Get the Most Out of Your Internship/Co-Op

by Molly Tracy

When first applying to jobs, millennials often find that prior job experience is required to get entry-level jobs. How can you break out of this paradoxical cycle? Internships and co-ops! It’s also a low-commitment way to “shop around” for what types of employment you enjoy, make connections, and practice being in the workplace. Here are some tips to nail your internship:

Before You Start

Choose the right internship for you. When exploring your options, make sure you’ll get value out of the internship. Will you just be grabbing coffee for your co-workers, or will you be given a meaningful project?

If you plan on having several internships over your college career (which is recommended), try to create varied experiences: academia vs. industry, big vs. small companies.  This is your chance to try out as much as possible to learn what you like and don’t like. Interning at the same company is tempting if you find a place you like, but try other companies as well - you may find that you like another field or company even more!

Research your project ahead of time. Often, the first few weeks of your internship are spent reading textbooks or papers to learn background information for your project. Ask for that material before you start, so you can show up on your first day with questions and hit the ground running.

When learning about your project, don’t be afraid to ask seemingly “stupid questions” (for more information, read here). Part of your job is to serve as fresh eyes to the project, and embracing your ignorance on the topic can even lead to new insights.

During Your First Week

Plan for success. Ask your manager to help you fully understand your project goals. If you aren’t given a concrete project, advocate for one or design one yourself. Lay out your goals for each week of the summer to set yourself on track to achieve those project goals. Plan as if you have less time than you do in case any unexpected setbacks arise. Even if you run into any surprises, you’ll just get more done and be seen as a more effective asset.

Form new professional relationships. It’s never too early to build your professional network! Use your intern status as an excuse to meet people, especially across departments. Your first week is the best time to take a few hours to explore and simply meet people. Have an elevator pitch prepared. After speaking with someone, write down their name and job title and connect with them on LinkedIn.

Sign up for a company sports team or other group activity. For example, when I interned for L’Oréal, I participated in summer volleyball. I was able to easily meet people across all departments and pay grades. The SVP of Research & Innovation even played each week! It was a great way to have some fun, get some exercise, and network organically.

Throughout the Internship

Maintain aggressive goal-setting and track your progress. At the beginning of each week, review and update the weekly goals you set at the beginning of the internship. Lay out daily goals each evening for the next day. This will help you to stay focused and on track.

Continue to connect with people. Building a professional network takes time. Developing relationships can involve something as simple as stopping to chat when you see people in the hallway, but make sure that you put in the effort to connect with other employees in some way at least once each 1-2 weeks.

Asking people to lunch is a great way to build relationships and learn about different career paths. Again, use your intern status as an excuse for the lunch (“I’m an intern here this summer. I’d love to learn more about your experience at the company and your own career path”). At lunch, ask about choices they’ve made and what they would have done differently. What made the biggest difference in their career development? What do they like and not like about their job? Use these “lunch chats” to screen many different career paths, ask for advice, and even find a lasting mentor.

Ask for feedback. Many interns are new to the work environment. This is a chance to learn how to act in the workplace. The more open to and inviting of feedback you are, the quicker you will develop. Quickly connect with your manager at the end of each day to give and receive feedback. Reflect to give self-feedback as well. Here are some questions to review:

  • What did I do well today?

  • What didn’t go well today?

  • What could I have done better?

  • What do I need to work on most, and how did I work on those development areas today?

Be professional. Professionalism is often the difference between “good” and “exceptional” interns. Stand out by showing up early, staying off social media, and dressing the part. Dressing slightly better than the dress code can never hurt (this is also just a good life tip - worst case, you look better than everyone else in the room!).

Take initiative. Take on the little tasks that haven’t gotten done. Initiative doesn’t mean buying everyone coffee - sometimes something as small as organizing the office space, setting up an online service such as Google Drive or Asana, or writing standard operating procedures can go a long way. These things can remain your mark after you leave and improve the effectiveness of your department.

Explore. Try to experience other areas within the company. Internships are a three-month interview, but that interview goes both ways. Learn as much as you can about the company culture and mission. You may struggle with one department but fall in love with another, particularly in a big company. Tour other departments (perhaps during your last week) to learn more about what would be the best fit for you, should you decide to return to the company in a full-time position.

Wrapping Up

Give a final presentation. Even if it’s just to your manager, give a presentation showing what you accomplished. Showcase your value added to the company. Be enthusiastic!

Stay in touch. Before the end of the internship, collect the emails of the new connections you made. Send them an email thanking them and asking to keep in touch. Then, be sure to check in at least 1-2 times per year while you’re in school. Holidays are a great time for this (“hope you had a great year and are having a nice holiday! Here’s what I’ve been up to…”).