How to Succeed at an InternshipA 5-Step Guide to Making It Count

A computer, notebook and pen on a clean desk at the fresh start of a new internship

It’s that time of the year when eager young minds go forth into the professional world to often start their first experience at the workplace. In case that person is you, or someone you know, here is a 5-step guide we put together on navigating the internship process.

Step 1: Be Clear About the Purpose of the Internship

If you are an student doing an internship in your junior year, or prior to graduating, chances are that you are gunning for a full-time offer either from the company you are interviewing at, or by leveraging this experience in interviews with other employers. Either way — this is a 6 or 10 or 12 week long interview process, and you need to treat it as such.

Your goals can be one or more of the following:

  • Getting a full-time offer

  • Getting specific skills / training that you need for your career

  • Better understanding a career or company before making a career choice

  • Making money over summer while having a good experience to put down on your resume

Having clarity about your goals for the internship before you start is critical to making sure your approach to preparation and the internship itself is consistent with those goals.

Rookie Intern Mistake #1: Forgetting that the internship is a continuous interview.

When you are at the workplace and interacting with colleagues who are there full-time, it’s sometimes easy to forget that your incentives are very different from them. They are here for the long haul, are working on longer term projects and have earned the trust of the company. You, on the other hand, are in interview mode. Too many interns relax and mimic the work-life habits of their full-time colleagues and forget that every impression they make is a critical one.

Step 2: Preparing and Organizing — Sort Out Your Personal Life First

If you are about to start a very technical or challenging interview, it helps to have done some prep work. Whether you are a programmer, or a future banker, do as much as you can beforehand to read about the types of things you might get to work on, and practice your skills.

It’s easy however to prepare and work on the technical aspects of your future internship. A lot of interns fail to adequately prepare in other ways, so here is a simple preparation checklist to reference:

  • Make sure you know what the work culture, the timings and the dress code are. If you don’t — ask HR or your hiring manager so you have the appropriate wardrobe and have made other arrangements.

  • Prepare about the company — read their public documents, understand their key businesses, their strategic priorities and their culture. This will help you better choose projects to be on, make conversation with senior colleagues, understand internal nomenclature better and demonstrate an eagerness to work there.

  • In the age of LinkedIn and other sources, do your homework on your future colleagues. Read up about their backgrounds, and accomplishments, which will allow you to make connections early in your internship. [Important note: don’t go overboard. There is a clear line separating eager intern and creepy stalker which you want to be on the right side of. Also, just because you have a few facts about the company or your colleagues doesn’t mean you have to weave them into every conversation. Just be natural and use it as a guide as you network.]

  • Prepare your short introduction. You will likely need to introduce yourself at least a few times during the internship. Have a nice, 30-second introduction prepared including simple answers to questions like “what do you like to do for fun?”

Rookie Intern Mistake #2: Being the person who didn’t check the dress-code

So many interns come to a casual office wearing a suit or vice versa. Happens all the time. Don’t be that intern.

Step 3: Master the Technical Skills, Processes and Systems Early in the Internship

The fact is that you are likely being hired for specific skills that you have or can develop. Perhaps those skills are analytics, or programming, or making spreadsheets, or working the retail floor. Regardless of the exact skill, you are being evaluated on your ability to do the job long-term. The single best way to convert an internship into a full-time job offer, is to demonstrate that you can do the job as well as someone doing it full-time. That is often hard to do within a short time-frame of 6-12 weeks.

Moreover, the biggest impediment to being great at a job or an internship, especially at larger companies, is understanding the IT systems, processes, and workflow of that specific company. No amount of pre-internship preparation can help you master those. We have three tips to guide you in this matter:

  • Early in the internship, spend sometime understanding what your full-time colleagues are doing, and note down the workflow as well as the systems they use. Try and shadow them (with their permission) as much as you can in your free time

  • Try and get early exposure to those systems and processes. Offer to help them when they do these tasks, ask questions, and sign up for training if available

  • Try and volunteer early on not for the “sexiest” projects, but rather the projects that give you a holistic view of the company, its systems and its workflow

That third tip is important and easily forgotten. Very often, interns want to work on the coolest products, and the teams that appear glamorous and fun. These projects and teams can often be silo-ed from the rest of the organization which then gives you less chances to get reviewed by a wider range of colleagues, and less chances to prove yourself worthy as a full-time employee. These projects are fine to do later in your internship, but as much you can, try and get a project or assignment early on that is similar to the type of assignments you will likely do in a full-time job.

Rookie Intern Mistake #3: Not paying attention during training

This is another common mistake. Many student interns are so used to studying for the test, as opposed to learning for the job, that they don’t pay attention during training. Worse, they approach the training academically as if it’s a test to be aced, instead of asking practical questions about how they will use the tools or processes on the job.

Step 4: Blend Into the Culture of the Firm

It’s not enough to just master the skills of the job. You need to be social and be perceived as a team player. Organizations are about team work and you will likely be evaluated on that metric. Be nice to your colleagues and co-workers, offer to help, understand their pain points and don’t be perceived as competitive with the other interns (although lets face it, it sometimes is competitive). A few guidelines in this respect:

  • Observe the social habits. If your team tends to eat lunch together — for the course of the internship, try and be a part of that. If people volunteer to do coffee-runs, you should offer to do so as well.

  • If your team / or department is going to a social-event and they encourage you to go, do your best to attend. Don’t be the intern that acts like they are now running the company and are too busy to leave their desk. However, make sure you check with your immediate supervisor that it’s ok to go.

  • When outside the office with your team, colleagues or managers — continue to treat it like an interview. Avoid controversial topics as much as you can, and take social cues from your colleagues.

Rookie Mistake #4: Getting drunk at an office event

Most interns have only recently attained legal drinking age. Partake by all means, especially if your team is doing so as well, but know your limits and pace yourself.

Step 5: Don’t Forget That You are Interviewing Them Too

This is perhaps the most forgotten part about the internship process. It’s so easy to get all caught up in the competitiveness of trying to get a full-time offer or trying to prove your skills, that candidates forget that one of the important reasons they do the internship is to evaluate if this is the full-time career or company for you. We have three tips:

  • Make a list of the things that you don’t understand about the career or company before you start the internship and revisit that at the end of every week to make sure you are getting the answers you wanted

  • Use the social events to get an honest take from your full-time colleagues about their work, the office culture and the company’s strategic direction. You won’t need to ask them for it. Just being a good listener often helps, and showing interest in the job for full-time will often be taken by them as a positive sign of your demonstrated interest in the company

  • Proactively schedule coffees / lunches with colleagues when you can to get a better understanding of their jobs and what their typical day and career progression is like

Tapwage’s Golden Rule for doing diligence during an internship:

An internship is not successful until you have a perfect idea of what you will likely do in that job full-time on a day-to-day basis, and what your likely boss does on a day-to-day basis.

In other words, don’t just use the internship to understand the job, but use it to understand the career path.

If you are about to start your internship, we hope this article is useful to you. If you are looking for an internship, check out our thousands of internships

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Chris the Climber is a team of Tapwage writers who write about the specific skills that are needed in rapidly evolving careers