Treat it like a real job, find an ally and six other ideas for using your next internship to get ahead.

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Internships tend to incite one of two emotions: pure dread or sheer excitement.

Usually the former is reserved for those of us who are hoping for paid employment but, in a struggling economy, settle for whatever we can find to log the hours and keep our resume afloat. (I know how you feel. I’ve been there.)

Sheer excitement—and possibly healthy dose of fear—comes into play when bagging an internship means you’re getting your first chance to cut your teeth in the workplace: a trial run of your soon-to-be career including a cubicle, key card and maybe even a company email account.

Having spent a decent amount of time as both an intern and a supervisor who now oversees interns, there’s a list of things I wish I could tell each intern before they start— tips I wish someone had told me when I was pushing papers, doing “meaningless research” and biding my time to earn class credit or build my resume:

Internships are what you make of them. So here are few tips for making the most of them.

1. Despite the intern title, treat this position like a real job.

The more you value your role, the more others will too. When you slack off and show little interest in your work, you’re likely to receive little responsibility. Ask for more responsibility; don’t wait for it to come to you. And then deliver.

2. Find an ally.

If you’re intimidated by new tasks and too scared to ask for help, find someone who can be your go-to person for all questions. This person can help you push past your insecurity and enable you to seek out others who might help answer your questions. (It might even be another intern.)

3. Show up on time.

Or even early. I can’t tell you how huge this is. Just do it.

4. Use the opportunity to network.

Go to brown bag lunches, attend functions your company/organization is holding, meet as many people as you can. If you’re in an environment where you’re comfortable with your supervisor, ask them to bring you to other professional events. This is what will land you a job. Not a company name on a CV, but connections with other people.

5. Get business cards.

Ask your company or your school or just venture out and get a set of personalized cards printed. (But don’t use your school or company name without their permission!) Having something to hand people you meet gives them a way to remember you and reconnect with you.

6. Learn everything you can.

Seriously. Learn about the company, the various projects, divisions, tools, software. Everything. This real-world experience is better than any classroom education.

7. Despite wanting to prove yourself, don’t overwork.

Most likely, you’re interning in a new city (or country). Be sure to create a balance between enjoying where you’re at and working hard. This balance is something you’ll most likely be “practicing” for the rest of your life, so start now.

8. Have fun.

For every good internship out there, you’ll find a few doozies. Don’t stress over it. Do your best, make the most of it and be sure to have some fun. The Real World will come all too soon.

Christy Campbell dwells in Shanghai, consulting for social businesses and learning about what sustainability means in a mega-city. You can follow her on Twitter at @echoinghope.


  1. Phillip Smith

    We have covered this topic several times on our blog and agree with all of your suggestions. It can be intimidating to be an intern but you are 100% right about using the opportunity to network. We tell our students to take advantage of every opportunity — eat lunch with people, accept invitations to events, ask to sit in on an informational webinar other staff members are participating in, etc. Great article that we plan to share with our blog readers on Friday in our weekly industry roundup.

  2. Shana Frentz-Gzesh

    #2. Speaking from an Accounting point of view:

    The Big 4 more make this a big part of your internship. I asked my associate coach almost every dumb question in the book. Sometimes I felt stupid, but she was always honest and kind, and made sure I did everything that would benefit me, and avoid what wouldn’t. She had just went through the same thing 4-5 months prior so she remembered feeling the same way, but knew the answers.

    We had some interns who didn’t speak to their associate coach once. They were uninformed, and it showed to their teams, managers, and partners.

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