The Intern Perspective: What I Wish I Knew Then

Young woman working in a small office

Everyone wants to succeed at their internship, but what exactly does that mean? Internships are a stepping stone into the professional world, an opportunity to get your feet wet and see what your dream industry is really all about. Different internships may have different end goals—you may want to come away with portfolio builders or a full-time job. Either way, an internship is the perfect time to show your chops and get a head start on becoming the best you can in your chosen field.

Regardless of your ultimate goal, there are a few key lessons we’ve learned in the process that we hope will make your internship a valuable experience from orientation to full-time and beyond.

They don’t want coffee, they want your time & effort.

Surprised to not find yourself memorizing your boss’ coffee order on the first day? Don’t be. It’s most likely you were hired because everyone around the office needs a helping hand, so be there with your arms wide open from day one. If you find yourself ahead of the game, don’t sit back. Free time is a gift and you need to give it away. As an intern, especially in the first couple of weeks, you will likely run into a few days with a lighter workload. Take advantage of this time to show your proactive attitude. Actively seek out new tasks, and when given a task, take it the extra mile. There isn’t a supervisor on earth who doesn’t appreciate a self-starter.

Everyone wants you to succeed.

Intricate projects, especially those that come out-of-the-blue, were not assigned to you so your boss could watch you struggle. If someone is testing your skills, they want to push you to take those skills further. There is no conspiracy afoot to drop a tough task on your plate so you can do poorly and get fired. If a superior gives you a challenge, it’s because they believe you can rise to the occasion, or at the very least, that you will learn from the experience. The best thing you can do is accept the challenge head on, do your absolute best, ask lots of questions, and show everyone that no matter how tall the order is, you will give it your all.

Organization is key.

It’s hard to express how important it is to keep all of your work labeled and filed in a way that you can find it at a moment’s notice. You never know what document or set of notes might be relevant in the future, so keep them all and don’t fuss with a creative name. Use the most literal title possible that clearly tells you exactly what is contained in the document. It is beyond frustrating when a coworker asks for information you know is somewhere on your computer, but you can’t remember where you saved it. Set yourself up for success from the start and come up with an organization system that works for you. Do it early so your records are ready to go when you are.

Approach all things with confidence.

Internships can be intimidating. Experiencing a “real job” for the first time is overwhelming—real people and real companies relying on me to get things done? If the weight of the work starts to get to your head, take a step back and remember that this company hired you because they believe you can provide what they’re looking for. They have faith in your knowledge, judgement, and work ethic, so keep your chin up and show the leadership qualities they know you have.

Make sure you know what you don’t know.

You’re an intern and no one expects you to know everything right from the start. Afterall, the whole reason you’re there is to learn. What they do expect you to do is be resourceful and make a conscious effort to pick up on things as quickly as you can. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask questions to make sure you’re 100% clear on what you should be doing, because you should. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you never have to be explained the same thing twice. Think through your questions thoroughly, take notes, repeat things back while receiving instructions, and then at the end, verbally recap exactly what you’re supposed to be doing to make sure you and your busy supervisor are on the same page. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification up front—it’s better to be crystal clear before you begin than to deliver something that misses the mark.

Embrace your mistakes.

Mistakes will happen. You will never turn in a press release that doesn’t need edits or a presentation that doesn’t need refining. You might even send an email with a spelling error to the entire company. It is ok. Your internship is not ruined.

The key to mistakes, however, is to do everything in your power to make sure it doesn’t happen again and show that you’re taking measures to ensure that. Always get stuck on a tricky grammar rule? Write it on a post-it note and stick it to the side of your computer. Find a office buddy and have them look things over before you send to someone higher up, if possible. But whatever you do, don’t just brush it off and forget about it. Remember it every single time you complete a similar task, and you’ll definitely never make that typo again.

If you want to avoid making a mistake on a long-term project, don’t wait until the deadline is approaching to find out you’re not on the right track. Check-in with supervisors throughout the assignment and get their feedback on each step of the process. Ask more seasoned co-workers for advice if you have a quick question. It is better to identify all of the necessary components during preliminary stages, rather than letting a single misstep snowball out of control. All it takes is communication early on and throughout the project.

Every experience prepares you for the next. It’s all valuable.

At their core, internships are an opportunity to learn, and the reality is they don’t always lead to full-time employment. Companies often bring on interns will an endpoint in mind. It’s possible they are looking for temporary support, not a full-time employee, and you can’t fill a void that isn’t there. If you were hoping for an offer and didn’t get one, it’s natural to feel discouraged. Keep in mind that this could be for a variety of reasons, but now more than ever is a time for self-reflection. Don’t beat yourself up about the things you wish you had done differently, but learn from them. Consider the steps you can take to make your next internship, or even your next job all the more successful. Use your experience to set goals for your next opportunity while also appreciating this recent opportunity.

While every industry is different, this point is always the same: internships are all about learning how to do a job, but more so they’re about learning about yourself. Understanding how you work best, your learning style, how to interact with coworkers and delivering polished work is essential to being successful in a work environment.

Take advantage of every opportunity to advance your career, even if that opportunity is just to learn and take those lessons to your next position. Remember: everyone there wants to see you succeed and provide all tools and guidance necessary to make sure that happens. An internship can be a pivotal point in your future career, so make the absolute most of each day. Go get ‘em!


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