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Make the Most of Your Internships for a Better Future Career

Make the Most of Your Internships for a Better Future Career
Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

As summer approaches, college students prepare to join companies as interns. Whether it's a paid position or an unpaid gig, students look to gain valuable work experience by temporarily joining companies. In some cases, this hands-on experience leads to the opportunity to become a full-time employee within a company.

When it comes to accepting an internship, students have a variety of goals. Some students accept internships with the hope of making a little extra money during the summer, while others are only concerned with gaining experience. Others want to network with employees at certain companies. Regardless of your goals, if you accept an internship, there are a few ways to make the most of the summer.

Telling a college student to be selective about the company they join while they're in the middle of a potentially frustrating internship search is subpar advice. Some students struggle to find internships and might spend months applying before they receive any offers at all. Telling those students to be selective misses the point, but finding the right company doesn't only apply to students fortunate enough to choose from dozens of internship offers. Finding the right company means taking the time before applying for internships to research a company. Don't apply to organizations just because you want to be done with the internship search. Look for a company where you believe you'll be able to learn and improve prior to joining the workforce full time.

"The last thing you want to do is frantically apply to every opportunity you see without knowing anything about the company or if it's something you'd even want to do," said Vanessa Staublin, account executive and internship director at Dittoe Public Relations.

When wondering how to make the most of an internship, start by finding a good company fit. You don't need to work at a major corporation to find value. In fact, you might gain more hands-on experience at a smaller business in your local community. Some of these smaller companies may offer unpaid internships, which aren't financially viable for all students, but they're worth considering if the experience is valuable. Ideally, you'll find companies that offer great experience and great pay, but it takes research to find those opportunities.

"When you're young and have little to no experience, it's easy to take any internship that will have you," said Ciara Hautau, lead digital marketing specialist at Fueled, where she also runs the internship program. "My advice: try to be at least a little picky or more purposeful in your applications. These experiences will mold your skill sets and experiences for future jobs, and they'll be looking for experience that's relevant."

You may have asked yourself this jokingly during the application process, but interns should ask themselves this question seriously as well.

"Interns should spend time reflecting on what they'd like to get out [of] an internship," said Ryan Glick, co-founder of Pixelayn Innovations. "The most common response I've heard when I ask this question is 'to gain experience.' However, interns should take this a step deeper. Do you want to learn how to work in team settings? Do you want to work with other interns? What type of projects do you want to work on?" 

These are some other questions to ask: What do you want to get out of your internship experience? Is your goal to earn money, or are you looking to improve your skills and gain experience through an internship program? What skills do you want to learn? Are you hoping to find a mentor?

You should ask yourself these questions before you apply for internships, as the answers will guide you during the application process. If you want to learn to work in team settings and a company's intern job listing says you'll work autonomously, apply elsewhere. You should also ask these questions once you accept an offer. Before starting an internship, ask yourself what you're looking to gain from the experience. Setting goals will help you make the most of your internship experience.

If you find yourself performing mostly busy work, start by gaining confidence with those administrative tasks. After a few weeks of performing those duties well, politely ask your supervisor for more responsibility. It's best to go into this conversation with a plan. Instead of vaguely asking for more responsibility, suggest a project you think could help the company. As an intern, you'll have moments when employees in the organization coach you, but businesses don't want to hold your hand during your months of work. Pitching an idea for a project shows initiative and might help the business.

Success in an internship is largely based on attitude. If you enter a business with the determination to learn and improve the organization, you're likely to make a strong impression and gain more valuable experiences.

"One piece of advice I'd give on the first day of an internship is to keep that first-day attitude," said Staublin. "We all want to make a great initial impression. We usually do this by dressing professionally, taking notes, arriving early, participating in extra activities, etc. But don't let complacency get in the way. Remember to stay professional throughout your internship. Just because you start to feel comfortable doesn't mean you can start to slack off in other areas. Treat every day like it's your first day.”

Taking on additional projects also gives you a chance to bolster your resume, which is an important part of an internship.  

"Do things you can add as a specific bullet point to your resume," said Chase Kroll, managing partner of strategic communications at Hogan Lovells. "For example, if you're asked to simply attend a committee hearing and report back, you can turn that into something more beneficial to you and your supervisor. Tell your boss that you'd like to attend the hearing and draft a memo to clients on how the hearing may impact their bottom line. This way, you can add a bullet to your resume approximating something like, 'Attended congressional hearings on behalf of the firm and prepared policy memoranda for firm-wide and client distribution.' That actually means something, whereas simply attending hearings means nothing."

Taking on additional work will also help you differentiate between the work you like and the work you don't like. Spend a summer internship learning about your working preferences.

"Learning what you don't like is just as important as learning new skills and building up your CV," said Matt Dunne, hiring manager at Africa Travel. "If you find out a role or company isn't for you, this is a valuable learning curve and an important part of your career path."

Don't shy away from talking to people within the company. Ask employees for tips to do your job better, or ask general questions about the business's goals. Summer internships fly by, so it's important to take advantage of the opportunities you get.

"As an intern, there's this preconception that you can only do what you're asked and you can't contribute to the team because you're at a 'lower level,'" said Hautau. "This is not true. The best interns we've had speak up about their feedback on a project, they ask tons of questions, they schedule one-on-ones with their manager to get performance feedback and provide ideas on how to better the company and processes within their department, and, most importantly, they get involved. If you see someone at the company who has a job you'd be interested in, ask to shadow them, or ask them to get coffee!"

You can connect with these colleagues on social media after your internship and stay in touch through platforms like LinkedIn. Maintaining those connections in the months and years after leaving an internship is important. These connections will benefit you throughout your professional career, even if you don't become a full-time employee at the business. If you don't connect with members of your network for years and then you ask for help landing a job, it's unlikely you'll get much help. Try to reach out, even if it's just a brief email, every 6-12 months. For contacts you're close with, it's OK to reach out more frequently.

To make the most of a summer internship, start simple. Find a company that aligns with your values and career goals and try to land a position there. After landing a job, set goals for what you'll get out of your internship experience. Once entrenched in your role, take on additional tasks and network within the company. Following these tips will help you get the most value out of a summer internship.

Bennett Conlin

Bennett is a B2B editorial assistant based in New York City. He graduated from James Madison University in 2018 with a degree in business management. During his time in Harrisonburg he worked extensively with The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper. Bennett also worked at the Shenandoah Valley SBDC, where he helped small businesses with a variety of needs ranging from social media marketing to business plan writing.