How to Ace Your Internship: Complete Guide For Business Interns
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I’ve written that a business internship is really one long interview. Here are some tips to make sure you make a good impression before, during, and after your internship so that your experience can be more than just a summer job.
The Bare Necessities
These may seem basic, but reminders never hurt. You don’t want anything to detract from your job performance. What your boss an coworkers should remember about you is that you had a great attitude produced quality work product, , not your edgy shoes, chronic tardiness, or that bout with mono.
· Dress the part.
What you wore to your interview may reflect how the locals on a daily basis. If you didn’t have a chance to tour the office and meet the people you’d be working with during the interview process, be a quick study. Dress code will vary greatly between work places, but as long as you dress at the upper end of your peer group you should be fine. Never wear frayed khakis just because Joe down the hall gets away with it.
· Play by the rules.
Find out what’s appropriate for your workplace. Pay attention and ask about anything that’s not clear. If you want to be considered for future employment, you need to blend into the corporate culture. Find out the policy on client interaction, personal phone calls, and parking. Observe the norms as well as the stated rules. If everyone else goes out to lunch, what are the ramifications of eating tofu burgers at your desk?
· Be on time.
Never underestimate the importance of meeting basic job requirements. Showing up on time is expected. Be careful when taking cues from people you work with. It may take a while to get the feel of the place. You don’t want to jeopardize long-term opportunities because you lingered over lattes with the office slacker.
· Stay healthy.
Sick days are for sick people. They aren’t for hangovers, slackers, or long weekends. Remember that your internship is one long interview. Take care of yourself so that you’re not only well, but also performing at the best of your abilities and energy. The internship is not a vacation. Get plenty of rest and eat right.
· Read up on etiquette.
There’s nothing worse than feeling out of place. Especially if you have little work experience, you’ll likely find yourself in unfamiliar situations during your internship. Sales presentations, business lunches, and corporate travel all have their specific customs. Study up on norms of the professional world with a good reference book such as Business Etiquette For Dummies.
They say good communication is the key to a happy marriage. The same could be said for any relationship. You will be making lots of new connections at your internship. With all those potential contacts also come unlimited opportunities to be misunderstood. Think before you speak, and read your emails for message and tone.
· Clarify expectations.
Make sure you understand your job responsibilities. Know who you report to and what you’re supposed to be doing every day. Try to get your job description in writing. While there are a lot of ‘extra’ things you’ll learn and do, never take on additional projects at the expense or your actual assigned duties.
· Ask a million questions.
Assume nothing. The real world can function a lot differently than anything you’ve learned in school. Although you may be at the top of your class, you’re not expected to know much about your new position. The only time your asking questions will become annoying to co-workers is if you ask the same ones over and over.
· Request feedback.
Ideally you could meet regularly with your supervisor to make sure both of your expectations are being met. However, don’t let other opportunities pass you by. Elevator rides, walks to lunch, and rides to client sites are all great opportunities to ask for feedback. It doesn’t always have to be from a supervisor. Ask colleagues how they think you’re doing.
· Show respect.
Treat everyone from the CEO down to the janitor with respect. You never know whose help you are going to need in the future. You may find that this company is not for you, but the secretary’s son is a partner at the firm you’d really like to work for.
· Listen all the time.
An internship is a great chance to show off your business skills and possibly get a full time job offer, but it’s also an extension of your education. Do you talk through lectures? Do you dominate conversation during group projects? Keep your mouth shut more often than open. Not only will you better understand instructions, but you’ll learn a lot more about the culture and your co-workers too. You’d be surprised what you can learn by paying attention to what’s going on behind a cubicle wall.
The Daily Grind
The faster you become competent at your assigned duties, the more you get out of your internship. Once you have the ins and outs of daily life on the job down, then you can focus on the other reasons you’re there, such as creating contacts or spending time with a mentor. If you can’t do your job, you won’t have time for any extras.
· Proof your work.
Nothing screams newbie like submitting sub-standard work product. While you’re not expected to know everything right away, make sure you carefully review anything you prepare for managers or others. If you need a little extra time to get something finished, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Treat projects as if you were giving it to a client instead of a co-worker.
· Do what you’re told.
Listen carefully and take notes to ensure you understand what’s expected of you. Always repeat back to the requester what you understood and ask for confirmation. Keep your wonderful insights in check until after you’ve accomplished the basic task. Try to deliver just a little more than requested.
· Embrace grunt work.
During your internship, you will be asked to do all kinds of tasks that are well beneath your level of intelligence and education. You may find yourself thinking that a below average fifth grader could do your job. Do it anyway, and with a smile. I once knew a junior associate at a top consulting firm who spent two full days cutting clouds out of construction paper to decorate a meeting. Think of grunt work as paid meditation.
· Identify existing needs.
Maybe the library needs organizing, or the client database requires updating. By developing and taking on additional responsibilities, interns demonstrate the initiative and motivation that companies are looking for. There may be a project that has been on the backburner for years. Offer to take on the challenge. Ridding an office of a nagging task can up your value significantly.
Just because you were hired on for a particular function doesn’t mean you’re necessarily confined to that work. Look for opportunities to further your education. If a project comes up that interests you, ask to be included. Supervisors may be happy to have you come along to meetings even if your only contribution is note taking
· Keep a record.
You may think you’ll never forget the hours you spent poring over sales data for the ceramics industry, but you may need to refresh your memory someday. Keeping a daily journal in a text document is an easy habit to add to your daily routine. Record the details about your projects, describing purpose, overall scope, and your particular contribution. This can come in handy later when you are asked in interview to talk about prior work experience.
Fitting in at a new job is often more important than your background, education, and work experience combined. You may look great on paper, but part of the beauty of internships is that companies get to try out candidates before making the commitment to hire and train them. Sure, they want to know that you’re competent, but they’re also watching to see how you’ll blend in with the rest of the team.
· Act like you belong.
No one likes a short-timer. If you have it in your head that you’re an intern, that’s what you’ll project. Instead, treat your internship like the first few months of your lifetime career. You may know you’re out of there in twelve weeks, but you don’t have to act like it. When you view yourself as a permanent fixture, you’ll naturally act more professional and earn the respect of clients, co-workers, and supervisors.
· Impress everyone.
Remember that you are making first impressions all the time – the first time you meet your associates, the first time you need the print office’s help, the first time you show up at the local coffee shop with twenty special orders. The way you present yourself the first time, and thereafter goes along way toward peoples’ opinions of you. Smile, hold yourself confidently, make eye contact, and be friendly to everyone.
· Get to know yourself.
Is advertising all you hoped for? Or are you finding your work a little flat? Pay attention to the tasks that get you going and those that make you pine for the evening commute. Find a trusted mentor and talk through your impressions. You’ll learn a lot as an intern, but perhaps the most valuable thing you take away is the knowledge about yourself and what work your are truly drawn to do.
· Keep good company.
Pay attention to the people around you. Ask about their history on the job. Finding out how long a person has been in a particular position can tell you a lot about how they are valued within the organization. Identify successful people and make yourself useful to them. Knowing what makes a person thrive in a workplace helps you decide if that’ the right job for you. It also sets you up to be a star if you choose to pursue the job further.
· Be a sponge.
Learn all you can about your industry. There is so much more to know than what’s found in any training manual. Talk with people in as many departments as possible. Chat up clients and vendors, and read everything you can. Google your fingers off. Menial tasks often present wonderful opportunities for reading contracts, letters, memos, press releases, and other files. Take trade publications home to read.
Attitude & Reputation
Love your job. Chances are you’ll meet plenty of people at your new job who are less than enthusiastic about the tasks they’ve been doing for a while. Some interns make the mistake of trying to fit in by adopting a similar attitude. This is the wrong approach. Instead of matching the tone of the room, do everyone a favor by bringing it up a notch. And mind your behavior at work and elsewhere.
· Channel Pollyanna.
Okay, not really. No one likes a perpetual optimist, but you as the new kid on the cube block, you need to project a can-do attitude more often than not. The answer to every request is yes. Yes, you can collate a hundred reports for the meeting in thirty minutes. Yes, you can research the lawn furniture industry to become an expert before an early morning meeting.
· Beware the water cooler.
Discussing last night’s contestant on American Idol is okay (although analyzing the winning team’s strategy on The Apprentice might be better). Talking trash about the manager down the hall is not. You walk a fine line between making friends and making a professional impression. Keep your personal business at home, and keep your nose out of everybody else’s.
· Complain to your mother.
She’s the only one who cares. The issues you may have with a job are either well known by colleagues or not important enough to warrant conversation. Don’t waste valuable dialogue bringing up things you dislike about certain tasks or people. There’s a time and place for bonding over workplace woes, but your internship is not it.
· Keep it offline.
Your internship is not a springboard for your insider blog on XYZ Corporation. Never divulge anything of a proprietary nature online, or anywhere else for that matter. Crowded coffee shops have big ears. Take care that your overall online image projects what you want it to. There’s nothing wrong with having interests outside work, but keep quiet anything that could potentially embarrass your employer.
· Keep it clean.
Sexual harassment is a real concern. Your buddy may have gotten you in the door, but frat house humor is not appropriate at work. It goes both ways. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you’re immune from harassment accusations. Be careful with jokes and stories, nicknames, certain compliments, and discussion of weekend activities.
Be friendly to everyone you meet. The importance of making friendly contacts cannot be overstressed. Think beyond your office. Make friends with everyone in the building, on the block, on your commute home. Fully embrace your temporary environment and engage with everyone you can. The more you interact with others, the more you learn about your business and yourself.
It really is who you know. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Even if you don’t get a permanent job offer out of your internship, you’ll meet plenty of people. And they all have friends, who have friends, who have friends. Exponentially increase your opportunities with a few smart networking moves.
· Conduct informational interviews.
Networking should be a primary goal of your internship. Getting to know people can lead to great opportunities, within the company and elsewhere. Arrange informational interviews with full-time staff members and pick their brains about their careers and day-to-day activities. In general, people like talking about them selves. People who enjoy their work will be enthusiastic to share it with you. These are the ones you want to seek out.
· Take advantage of your intern status.
Because you’re an intern, you may have better access to higher ups than other junior level employees. Talk to everyone. Don’t be intimidated because you’re a student. Most interns are too intimidated to say hello to superiors, so by taking the initiative, you’ll stand out as motivated and engaged. People may be busy, so make the first move to talk with co-workers and supervisors, but always respect their time.
· Get a letter.
Whether or not you are offered continued employment, ask your supervisor for a reference letter. Also ask if you can include him or her on the list of references you give to potential employers. These come in handy years later and it’s easier to collect them as you go rather than try to round them up when you need them. Get into the habit of requesting a reference every time you leave a job.
· Keep in touch.
You’ll make some good contacts during your internship. It would be a shame to let those relationships wither away just because you move on. Consciously pick out one or two people you especially connected with and plan to maintain ties. Ask them to coffee or lunch and send occasional emails with useful information. A business contact doesn’t have to be your best friend, but they may end up to be much more valuable to your career.
· Get a review.
Most formal internships will have an evaluation at the end of the term. If your program is less structured, make sure you ask for some time with the boss to go over your performance. Especially if you have limited work experience, you receive crucial feedback about how you are perceived at work. Take any criticism gracefully and use this information to improve your habits in the future.
By following these tips, not only will you make a great impression as an intern, but you’ll also set yourself up to learn the most, make the best contacts, and ensure that your internship pays off long into the future.