This summer, millions of college students will add a new line to their resumes and start work at an internship. It’s becoming increasingly common — and important — for undergrads to seek out work experiences during school breaks. A 2015 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey found that 65% of last year’s graduating class had participated in an internship or co-op program, the highest number on record.
Why should students trade a leisurely summer off for an office job? They don’t have much of a choice if they want to be qualified for a position after graduation. A separate NACE survey found that relevant work experience is preferred by 75% of employers. So now, as millions of college students get settled at their desks, what should they know to help them succeed?
Internships offer students important learning experiences, but that’s not their only function. Employers want to see real work and effort put in. “They’re about making a contribution,” says Lindsey Pollak, millennial workplace expert at The Hartford, the investment and insurance company. “You want to remember that it’s a mistake to only be there as a student. You also want to make a positive mark. You’re somewhat of an employee that is positively contributing to the team.”
Because internships are traditionally short, normally a few weeks to a couple months, there’s not a lot of time to make a good impression. Here are some common mistakes interns make on the job and how to avoid them.
- Digital courtesy
Composing professional emails is much different than writing a note to your parents, friends or even professors. It’s important to pay careful attention when writing emails because each reveals a small look into your professionalism. Pollak says interns tend to not understand email etiquette and often jump into what they want to say, without using formalities like greetings or signing off at the end. “I don’t think it’s intentional that people are trying to be informal, if you don’t have experience emailing in a professional way, particularly if you’re emailing with a client or customer.” She says, “Every communication is reflecting on people’s impression of you. You always want to put your best foot forward.”
More and more, workplace communication is transmuting from one device to another. It’s easy to take work with you whenever you leave your desk because you have a mobile phone. Be aware of appropriate times for checking your email or inter-office communication like Slack on your cell, supervisors could think you’re just playing on your phone. Observe how staff members use their phones in meetings, if they’re paying attention and not on their devices, you should put yours away, too.
It may also be difficult to fully understand your place in staff meetings. Are you there to observe and listen or pitch in and participate? Knowing what you can offer in a meeting or why you’re there can help you add value or know when to listen, not speak. “Talk to a manager or supervisor before the meeting and ask about your role,” says Pollak. “It’s worst to speak up and not know what you’re talking about. Defer to people who are the most knowledgeable, that doesn’t mean to be silent, people want to know your opinion. But know that you could be speaking too much if that’s not your role in meetings.”
After getting hands on work experience, internships are about building your personal network. It will be beneficial to your career later on, but it also must be first done appropriately, and through the proper channels. “It’s a big mistake to only network up, you want to network horizontally with people you’re working with,” says Pollak. That includes fellow interns as well as other junior staffers. “It’s appropriate to ask an internship supervisor, ‘May I reach out to a CTO or CEO?’ to get their approval. They might suggest that they make the intro for you.” It’s important to prepare for meetings with higher-ups, too, because if they’re making time to meet you, you want to show that you’ve put thought into what you’re going to say.
- Dress code
What you wear to class probably won’t work for the office and you might have to go out and buy a few pieces of appropriate clothes before starting your internship. It can create the wrong kind of attention if you show up in jeans and a tank top when everyone else is wearing button-down shirts. Observe what your colleagues are wearing to understand what is appropriate for your particular office environment. “Dress the way you would for your grandparents,” Pollak advises. “That’s a little more formal and a little more covered up. You never want someone to judge you by what you’re wearing.”
- Showing interest and staying in touch
If you end up enjoying your internship, be sure to make it known to your supervisor and human relations department. If they know you’re interested and think you did a good job, they may reach out to you later if a full-time position opens up. “Find out if that company is a good fit for you. Asking about benefits as an intern shows interest and I wouldn’t be shy about communicating that you really want to work there if you like it,” says Pollak. It’s also important to be proactive about keeping in touch in the months that follow, if you do want to return. One of the easiest ways to do this is to follow and interact your coworkers on twitter and connect with them via other online channels. “Be sure to be leaving with linkedin recommendations,” says Pollak. “Don’t be afraid to ask to keep in touch.”
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