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Making The Most of Your Internship

Craig Zelizer

August 8, 2017

This blog is part of PCDNetwork’s career in change 2017 series. Click here for information on all the activities, webinars, blogs and ways to participate.

By Bri Riggio, Career Advisor, Alumni Programs, School of International Service, American University

Graduation season may have just happened, but for continuing students (and sometimes even recent grads), the start of summer often also means the start of a new internship. While these positions can be great ways to gain some professional experience and learn a little bit more about what types of jobs you may want to pursue down the road, at the end of the day, an internship is only as useful as you make it! If you're feeling a little lost with how to approach your own internship experience, follow these ten steps:

STEP 1 – Set Personal Goals

Some organizations will have well-developed internship programs, while others will be less structured. Regardless of which situation you are in, it is a good idea to set some goals for what you want to get out of your experience. Are you looking to acquire a new skill? Gain exposure to a certain industry? Whatever your purpose, make sure that your goals are realistic and attainable, given the type of internship and the time frame in which you will be completing it.

STEP 2 – Communicate Regularly with Your Supervisor

You may have a supervisor who regularly schedules time to talk with you, in which case you want to attend these meetings fully prepared and ready to communicate your successes, challenges, and questions. However, you may have a supervisor who travels often or who doesn’t take the initiative to check-in with you, and the onus falls on you to request that face-time with him or her. Whatever your circumstances, make sure that you get regular time in front of your supervisor and are able to discuss your experiences and lessons learned.

STEP 3 – Be Professional

You may not be working for your organization as a full-time employee, but that is no excuse not to treat your internship like any other professional opportunity. Dress according to office protocol, and always treat your colleagues with respect (that includes other interns!). Don’t bad-mouth your supervisor, other workers, or the organization and remember that even if you aren’t getting paid, you are still representing your organization for the duration of your internship. You also never know when a supervisor is looking to hire interns on for full-time work, so remember that you are always “on” professionally.

STEP 4 – Stay Positive and Enthusiastic

Even the most amazing internships will require you to do some boring or not-so-glamorous tasks. Even if you aren’t thrilled about some of the tasks or duties assigned to you, always tackle your responsibilities with positivity and enthusiasm. Not only will you feel better about going into the office each day, but the people around you are more likely to enjoy having you around and remember you positively – which is a great impression to leave if you ever apply for a job there or are in need of future references or connections.

STEP 5 – Expose Yourself to Opportunities

Take advantage of any and all opportunities that your organization might offer to you outside of your intern role. Well-developed internship programs might provide opportunities for you to network or learn in a formal setting, but these opportunities may also take the form of attending an after-work social event or helping on a project outside of your department. The more that you are exposed to other people and ideas, the more you will learn, and the more connections you will make during your time there.

STEP 6 – Ask Questions

First and foremost, an internship is supposed to be a learning opportunity for you and an opportunity for an employer to train, screen, and/or mentor potential future candidates while also getting necessary daily tasks completed. That being said, don’t be afraid to ask questions about processes that you aren’t sure about, or about subjects in which you would like to know more. The more you ask, the more you will learn, and your organization would rather that you ask about how to do something right the first time around.

STEP 7 – Find a Mentor

Remember that you are at your internship to learn, and who best to learn from but someone else who has been working for your organization and who has experience in the industry. In many cases, your supervisor will naturally fill this role, but don’t be afraid to seek out other colleagues who are willing to offer you advice or help you navigate the dynamics of the office. Developing these kinds of mentoring connections help expand your professional network, and you are likely going to get more out of your internship experience by having someone guide you through the politics and processes of the office and providing context for decision-making at your organization.

STEP 8 – Network, Network... and Network Some More

It probably goes without saying, but remember that in addition to gaining industry exposure and building new skills, any professional experience is an opportunity to grow your professional network. By building professional relationships with your supervisor, colleagues, and other professionals at your organization, you will have more contacts to potentially help you find your next internship or job, and some of your more experienced contacts can serve as good sources of job-hunting advice and tips.

STEP 9 – Leave with Tangible Accomplishments

You set goals at the beginning of your internship, so by the time you leave, make sure that those goals can be translated into tangible accomplishments that you can use to market and position yourself for future opportunities, but also so that you can look back and be proud of the work that you did! This may take the form as a new entry on your resume and LinkedIn profile where you can document your accomplishments, or if you were responsible for working on a project, publication, or other presentation, you may have published bylines or multimedia examples to link to and share. Make sure that you document your achievements throughout your internship and then find tangible ways to demonstrate and market them once you leave.

STEP 10 – Never Burn Bridges

Even if you had a terrible time at your internship or you decide that the organization/industry/role is not for you, always end your internship politely and with gratitude for the opportunity. The connections that you make at your internship may prove valuable down the road and can only help grow your professional network. You never know who your former colleagues might know, and you never know where your career path will ultimately take you!



I am an experienced higher education professional skilled in student advising, international exchange, admissions counseling, and experiential education opportunity development. I have training in both quantitative and qualitative social science research skills and am particularly interested in the role that educational structures, practices, and access plays in developing communities and societies domestically and abroad. At the individual level, my goal is to help others find personal success and fulfillment, whether that happens through career development, academic advising, or guidance on how to frame and articulate one's life experiences and stories. I hold a B.A. of History from Claremont McKenna College and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University.  

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on June 1, 2017: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/making-most-your-internship-bri-riggio

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