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Being an intern is kind of like being thrown into the deep end of a pool — and while you may think you’re a great swimmer going in, you quickly realize how much you don’t know and how easy it is to drown. You either survive your internship by trusting yourself and relying on the skills you’ve been taught throughout college (and finally realize how valuable they actually are), or you simply give up and sink to the bottom.
Going into my first internship, I thought it would be like everything else had been in my life up until that point: simple, straightforward, and with a precise set of rules to follow and succeed. However, I quickly learned that internships are not designed to help you succeed; internships are designed to test you, push you to your limits, and see what you’re made of.
And the rules? Well, those are the most complicated of all. Yes, you will likely have some guidelines for what your specific responsibilities during the internship are supposed to be. But what they don’t tell you (on purpose, might I add) is that there is a whole other secret set of rules that you must follow if you hope to turn your internship into a career path.
Here’s a look at the lessons — some that should be obvious, some that are a little more hidden between the lines — that I learned as an intern trying (and eventually succeeding) to fight my way to a full-time position.
Dress to Impress
Leave your sweatshirts and Ugg boots at home. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming straight from taking a test after staying up all night studying, college-student dress code does not apply to any workplace — ever. Even in a casual work environment, take it one step further by switching out your flip-flops for flats and your t-shirts for blazers. The more professional you look, the more likely you are to be viewed as a professional who can be taken seriously. You have to look the part before you’ll be considered for it.
Actually, be overly punctual. Consistently showing up five to 10 minutes early to meetings with your notebook open and ready shows that you’re always prepared. Being habitually late, on the other hand, does nothing but create a bad reputation for yourself.
Go Above and Beyond
There is simply no room to be lazy as an intern. Though your supervisor may tell you it’s not necessary to work more than your allotted 9 to 5 (or whatever your hours may be), being the first person there and the last person to leave is how you get noticed. Being over-worked and under-paid is simply part of the job description. If you’re only getting paid for 20 hours (or not getting paid at all), this may be a tough pill to swallow, but in the long run, it will just make getting put on salary that much sweeter.
If you finish a project early, don’t spend the rest of the day leisurely watching cat videos — ask for more! Keep in mind though, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should race through your work just so can brag to your boss that you’re constantly running out of things to do — incessantly complaining about being bored is obnoxious. Simply letting your boss know when you have completed a task and asking if there is anything else you can do for them is a great way to get on their good side. Or better yet: take it upon yourself to do things without your boss having to tell you at all.
A valuable employee is someone who isn’t afraid to show how hard they’re willing (and able) to work. At the end of the day, you must earn the right to a full-time position, instead of expecting it to be handed to you simply for putting in your time.
While it’s good to learn from your co-workers, you have to remember who will be deciding your fate when the time comes. Create face time with your boss and not just your co-workers. If your boss can’t connect your face with your name, this is a problem. Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor to talk about your progress — you would be surprised what a difference something like this can make. Not only does it create an opportunity to connect with your boss, but by regularly reviewing your work, it forces them to think about your potential hireability as well.
This is not to say that connecting with your co-workers isn’t important, though. Knowing how to collaborate with other employees and become a valuable member of the team is also something that your boss will definitely notice and appreciate as well.
Do you know how the work you’re doing fits into the bigger picture? Do you know the overall goals and ambitions of your company as a whole? Do you keep up with the stock prices and what they mean? Do you follow your company on social media and share news that they post?
Being interested and curious about these things show that you care about the company and what it stands for. If you go to a meeting and don’t understand something that was said, jot it down and ask your boss to explain it to you later. Simply doing your job and being blind to the bigger picture is not something your boss will be impressed by.
A wise HR director once told me that an intern who is just coming to work, doing their job, and leaving will probably stay just an intern for a long time. On the other hand, an intern who takes the time to stay after hours for events or gatherings (even though they don’t have to and definitely won’t get paid for it) is integrating themselves into the office culture and showing that they want to stick around. Company events are opportunities that shouldn’t be wasted. I’m sure there are plenty of things you’d rather be doing than staying late and not getting paid for it, but it’s important for your boss and co-workers to have the chance to get to know you outside of a professional setting if you hope to make a lasting impression.
You will share a common bond with your fellow interns, but don’t let this overshadow the fact that you’re all potentially vying for the same position. Remember who your competition is. Instead of blending in with the rest of the interns, you need to be noticeably different (and to be frank, better) than they are if you hope to have any chance of being offered a position.
One thing I wish I would have realized sooner as an intern was to work harder to keep my personal and professional relationships with the other interns separate. Grabbing a drink with the other interns after work is perfectly fine, but spending that time giving away all of your secrets to success is crossing into dangerous territory. At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that all of you will be offered a full-time position. Don’t make it any harder for yourself than it already is. You might all be interns now, but once one of you gets hired, that will change — and if it’s you, just know that could potentially get awkward fast.
Being good at your job is good. But being good at your job AND never missing a deadline is great. Even better? Turn in your assignments early. Deadlines are not suggestions. Procrastination may be thrill-worthy, but it’s a habit that is better suited for finishing a paper or studying for an exam in college. Be the person your boss can always count on to complete any task as quickly as possible.
Another word of advice: if you do happen to miss a deadline for whatever reason, work overtime to get it done as quickly as possible. And if you realize ahead of time that you aren’t going to be able to finish, don’t be afraid to let your boss know — this is infinitely better than surprising them at the last minute (or having them come to you, which is terrifying). The bottom line is, if you aren’t concerned about finishing your work, why should your boss be concerned about you?
Do Your Research
Interns usually get handed the work that nobody else wants to do. But no matter what your assignment is, approach it with positivity and confidence — and own it. Become an expert in everything you do. Even if you’re doing something that bores you to tears, pretend like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. And always be prepared to provide valuable input toward whatever area of the company you’re involved in. Contributing good ideas shows that you’re passionate about your field and would be a valuable asset to the team.
While doing all of these things to show that you want a full-time job is important, this can only go so far. Be transparent about your intentions. Make sure your boss knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that you are not only interested in a full-time position, but also why you feel you are the most qualified person for the job. As an introvert who generally prefers to fade into the background, I know how difficult this can be. But you can’t expect anyone to read your mind — and showing initiative is a quality that is universally valuable to all employers, no matter the field.
…But Also Know When to Keep Your Mouth Shut
If you need to vent about your boss, do it at home. Nothing will ruin your chances of coming on full-time faster than something you said getting back to your boss (not to mention your boss happening to find one of your bitter status updates on Facebook). As an intern, you’re at the bottom of the so-called “totem-pole” — and never forget that. You may think that you can trust one of your co-workers with your honest opinion just because you had lunch together that one time, but when push comes to shove, always know that their loyalties probably don’t lie with you.
As my boss says, an internship is basically one big audition, which means all eyes are watching and waiting for you to screw up. Don’t get too comfortable.