In a difficult job market, having internship experience can often be the single thing that separates you from other job applicants. But you get what you put into an internship, so make the most out of the opportunity.
Take Learning Upon Yourself
Being an intern gives you the rare opportunity to learn on the job, rather than from a textbook. Your internship job description will detail what you'll experience, but don't limit yourself to just that list. Always stretch for more knowledge. Ask questions and ask your supervisor to provide suggestions for resources you can use to learn.
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Treat Your Internship Like a Job
"Don't think of your internship as 'just an internship,'" suggests Katie Barrow, senior manager of public relations and communications for the nonprofit organization Fair Trade USA. "Think of it as an incredibly valuable opportunity in your path to beginning a career. Dress up for work, double-check all of your work and make sure to complete all assignments to the best of your ability."
Even if you're not getting paid for the work you do, act like you are!
Steer clear of internships that are glorified gofer positions (as in, "go-for the coffee, go-for the copies") and focus on those that provide real learning opportunity. You may even want to scout out full-time opportunities first. Dan Black, director of campus recruiting for the professional service firm Ernst & Young, suggests that you pursue "employers who demonstrate campus hiring is a means to recruiting full-time talent, not just finding interns exclusively for one-time or short-term projects." Use this same suggestion to focus on employers who do have the capability to convert internships to full-time positions. For example, Ernst & Young's strong internship program converts 90 percent of their interns into full-time employees upon graduation.
Be Open to Interning at Any Age
Internships aren't just for fresh graduates. If you're looking to learn a new skill set or to change careers (like from working in accounting to human resources), then offer your services free for a month so that you can learn the ropes. Even if a company doesn't have a specific internship program, make the case of creating one just for you. Outline the benefits for them (a seasoned worker who can bring new ideas to the table at no cost) to sell it.
Network While You're There
If you really want to leverage your internship into a position, then get to know people throughout the company. Ashley Paré, the global human resources manager at the strategic consulting firm Vivaldi Partners Group, says that many interns overlook this important opportunity: "Too often undergraduates haven't yet learned the skill of networking and keeping in touch," she explains, "They may be outstanding candidates, but they don't take the extra step to really connect with someone in a management position who can help them in their careers in the future. These relationships definitely pay off in the future if you put in the time."
Attend company events, workshops, and any other opportunities that arise to get to know your colleagues.
Make yourself indispensable with the work you do so you'll be that much more appealing to hire once your internship is finished. Ask for feedback early and often so you can make sure you do a stellar job.
Beef Up Your Resume
Your purpose with interning is to add skills and experience to your resume. List your internship as your work history on your resume, and detail the projects you worked on and the skills you acquired, so those few months of experience better qualify you for a full-time role.
Ashleigh Lincoln, marketing and communications coordinator for the linguistics software company Ultralingua, supervises 20 to 30 internships a year—and she had eight of her own during her studies. She suggests that interns ask for feedback and accept constructive criticism: "Your team can give you a lot of insight into your strengths and weaknesses, which is crucial to understand at the beginning of your career," she says.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.