You’ve landed an internship, and it starts next week. Now what? First, take a deep breath. You are not the first person to face a first day of work. Even the folks you’re going to be working with have been there. Second, after you’ve gone over the route to the workplace 15 or so times, double checked the email to make sure you have the right start date and called your mom three times, consider the following advice from folks who’ve been there, done that and survived to work another day.
Looking for advice on how to be a successful intern? Read on.
1. Put the pajama bottoms back in the drawer
Workplaces typically have written dress code policies. These policies vary from organization to organization and often reflect an organization’s culture and industry. Find out what is appropriate before setting foot in the workplace. Dress policies typically categorize overall attire as casual, smart casual, business casual or business. Despite these descriptive categories, the designations don’t always explain much. How casual is casual? (Note that casual is not so casual that you can wear your pajama bottoms to work.) What the heck is business casual? Is there such a thing as stupid casual? Can employees wear jeans? Do employees have to wear suits if the policy requires business attire? What happens when we do something outside of the workplace?
“Interns should ask not only about standard attire but also ask if there are scenarios or events that result in changes, such as casual days or client meetings,” Leader of the Early Talent Program at Gallagher Julia Szukala said. “Ask to connect with a more junior team member who is closer in age and who may provide information on where to shop and which pieces would be appropriate to wear.”
Younger team members may also have practical tips on complying with any requirements to cover tattoos or remove body piercings during office hours. They can also explain in practical terms how to translate general categories such as smart casual and business casual as well as share tips. For example, having a pair of pumps available to dress up an outfit or a tie handy to put on for a meeting can be a lifesaver. Adding a jacket to an outfit can also take an outfit from business casual to business in the blink of an eye. Don’t hesitate to ask. Even the general categories can mean something different from organization to organization.
2. Perform recon on expectations
Where should you go on the first day? Who will your manager be? Is any advance reading or studying required? Did you oversell any particular skills during the interview process that you actually need to acquire? (Just kidding. We know you wouldn’t do that.) Find out what you can before you start.
“I felt prepared and unprepared at the same time for my internship,” University of Denver graduate Jillian Dragon said. “Before starting, I was told that I needed to know Excel and learn certain financial information, but I didn’t know what I’d be doing on a day-to-day basis.”
Consider setting up an appointment with a future team member to discuss logistics prior to your first day— particularly if it’s been a minute since your interview. During the call or meeting, obtain information about the expectations for your internship and cover questions about attire, scheduling and prerequisites. Expectations include skills to be learned, work hours, type of work to be completed, potential work product and opportunities for job shadowing. Be prepared with a list of questions, but don’t make the team member feel as if they’re having their deposition taken for a trial.
3. Be normal, but not too normal
Everyone wants to make a good impression, but sometimes that can keep you from being yourself. Take a deep breath. You deserve to be there. You already are good enough. Don’t try to make yourself sound or appear like something you’re not— particularly if you want a full-time position with the organization you’re interning with. Leave that fake London accent at home. You could be stuck pretending to be British for the next decade of your life.
“If you want to have a full-time job, be yourself, but keep it work appropriate. Talk about what you like to do in your free time. Talk about The Bachelor. Remember that the people you’re talking to are still just normal people going to work every day,” Dragon said.
However, the suggestion that you be yourself comes with a caution. You should not be so comfortable that your language or conversation is inappropriate for the workplace. There is definitely a line that should not be crossed. Avoid telling the story of how your significant other’s parents caught you naked while visiting over the winter break.
“Be really mindful of language in conversations, particularly casual conversations— even if speaking with younger members of the organization. They too have an opportunity to review your performance,” Szukala said.
That brings up the reminder that internships are often very long job interviews. At Szukala’s organization, internships last for nine weeks with a week at the global headquarters and two weeks at regional meetings. That means three out of the nine weeks can involve many casual events, such as lunches, team building exercises and receptions. Those events are part of the overall process, and your behavior during any of those out-of-office situations can impact your performance evaluation.
4. Ask questions
No one expects you to know everything. Remember that the organization expects you to be there as part of a learning experience. Roll up your sleeves, hide your tattoos, leave your industrial bar in your apartment and sling that jacket over the back of your office chair. It’s time to work and to learn.
“Ask questions – learn – understand – contribute,” Benefits & Human Resources Leader for Getir Tiffany K. Duncan said.
Her advice emphasizes the educational nature of an internship— whether paid or unpaid. The underlying intent of an internship is to teach. Some teach skills. Some teach industry-knowledge. Some teach you that you’d rather do anything else in your life other than work for that organization. It’s all good. So, ask questions. Work to understand, and don’t hesitate to contribute.
5. Take notes
Unfortunately, the need to take notes extends beyond the classroom and rolls right into your internship. When someone gives you an assignment, take notes. When someone gives you feedback, take notes. When someone teaches you something, take notes. When you have something to contribute, take notes. When you accomplish something, take notes. Those notes will come in handy in the future.
“Take notes during your internship so that you have material to discuss in future interviews. Everyone gets that question: ‘Tell us about a time you showed leadership.’ If you take notes during your internship, you can then leverage those experiences,” Dragon said.
Taking notes also reinforces what you’re learning and helps you to evaluate the progress you’ve made during the internship. If you took notes during an initial meeting to set out expectations for your internship, then at the end of the internship, you have the notes at hand to evaluate whether you and the internship met expectations. Plus, taking notes helps you to step back from potential emotional responses when receiving feedback.
6. Open yourself to feedback
Expect that one or more persons from the organization will provide you with feedback. If you’re not getting feedback, ask for it. Have an open mind when you receive feedback. You may not agree with the feedback, but it provides a valuable window into how the organization views you and what it could be like working at that organization. When faced with feedback, Gallagher’s Szukala offers sound advice.
“Take notes. Always have pen and paper. You may get one-off feedback when you are not be expecting feedback. Taking notes allows you to have a reference point, but also to have time to reflect, and taking notes shows that you are actively listening. Listen first. Really be mindful about vocalizing any immediate response or asking questions right away. You can write down your questions while taking notes. How did I demonstrate? Could you clarify ____?” Szukala said.
Such tactics give you more time to avoid emotional responses and allow you to receive feedback in a meaningful and productive way. Again, deep breaths. These folks intend to help. The feedback they provide, and the way they provide the feedback, help shape your path in the future. Just remember that you are there to learn, and perhaps you will learn something about yourself.
7. Control the one thing you can – your attitude!
Alright. You dutifully hid your tattoos, left your industrial bar at home and slung your jacket over the back of your office chair, but you’ve discovered that you don’t like the organization, you don’t like the people around you and the office décor is some strange mix of soviet-era drab and Dora the Explorer. Back to the deep breaths. Remember that you’re there to learn, even if the lesson is that you don’t want to work there. Focus on what else you can learn and show up with the best version of yourself. If you do nothing but complain and bemoan how much you dislike the place, that can make the experience even worse. So, control the one thing that you can— your attitude.
8. Don’t ride up and down on the elevator hugging the plant you drug in from the lobby after consuming your body weight in alcohol
You may be tempted to indulge at the open bar during a business function but proceed with caution. Remember that every aspect of an internship constitutes part of a long job interview. Even in casual circumstances, the organization expects you to behave in a professional manner. Many business events involve standing around in small clumps of individuals chatting while consuming alcohol. You may feel awkward without something to do with your hands and thus wish to occupy at least one hand with a beverage. Bartenders provide non-alcoholic beverages too and will not bat an eye if you ask for a soft drink or a sparkling water. If you do opt for an alcoholic drink, consider getting one drink that you sip occasionally from during the length of the event. (Assuming that you are legally old enough to drink alcohol.)
But don’t be that intern. Yup. That one. The one who indulges too heavily in the free alcohol and finds a nice Ficus plant named Fred who just wants to ride up and down on the elevator with you. Step away from the bar. Step away from Fred. And, by all means, do not drag Fred from the lobby into the elevator, even if you don’t intend to ride up and down with him all night.
9. Find a mentor
You’ve probably heard the refrain: Find a mentor. Find a mentor. But what is a mentor? Generally, mentors include individuals with more experience who are willing to informally guide you. While you may not slide into the role of a mentee right away, a relationship you establish during your internship may lead to a later mentorship. To that end, look for individuals with an active role in the internship process at the organization.
“Build relationships with the employees invested in the internship program. It is likely supported by some volunteers that really care and are invested in your success,” Duncan said.
When looking for that mentor, consider the way individuals provide feedback, whether they actively listen, whether they show empathy and whether they have knowledge that would benefit you. Look for someone who you believe is interested in your career and is willing to guide you. That person may be a little more experienced than you or a lot more experienced than you. You may even find more than one potential mentor. Many people are blessed with more than one mentor during their professional careers.
10. Grow your network
An internship provides multiple opportunities to grow your network. Make sure to be included in others’ networks too. Be broad-minded about who to include in your growing network. Employees of the organization, individuals the organization works with, and other interns add to your network. In fact, fellow interns may be some of your most valuable connections.
“Build and maintain relationships with other interns. Learn from each other. Get to know each other. Support each other. Push each other to greatness. Lift each other. Form real relationships. Consider connecting annually. You’ll keep each other accountable,” Duncan said.
Likewise, current employees represent valuable connections. Indeed, current employees provide the feedback necessary to determine if you will be offered a position as an employee. Take time to get to know other employees outside of your assignments. That can mean showing up 10 to 15 minutes early to get to know others before the workday begins. But work to make meaningful connections.
“Leave knowing that at least three people will vouch for you to become a member of the team. Three people who see the value in you and will advocate for you to join the organization. Even if you don’t want to join, they can carry through your career,” Szukala said.
As big as the world may seem, you will discover that it’s not really that big professionally. The person in the cubicle next to you may be the future CEO of an organization you want to work for one day. You may be the president of a company who needs that former intern from your first internship. That person you see in the hallway every day may be just the person you need to provide a quote for an article you’re writing. The fellow intern who helped you with a PowerPoint presentation may be the person you meet with once a month for lunch for the rest of your career. So, don’t hesitate to talk to others, get their contact information and add them to your LinkedIn network. It’s all good.
Now, stop hitting the snooze button, put on that business casual outfit and make your mark.