Internship Essentials: How to be a star intern

An internship is an integral component of the college experience where you can gain practical professional experience. Many firms or businesses will not even consider hiring a college graduate who has not completed at least one or two internships.  Earning good grades in college, showcasing leadership abilities via clubs and activities, citing undergraduate accomplishments in a resume and acing an interview may help a student secure a sought after internship, but ensuring the experience is meaningful is another challenge onto itself.

Following are tips to make the best of an internship experience.  These lessons are drawn from witnessing some of the best and worst interns over the years.

1.  Never go anywhere without a pen and notebook to record assignments.  Tackle all projects with gusto. Whether asked to flip through magazines looking for story ideas, fill the copy machine toner or set up a conference room for a meeting, consider this a chance to stand out and show skills as a responsible and organized employee. Attention to detail (this may mean typo free clip reports or carafes filled with selections of regular and decaf coffee) and problem-solving ability can be showcased in many venues and forms.   Take initiative!  If an intern does not know what that means in a business environment, they need to find out fast.  More intellectually challenging assignments won’t come unless you master these administrative tasks.

2. Stay busy!  Do not accept that business is slow and supervisors don’t have much work for you.   Offer to help groups other than the team to which you are assigned.  Just be sure to get approval to do so beforehand. Come up with suggestions regarding how you can contribute to the organization.  Offer to reorganize a file system, archive old files or supplies, create editorial calendars, research new business prospects, compile case studies or update media lists.

3. Get a seat at the table of meetings or conference calls.  Offer to create the agenda, take the meeting minutes and write the call report to outline deliverables and discussion notes.  Interns learn a lot just by listening and taking good notes.  This also is a key opportunity to show managers their contributions to agency productivity by generating a document that helps the staff deliver results based on the meeting discussions.

4.  Find a mentor.   Even an informal mentor can help an intern chart a course to success.  The mentor should be someone who is admired and respected by senior professionals in the organization.  Try to emulate their work ethic.  Ask questions, schedule a weekly check in with them to garner feedback and to help you trouble shoot issues as they arise.  Be sure to show your appreciation for their time with a note or accolades to their supervisor for their outstanding guidance.    And don’t forget to ask them for a recommendation letter when the internship is over.

5.  Don’t dress like an intern.  Sure, you cannot afford to buy designer suits yet.  However, in my years in the agency and corporate world the inappropriate clothing worn by interns has shocked me repeatedly.  This is especially true for young women in the profession.  Avoid flip-flops, Capri’s, mini skirts, cleavage and tank tops.  Dress conservatively.  You want to be taken seriously as an adult and an intelligent professional.  Wearing overly sexy or casual attire (even on casual Fridays or in casual offices) is a distraction.  Inappropriate dress will hurt your quest for professional respect or a seat at an important client meeting or location shoot.

6.  Part of the fun of being an intern is meeting and socializing with other interns and junior staff.  However, remember that you are ALWAYS “on.”   Keep drinking to a minimum, even at informal non-work related gatherings.   You do not want to earn a reputation for being a party boy/girl, but for being a smart future full-time employee.  Moreover, hangovers don’t mix well with the deadline-filled nature of public relations or other communication industry work.

7.  As part of conducting yourself in a professional manner, avoid gossip.   Stay out of office politics.  When supervisors or interns chat it up and discuss other co-workers…stay mum.   Once you get involved in negative talk, it is hard to avoid it in the future and can reflect poorly on you.  In addition, you should be staying busy and not have time to waste on rumors, gossip or other counter- productive chitchat.

8.  Have a sense of humor.  Interns are sometimes asked to do humbling things…like dressing up as chicken or donut (or worse!) for an event or stunt.  Don’t refuse.  Do your best to represent the product or client well.  Interns who possess a negative attitude when having to do something that may be slightly embarrassing will not be hired as full time employees when positions open up.

9.  Learn to take criticism.  Hopefully most feedback is constructive and positive.  However, some managers may present areas for improvement in a less than pleasant manner.  Do your best not to take suggestions personally.  Stay positive and be realistic regarding your areas for improvement.  Never get defensive.  No one wants to hire a junior person who is argumentative or unable to improve his or her work style. By learning to consider criticism as a learning mechanism, you will become a smarter professional.

10.  Consider yourself an employee, not just an intern.   Your bosses will remember you and many companies hire star interns when positions become available.  Never think of the position as a part-time gig or resume builder.  This may also mean working late, weekends, working during your spring break or missing some beach days in the summer.  Your dedication and commitment will be recognized, if not with a future job, with a stellar professional reference.

Students should start working to secure internships as early as possible in their college careers to enable them to complete a variety of internship experiences.  There is no better way to learn the business and to position oneself as a future industry leader.

A version of this article by Lorra Brown originally appeared in 2007 in PRSA’s PR Tactics newsletter.

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