A young businessman working at his first job.

How to Grab Attention (and a Job) as an Intern

Tips to make sure your internship is the career steppingstone you intend it to be.

A young businessman working at his first job.

The secret to getting a full-time position? Show that you're able to develop the skills and abilities needed to accomplish the employer's goals.

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College internships provide students with invaluable experience and education beyond résumé enhancement. These experiences surprise many when they discover that they love or hate a potential career. Every college intern should seek real world experience and strive to make a great impression on everyone. To tip the scale in your favor and get great recommendations, show that you're aware of the your manager's needs and that you have (or will) develop the skills and abilities to help accomplish these goals.

Companies are always ready to hire and retain top talent. Though the hard skills may vary from one firm to the next, the soft skills, which define traits for top talent, are universal:

  • Show you're an adept problem solver
  • Don’t wait to be asked to help, but anticipate your boss’s needs
  • Meet deadlines consistently
  • Collaborate with team members
  • Show you're adaptable to change and a corporate culture
  • Be humble: Take negative feedback and use it to improve
  • If you’re an expert at something, show you can handle failure and take others' suggestions
  • Come early, stay late and learn from everyone

If you demonstrate these traits throughout your internship, you’ll create a positive impression on your boss and co-workers. Being remembered for hard work, energy, effort and enthusiasm is important, especially if you hope to get a recommendation or are interested in getting a permanent position.

Lindsey Pollak’s book "Getting from College to Career" outlines more ideas on how to be a successful intern. A sample of her ideas:

1. Learn how work is different from school. Of course, the most exciting difference between college and the real world is that you get a paycheck instead of grades. However, there are a few other changes an internship can help you adjust to. For instance, missing a deadline has major consequences. As an intern you’re supporting full-time employees whose jobs are their livelihoods – there’s no room for messing around with projects they’re relying on. Furthermore, your work as an intern could impact the bottom line of your organization directly, particularly if you’re dealing with clients or customers. Your professionalism is not requested; it’s required. (Or you might get fired.)

2. Step outside your comfort zone. Internships are a great time to take risks, face your fears and challenge yourself to try big new things.

3. Be proactive. Asking, “What is a good thing for me to work on when you’re busy and I have nothing specific to do?” shows you're a go-getter who wants to contribute and learn as much as possible. And you may get assigned a cool project that no one else was smart enough to ask for – something that you can highlight on your résumé and promote in future job interviews.

4. Set up informational interviews. While you’re at an organization as an intern you have a rare opportunity for face-time with people you otherwise might not be able to meet. Check with your internship coordinator to make sure it’s appropriate, then pinpoint a few people in the organization whose jobs interest you and ask to meet. Don’t miss this opportunity to shoot fish in a barrel – you're surrounded by informational interview prospects. If you can, you should also set up a meeting with someone in the human resources department to talk about future full-time job opportunities – this is a golden lead for your first post-college job.

5. Network with your fellow interns. Network with your peers, not just higher-ups. In addition to chatting during work hours, try to attend as many after-work events and informal get-togethers as possible. These people are great contacts; you never know where your fellow interns are going to end up someday – or whom else they know now. Since you ended up at the same internship, your fellow interns must share some common interests with you. So, ask them what other careers, companies, internships or opportunities they’re considering or have pursued already. This can be a great source of ideas and contacts for you. And, if you’re intimidated by the general idea of networking, it’s often easier to practice this skill with your peers than with more senior people.

6. Collect reference letters. Don’t assume future employers will take your word for the fact that you gained valuable experience and skills during your internship – get proof. Ask your internship supervisor and any other professionals with whom you work to write reference letters for you to keep on file for your future career pursuits. Ask people to write letters on company letterhead addressed “To Whom it May Concern” so you can use the letters for various purposes. (In the future when you know where you’ll be applying for jobs, you can re-contact these people for more personalized letters.) Remind your internship supervisor what you’ve achieved – projects completed, results achieved, departments you’ve interacted with, events you attended and other significant experiences or contributions. Putting together such a list serves to help you when you add this internship to your résumé. Make a copy of your note and any reference letters you’re able to collect and file them in a folder. It’s a good idea to keep reference letters in a plastic folder or sleeve so they stay in good condition.

7. Keep in touch. Supervisors, employees, fellow interns – everyone you meet is a relationship you should add to your contact database. The best way to add people you meet during your internship to your network: ask them! Simply say, “I’ve really enjoyed meeting you and working with you during my internship. May I keep in touch with you in the future and check in with you once in a while?” Most likely people will say yes and appreciate your respectfulness. Then, send each person a note or email within a month of ending your internship (just to say hello and prove you really do want to keep in contact) and drop an email or note about twice a year – perhaps once during the December holidays and once in May when classes end.

Converting Your Internship to Employment

While an intern, work on developing your transferable skills. These are skills that apply to any setting and will enhance your LinkedIn profile and résumé. It will help to understand the definition of various skills and be able to describe how you have attained those skills.

  • Communication skills: expressing ideas, facilitating discussions or meetings, listening, negotiating presenting, speaking a foreign language, speaking and writing effectively.
  • Research and planning skills: analysis, brainstorming, coordinating events, focusing on details, forecasting, goal setting, information gathering, organizing, problem solving, record keeping.

Make the very most of every workday and become known as a valuable team player. Get to be the go-to person – someone who jumps at the chance to solve problems. Learn to collaborate with the rest of the team to achieve goals and enhance the group's reputation. Understand the difference between work and school, be proactive in your networking, challenge yourself to learn new, transferable skills and work toward garnering recommendations. Applying these strategies will help you to stand out, but more importantly, gain valuable life lessons that will help you get your foot in the door and land a full-time job.

Beth Kuhel, MBA, is a CEIP (certified employment interview professional), Gen-Y and executive career coach and author specializing in career planning and managing millennials. She writes about career strategies and improving the workplace for The Personal Branding Blog and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur magazine, Business Insider, U.S. News & World Report and other business syndications.