These Interns Want You to Learn From Their Mistakes

intern tips

Spend all day making copies and getting coffee? Sitting at your desk watching the minutes tick by? Doing tasks that you find mind-numbingly boring? Congratulations, it sounds like you’re a (not so) proud participant in a sub-par internship program.

Or worse, maybe you haven’t even done a single internship and the end of college is fast approaching. You’re worried about how you’ll get your foot in the door and your career off the ground.

Internships can be stressful for a lot of different reasons, especially if this is your first time in a professional situation. That’s why we talked with former interns about what they did, what they wish they had done, and how you can learn from their mistakes.

Problem #1: You love your internship (but it’s just not that into you)

Now wait a minute—there’s nothing wrong with loving your internship… is there? Of course not. Finding an internship that you love is wonderful, but just as you discovered when you professed your love to your 7th grade crush in front of Ms. Sullivan’s entire 4th period English class, it really hurts when those feelings aren’t reciprocated or the timing is off.

Just ask Megan Molinaro. She waited until after she graduated to do her first internship. She loved what she was doing, but the strain of working for no salary in one of the most expensive places on the planet (New York City) was much tougher than she expected. And, even though she adored her internship, she was unable to translate that experience into a job immediately afterwards.

How to solve it: Look for internship opportunities early—and be realistic

Megan says, “If you are going to do an internship, do it while you are still in school. They are much easier to get as a student, and you will probably get more out of them early on in your career.”

If you’re still a student, you should also keep in mind that application season for summer internships happens early. Real early. We’re talking fall of the previous year. (Probably around the time that employers are coming to career fairs on your campus.) Government organizations, engineering firms, financial institutions, and defense contractors tend to have the earliest deadlines because they require background checks, which can take a looooong time. So just be aware of that when you’re planning your schedule for the school year.

It’s also important to be realistic in your expectations. When you’re going into any internship, keep in mind that it’s not a guarantee of employment afterwards. This is especially true with unpaid internships, as the 2013 NACE Student Survey showed that unpaid interns only had a marginally better chance of getting a job (37.0%) than applicants who had no internship experience at all (35.2%).

Problem #2: You’re unsatisfied with your internship

There are a lot of reasons that you might end up feeling frustrated or disappointed with your internship. It could be that you had unrealistic expectations about what the job would involve (What?! No Quidditch every day??), or perhaps the company isn’t nearly as involved or invested in your professional development as you thought they would be, or maybe you have a personality conflict with your manager or other staff members. Anna Ma, a current junior Econ major at Reed College realized that she didn’t quite mesh with the company culture at a conservative employer: “I’ve had the experience of working in a stodgy corporate environment where the cultural fit wasn’t there.” Whatever the reason, take a moment to realize that this is perfectly normal.

Gergana Stoilova encountered feelings of disappointment during her first PR internship. She explains, “From an intern perspective, it seemed to me that public relations was just way too tactical and lacked strategy… The thing I didn’t enjoy was that my team never talked about how our clients’ products or services competed in the market and there wasn’t much brainstorming about how to find and target reporters who would be most interested in covering them…”

How to solve it: Figure out if the problem is industry-wide or company-specific

In Gergana’s case, the problem turned out to be at the particular agency where her internship took place. She says, “The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that public relations is very different from agency to agency and from client to client. It’s important to find your spot or to move on if your current position isn’t allowing you to grow.”

If you’re having a problem with some aspect of your job, whether it’s the tasks you’re doing, the company structure, or the way communication is handled, be sure to do a little investigating. Talk to people in other departments to see if things work the same way for them. Just be careful about how you do this—you want to give the impression that you’re trying to learn more about the company and industry and not that you’re complaining about things you don’t like.

And if you have the chance, try to find someone who works in the same industry but at a different company. Ask them to do an informational interview and prepare a list of questions to ask about the similarities and differences between their company and the place where you’re doing your internship. Then take some time to reflect on what you learned. Does it sound like the problems you experienced were common to everyone in that industry? Or were they specific to your particular situation? How can you apply that knowledge to your next job or internship search?

Problem #3: You’re not sure if you’re doing a good job or making an impact

When you’re doing an internship, it can sometimes be hard to feel like you’re actually accomplishing anything meaningful. This is especially true when you’re only assigned menial or mindless tasks, but even if you have cool projects to work on, employers aren’t always on top of providing feedback to interns. Or it could be that everything is going great, but you’re not sure if anyone outside of your department knows who you are. Whatever the issue, you want to make sure that you’re going above and beyond and integrating yourself into the company as a whole.

How to solve it: Get as involved as possible

Follow the example of Ross Manderscheid, a former intern at Kaiser Permanente. Ross explains, “My philosophy when I was an intern was to just make myself as useful as possible to as wide a variety of people and projects as I could. This meant that when I was up for a position, many of the people interviewing me had actually headed up some of the projects I was participating in, and that certainly helped to extend my internship and with the eventual creation of the position that I hold now.”

Ross’s advice is great because it accomplishes so many things. It keeps you busy and makes your internship more meaningful to you and the company while also showing your employer that you’re proactive. In other words, you don’t just wait for someone to tell you what to do; you go out there and get things done.

Now that you know how to overcome some common internship complaints, you’re ready to go out there and be a rock star. If things don’t work out perfectly, don’t worry too much. Remember that above all, it’s a learning experience and an important step in figuring out what you need.

Need a little extra encouragement? Here are a few resources you might enjoy:

  •  Mergers and Inquisitions offers some specific advice about coping with a disappointing internship in the finance industry.
  • Intern Queen has some simple tips on turning a boring internship into a great one.
  • Levo League offers an action plan for coping with “senioritis” during your internship.

And don’t forget to check out all the internship stories and tips on the AfterCollege Blog.

Homework time! If you’re in the middle of an internship, choose one or two of these points to focus on. How can you make the most of your experience? If you don’t have an internship, come up with a plan for how you’ll learn more about the industry and go above and beyond what’s asked of you.

P.S. Have an issue with an internship that we didn’t cover in this post? Let us know in the comments and we’ll cover it in the future.


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