7 tips to nailing your summer internship


I spent last week in NYC, the site of my two internships during my graduate degree. It got me thinking of things that I wish I would have done differently. I don’t think I did a bad job at all, but I’ve learned a lot since then about what an employer needs and how to work well and efficiently to make it a mutually beneficial experience for both employer and intern, since I am an employer today.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on internships because between my undergraduate and graduated degrees I had 5 internships. That’s a lot of internships! I love writing about it because I found that my internships were crucial in getting me where I am today. I learned what types of jobs I liked to do and what I didn’t and each one shaped my current job.

See my previous article about how to score your dream internship here.

Photo by Jessica Peterson

Let me start out by saying that these comments come from a number of years of post-internship days and a couple of years of having interns myself. I’m not singling out anyone here. It’s cumulative. I’ve noticed trends in intern behavior that I think is top notch and some that could be adjusted for optimal performance. This is not a guarantee to getting a job right after your internship—not all employers can afford to hire every great intern. But they will certainly remember those who did a stellar job and in the right situation will most likely reach out. I wish I could hire every fantastic intern I had—I’ve had a number of them—but it’s just not in my budget.

So, here are my tips for nailing your summer internship. Alternative title: things I wish I would have known before interning.

  1. Communication is key. The number of times I’ve been disappointed in lack of communication has been innumerable. I know I don’t do an impeccable job myself, but there have been a lot of things that could have been avoided if proper communication was demonstrated. If you’re going to be late, let your employer know. Don’t assume it’s ok. If you don’t know how to do something, they probably don’t expect you to know it. Ask questions! Communicate, communicate, communicate! The majority of the question asking will be in the beginning as you get going. By the end things should run more smoothly. They should expect to spend some time in the beginning explaining how things work. Don’t be annoying about it–maybe even save your questions for once a day or something–but definitely ask if you’re unsure, especially if you think it is an important task.
  2. Be punctual. If your goal is to get a good recommendation from them or a job, you have to impress. Being late is never impressive. It just isn’t. It doesn’t matter if the employer is late. You don’t know why they are late and it’s not your business. For all you know, they could have been working all morning from home. I’m often late to my own projects because I’ve been working on putting it together. But you should never be late. And if you are, please see number one. Even if they instruct you that it doesn’t matter if you’re late, I wouldn’t let it get into your mind because being late turns into REALLY being late and that’s a problem. For the most part, I don’t mind if an intern is late because we’ll just work later. But if I’ve scheduled you in for a project and you’re late, then everything is delayed and deadlines may not be reached on time. Punctuality does matter! Sometimes it’s not just for looking good, but it can affect other people’s schedules and work flow.
  3. Write things down. When I work with an intern when they are starting out, I’m always surprised at how not too many write instructions down. I don’t expect them to remember everything I’ve said and I worry that by not taking notes, the time I’m spending in telling you will be wasted. Just write things down! Plus, you’ll look so much more impressive if you do!
  4. Offer more. Though I’m a firm believer in that no employer should own you–a very American thing to do–I do believe that if someone is investing their time or money or space on you, you should perform well and if you’re not willing to perform, then perhaps you should rethink your goals. Offering your bare bones skills or time or energy is not fair to your employer or yourself. They most likely won’t give a good recommendation. What I mean about “offering more” comes from an example I had with one. I interviewed an potential intern for photography. I mentioned that I was photographing a project in the other room. Immediately, she said she had a light box in her car and we could shoot on the spot if needed. I was blown away. Of course, I hired her. And now we work together all the time and I pay her.
  5. Make yourself available. Similar to the last one, making yourself available to your employer will create a sense of trust and dependency, which you will want in order to make them see that they really truly need you. Your goal should be to make yourself indispensable. I don’t mean that you should be on call 24 hours a day. To all employers who do that: that is unfair and not ethical. But, if you commit yourself to an internship but are always busy, then they won’t have time to continue asking you if you’re unavailable. It’s too much of a time suck.
  6. State your goals. When I interview someone, I always ask what their end goals are. If I find that their goals may not be fulfilled with what I do, then I will tell them that. If I find that they align with Lars, then great! Yes of course, they already should be aligned if you have done your homework and know the company. That is why you’re interviewing after all. For my 5 internships, I don’t think I had concrete goals in mind so my goals at the time were to get experience. I ended up finding out that some of them weren’t the best fit for me. But at least they helped me narrow in something more specific!
  7. Make suggestions. Not all employers love ideas thrown at them from interns, but I do! If you have something to add, ask to talk to your employer in private and state them. They will be impressed at your tenacity and enthusiasm, even though they may not be used. I did this once at a museum I worked at. I worked in the research center and though I had a great idea that the museum could do for an upcoming show. I came prepared with sketches and mock-ups. I realize now that I had NO business giving them marketing tips. It wasn’t even the department I was in. I even remember the marketing guy saying my ideas were “cute”. But they remembered me 🙂 and were helpful when I searched for jobs afterward.

Alright, I’m sure there are more ways to nail your summer internship and perhaps I”ll continue adding to the list once more ideas come into my head.

What are your tips??



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