Congratulations: You’ve landed a an internship, and you’re ready to explore the real world.
But landing a gap year or high school internship is just the beginning. You want to work hard and work smart so that you’ll leave this position with great habits, great contacts and great recommendations. You want to demonstrate that you’re ready and able to learn new skills and responsibilities – and we’re not talking about the location of the nearest Starbucks so you can pick up the coffee order.
I mentored dozens of high school and college interns over a 40-year career in journalism, and there are certain traits and habits that the best ones have in common that help them succeed. Here they are, based on my experience and the experience of other supervisors I worked with:
The best interns do their homework.
Your homework starts long before you walk into start an internship. You should have been researching this company before your first interview. By Day 1, you should have some understanding of company culture, accomplishments and priorities.
How to find that out? Ask questions during the interview. Research on the web and through social media. Seek out people who may have worked or interned there. And once you start, keep asking questions about how things work, both in the specific company and in the industry. You are there to learn, not just to build your resume. And, make sure you ask enough questions in the interview to know that this particular internship is a good fit for you. There is nothing to be gained by finding out after you’re hired that it’s not what you need. You will be distracted and do a lackluster job.
The best interns don’t whine.
Here’s the reality of being an intern: You are going to have to do some scut work – the mindless or repetitive tasks that no one wants to do. That’s one reason companies hire interns. So put on your headphones, check your playlist and buckle down.
That said, you’re a fresh set of eyes on a task that might have been done the same way for years. Think you have a better way to do it? Make a respectful suggestion to your supervisor (remember, no whining). Who knows, maybe it will be the solution to a long-standing problem. If it’s accepted, great. If not, be a good sport and finish the task. Remember that most of the people in any workplace started out doing the nitty-gritty tasks. That’s one way you learn how things in a particular field work.
3. The best interns say “more please.”
One reason to finish that stuff you hate is so you can ask to do more stuff that you really want to do. So have some ideas in your back pocket that you can pitch to your supervisor. Oddly, one of the hardest things for intern supervisors to do is find the time to assign interns tasks. So, that’s an opening for you to show some initiative with a suggestion.
4 . The best interns want to be better.
As one editor told me, summer interns should have a “take-no-prisoners attitude” about improving and expanding their skills. One way to do this: Ask for a 15-minute weekly sitdown with your supervisor or other mentors in the office to go over the work you’ve done. Throughout your internship, ask for all the coaching you can and make the most out of a chance to work with professionals in your chosen field. Nobody expects you to know everything – that’s why you’re still an intern. So never be afraid to ask questions; a good supervisor will make the time to get you help. Try posing the same question to several different people.
5. The best interns keep their bosses informed.
Supervisors are busy. They are not always going to notice if you are struggling with something or if you have a problem that is preventing you from meeting a deadline. Don't wait until the last minute! The day the project is due is not the time to mention that you’re running a bit behind. Learn to manage your manager and keep in mind an important fact in any workplace culture: Bosses hate surprises. Don’t badger your bosses, but be assertive. Let them know when you’ve finished a project, need help or are anxious to work on a particular project.
6. The best interns respect the workplace and the best workplaces respect interns.
Workplaces have informal rules, such as whether people eat at their desks, and formal rules, such as when you are eligible for overtime. You may be asked to answer the phone in a specific way or dress up when meeting customers. There will certainly be rules on how you can use company equipment and technology. (And, trust me on this, you are likely to get caught if you misuse it.)
Consider yourself a guest in the work space – a guest who wants to be invited back. Treat everyone with respect. You never know who will save your bacon on a project.
That said, there should also be respect for interns. If you think your time is being misspent or someone in the office is being inappropriate, talk to your supervisor or the human resources department.