with 100% certainty that I would have a very different career today.  Many of the skills I use on a daily basis can be traced back to trying something outside of my comfort zone during that internship years ago. The moral of this story: you never know what you might learn if you’re open to learning. Try everything once, even if you think it’s completely wrong for you. You might just find you love it.

find a mentor (if you can)

Interns who are assigned to work alongside a mentor tend to outperform interns who are bounced between different managers, picking up tasks as they go. Having a mentor anchors your internship, providing structure and a place to look for guidance as you attempt to navigate your way through a new experience.

Your mentor will get to know what you’re good at, what you want to learn, and your career goals. They’re there to assist and provide support as you grow into your role, offering constructive criticism that’ll help you get the most out of the experience. Basically, you’ll have someone else at the company who’s as invested in your success as you are.

recognize the value of developing hands-on experience

Employers look at internship experience as if it were any other type of job experience. Your title might be different, but more often than not, you perform similar tasks to the rest of the team you work with. In fact, some employers look at internships as a way to fill in gaps in their workforce, or an avenue to find new employees. A lot of employers with internship programs use them to feed talent into their full-time workforce.

One of the great things about being an intern is that your employer recognizes you’re there to learn. Though you’re expected to contribute, there’s still a lot of focus on teaching and training. If you’re used to a learning-focused environment (i.e. university or college) an internship eases you into the workforce.

develop your work ethic

As an intern, you’re a resource to the team you’re working with. More often than not, they’ll start by assigning you basic tasks that lessen their workload or those back-burner tasks that full-time employees never seem to get around to. These tasks are often (okay, usually) not so fun. Prove to yourself and your mentors that you can handle the work assigned to you efficiently and are willing to take on more. Being a team player is an important part of most office cultures. So is taking on some necessary-but-not-so-fun work.

If you feel the tasks you’re assigned aren’t making full use of your skills, rest assured that complaining about how boring or tedious they are will get you nowhere. No one is going assign you more complex or rewarding work if you appear bored or incapable of handling the basics. If you’re not learning from your assignments, use them as an opportunity to take initiative. Make suggestions to streamline the task or suggest alternatives. Better yet, complete the task and then ask if you can learn about something you’ve seen your manager doing.

The old cliché where interns relegated to a dark corner of the office where they answer phones and grab coffee all day isn’t reflective of the diverse internships available today. Yes, being an internship can be thankless (especially if you’re working full-time, unpaid hours!), but it can be incredibly rewarding, too. If you take initiative and actively seek out learning opportunities, it’s all but a sure thing you’ll find your internship program to be an important stepping stone in your career.

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