Guide | Industry

7 secrets to a successful internship

Internships can make or break your dream career: here's some tips on how to do them right.

10 April 2018 ( words)
Bethany Johns Bethany Johns

Internships can be like gold dust: difficult to find at times, but incredibly valuable when done right.

When I was at uni, the idea of an internship horrified me. If someone uttered the word, my mind wandered to visions of myself traipsing across town with 8 different coffee orders in my hand or trying not to fall asleep standing while photocopying a never-ending mountain of documents. This was only made worse when a friend told me she’d spent a whole week sorting photos for a local newspaper—I wanted to completely avoid the dreaded ‘I’ word, but I had to do an internship to graduate. In the end, I bit the bullet and prepared myself for an awful summer.

Since then, I’ve done 2 internships, each lasting well over 6 months. It turned out I actually loved interning. I wasn’t the butt of everyone’s jokes or the boss’ new favourite thing to scream at. Instead, interns are valued as much as full-timers, and it’s not just because they’re cheap labour, but because (as I learned) they have the sort of freshness and willingness to learn that tends to bring something new to the table.

These opportunities can be like gold dust: difficult to find at times, but incredibly valuable when done right. They can have a massive impact on your future, not just in helping you learn more about an industry, but also letting you ‘test-drive’ it. My internships helped me align my passions—as a journalism student who’d always wanted to work in magazines, I suddenly found myself plonked into a world of comms which I fell head over heels for. A further internship in news told me I really didn't love daily article-writing as much as I thought. Now I’m almost a year into a marketing career which I hadn’t even considered at 18.

I’ve got a lot to else to thank internships for. They look good on a CV in terms of experience, but also give you demonstrable skills (which can be great in interviews). A tutor once told me that few people care if you think you have good time-management skills, but they’ll care if you can cite a time you managed work to hit multiple deadlines. You can use internships to show you’re a great candidate when applying for jobs, and make the sorts of connections that’ll support those statements. They’re a head start. That all-important gateway into the sometimes impenetrable-seeming world of work.

Whatever your personal goal in an internship, you no doubt have plenty of reasons to do your best to impress. So what’s the best way to go about doing that? Below are 7 secrets to making your internship as successful as possible.

1.    Go in with the right frame of mind—and stay in the game

An internship is just a job with a slightly different name, really. Nobody in the outside world knows you’re an intern, so if you act like the full-time staff member they think you are then you’re going to stand out. You want to be the intern that worked hard, not ‘that intern’ who came in late with a hangover or spent all day on Instagram.

This attitude can start before day one, so you make sure you get off on the right foot and maintain positive working behaviours more effortlessly. You’re about to be a representative of a brand, which could be terrifying—but it’s a great opportunity.

It might be the same advice you’ve been getting since primary school, but do your best in everything. Do your research before you start, and be flexible and adaptable. Take ownership of your work, treat the business’ time and money as if it was your own, and hold yourself to the sorts of standards that mean you will always strive to find solutions and do the best job possible. Don’t undersell yourself by doing an average job—you want to experience how your chosen field operates in the real world, so take the bull by the horns.

2.    Socialise, and get stuck in with the culture

Take the opportunity to make friends and contacts in your industry and beyond, because not only might those people do favours for you later (like giving you a reference or endorsing your skills), they could be your future colleagues or have a massive impact on your enjoyment during your internship. It also helps productivity, because people with similar cultural mindsets collaborate best together.

Aside from dressing and acting appropriately, take an interest in your colleagues. It’s best to avoid office politics and gossip, but there are plenty of ways to socialise which mean you’ll build open and honest relationships. Eat lunch with them instead of at your desk, go out for drinks when there’s an invite, and get involved in the social events that’ll pepper your calendar. Pub quiz? You’re on it. Someone’s birthday? Go for that cheeky pint after work.

You don’t have to be the funniest or loudest person in a room—it’s just best not to be the silent one. Your main goal is just to be missed when you leave. If people miss you, they’ll want you back—and they’ll sell you far better than they might otherwise.

3.    Ask plenty of questions, be curious, but stand on your own two feet

Remember you’ll probably know next to nothing when you start your internship, and that’s not a bad or worrying thing. You’re going to be surrounded by people who’ve been doing their jobs day in day out for years. Their knowledge is precious, and it’s worth tapping into it.

Get a mentor if you’re not assigned one, ask to shadow people, take notes in meetings, or have one-to-ones with anyone whose role interests you. Observation and imitation help you learn a job much faster, and also give you a view of the nitty-gritty. Absorb as much as you can, so you will continually grow.

Keeping an ‘FAQ’ style diary is a great idea, which you can use to note down any questions or queries you have. By the time you finish your internship, try and make sure all those questions are answered.

The caveat to all of this is that you should try and use your own initiative as much as possible. Doyour best to find the answers yourself before relying on another person, because you don’t want to appear helpless or annoying. Employers know you aren’t going to be anywhere near the levels of knowledge and skillset of people who’ve been in the business for decades, but they’d expect you’d at least have a bit of common sense, and you’d take ownership for your work.

4.    Go out of your way, even if it means a massive plunge out of your comfort zone

Making sure you always do the right thing will make a difference in your aim to be a great intern. This doesn’t mean you need to go frantic trying to change the world. Just stay a little later when you need to, volunteer for things, and take a proactive role. People who go the extra mile are noticed.

This might feel like stepping way outside your comfort zone, but try and get excited by new challenges and use them as a tool for self-improvement. You WILL make mistakes by taking risks (you’ll always make mistakes), but making them early and learning from them is better than stagnating before you’ve even taken off.

5.    Enjoy it… and if you don’t, remember that’s okay

Be cheerful, even if you don’t like what you’re doing. Moaning will go a long way in making you seem ungrateful, and almost all work you do will be useful to a company. This includes the dreaded photocopying job.

While I don’t believe that if you choose a job you love, you’ll never have to work another day in your life, your job should make you happy and you should want to do it every day. Your other option is to be miserable almost every day of your life. Your experiences in your internship will help shape your general feelings towards the sort of company, environment, or industry you might want to work in.

If you don’t like your internship, that’s okay—it’s part of why they exist. If there’s anything in particular that is a pain point for you, let your mentor or manager know in confidence. While you shouldn’t groan and complain, acknowledging when you’re not enjoying experiences is fine and will benefit you in the long run.

6.    Make sure you come out of the other end with something useful

For a lot of people, the ideal scenario following an internship is to be offered a full-time job (preferably with amazing pay and a great benefits package, but that’s only when we’re being very optimistic). But you can get far more out of an internship than a job offer, and a lot of what you gain is up to you.

That could be references from managers, or connections and contacts. But above all, it’s the experience: your mistakes, personal achievements, and the lessons you learn which didn’t come from a book. All the things you get out of an internship should be growth factors.

Document and write down your experiences. Include your accomplishments, key learnings, praiseworthy actions of others, and any feedback you’ve received during your internship. Pay attention and be thorough, so you can take away as much as possible. Nobody’s going to mind if that means you carry around a notebook and pen all the time.

7.     Know your worth

Yes, you’re an intern. You’re most likely the most junior member of an organisation, who has a lot to learn. But you’re also a competent person who the company likes, trusts, and believes in enough to let into the business, which is no mean feat. You’ve also more than likely fended off a number of other people to be in the position you’re in.

Always remember you’re not just another person to make an office look busy or the reason your manager gets their latte in the morning. You’re a living, breathing, contributing part of a company and were brought on board for a reason. Own that, and while you should stay humble, make sure others consider you useful and worthy.

Summary

Internships could seem either daunting and client or incredibly easy to you. Either way, most are invaluable for paving the way into the working world and doing well can be the foot in the door to an amazing career. I never believed I’d get anything out of the experience, but ensuring you take advantage of that opportunity makes all the difference. With a great mindset and attitude, making all the right moves to be an awesome intern should be easier than you think.

If you found this advice useful, don’t forget to like and share—and if you have your own tips, let us know your own secrets to success in the comments.

Bethany Johns

Author: Bethany Johns