Working hard won’t get you very far if nobody realises you’re doing it.
Once you’ve landed an internship, how do you make the most of it? It’s vital to be professional at all times, but you need to go beyond that. You might think that if you turn up on time and complete all the tasks you’ve been set to a good standard, you’ve done enough to make a success of your internship… but you’d be wrong.
You need to take a more strategic approach. Your goals may change as you learn more about the organisation and the industry, but you still need to take a long-term view.
Your work experience might be held in person or virtually – or a mix of both. So, we’ve added advice for impressing whether you’re talking to a face in the flesh or on a screen.
1. Know your goals
If you’ve set your heart on securing a graduate job offer from your internship employer, make sure you know what the graduate recruitment criteria are and use your placement to fill any gaps in your skills and experience. For example, if you know you need to brush up your public speaking skills, you could volunteer to present the results of a team project. You’ll also need to go all out to impress with your professionalism, hard work and proactive attitude.
2. Watch and learn
You can learn a great deal about the company and the industry from observation and reflection. What can you pick up that people might not tell you directly? This is also a good way to learn about how to behave in the workplace. Which of your colleagues are admired by fellow team members… and why?
You may decide, over the course of your internship, that the employer is not a good match for you. You might come to the same conclusion about the kind of work you are doing or the industry as a whole. Even so, you should still do your best to make a good impression. It’s a small world and the contacts you make and the skills you pick up could be very valuable later on. You should also think about why you’ve decided it isn’t for you, and try to use the experience to pinpoint your new direction.
Virtual internship tips: Getting an insight into working dynamics and figuring out who might be strong role models (or perhaps future mentors) can be more difficult without face-to-face contact. You’ll get limited windows of time (when you meet with colleagues virtually) in which to observe, for instance. However, if you put in the effort you should still be able to watch and learn. For example, who is the person other employees turn to if they’re unsure how to do something?
When it comes to discovering whether the employer or industry suits you, ask questions. Try to pick your moments wisely and maintain a positive tone, however. Politely asking someone whether they spend a lot of their time carrying out a responsibility you’re being briefed on – perhaps indicating the parts of it you find interesting – would be better than asking ‘How long will this take?’
3. Be proactive
Even at intern level, employers like staff who bring something extra to the business. If you have a new idea or can see a way of improving processes, suggest it. If any interesting challenges come up, be prepared to take them on, even if it means extra work or attempting something that is out of your comfort zone. All of this will help you get noticed and will give you the experience you need to work at a higher level. Even if you want to work elsewhere, having examples of when you have been proactive will stand you in good stead and will help you in your applications and interviews.
Laurence Whitaker spoke to a previous edition of TARGETjobs’ sister publication the UK 300 when he was a national account manager at L’Oréal. He completed two internships with the company and was proactive in both. ‘I was allowed a lot of responsibility and ownership over projects,’ he recalled. ‘I found that two of the most important skills to have were determination and assertiveness, as I needed to find new opportunities and drive forward my own projects. For example, I read an interview with the creative direct of Selfridge’s in the Evening Standard in which she mentioned that she would really like to be able to offer 15-minute blow dries on the shop floor. I went into the shop the next day and to say that L’Oréal could help to set up a blow dry bar. They agreed.’
One word of warning, though: don’t get so distracted by trying to be innovative that you forget to do the tasks you’ve been delegated!
Virtual internship tip: You may have to be more proactive during virtual internships, as you’re less likely to get chatting with a colleague informally and put an idea forward that way. If you have an idea, improvement or potential solution and you don’t think there will be a chance to express it during meetings, you could send an email to the relevant colleague asking whether they would have the chance to talk with you (giving a brief account of what it will be about) and schedule in a meeting.
4. Build your network
It’s tempting to cling to fellow interns or fresh graduates at lunchtimes and social events. Don’t! Try to find opportunities to strike up conversations with more senior colleagues, especially if they are involved in recruitment or could advise you on your career. Take advantage of working alongside people who are doing the job you want to find out about; ask them how they got there and what the work is like.
Unsure how to start a conversation with somebody older and more senior? It’s fine to start with something simple and neutral, such as ‘Did you do anything nice at the weekend?’ If at a social event, you might comment on the venue or the weather. You could also ask how long someone has been at the company and what they did before that. It’ll soon become clear if they have the time and inclination to chat. However, if you feel this is your one chance to get their advice on your career or ask a burning question, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, say what you want and establish whether now is a good time, or if it might be possible to talk later.
Chances to have conversations about careers with your colleagues will present themselves naturally during the time you spend in the same building, but you may need to be ready to make the first move. It’s fine to approach a colleague and ask if they have a moment to answer a few questions, but don’t interrupt people if they’re obviously busy. If you open up a discussion about careers with a colleague, make sure you have some good questions in mind.
If you are invited to attend work-related social events, make sure you go along – don’t be an office wallflower. If you get the chance to make contacts in the industry outside your company, so much the better. Your network will be an invaluable source of advice and insight, and may also help you find out about work experience and job opportunities.
Ask your contacts if they’d be happy to stay in contact after your internship; if they are, you can exchange email addresses and/or connect via social media. LinkedIn is the most professional choice for this, with Twitter in second place. Follow these connections up by dropping them a quick ‘thank you’ message soon after you finish your internship. If you already know that there’s something specific you’d like from any of your contacts in the future, such as feedback on a new CV, it’s better to ask the question face to face.
Virtual internship tips: Again, proactivity is key here. If you know a colleague you’d like to gain advice or information from will be attending a meeting or session, write down a few questions in case you get chance to ask at the end.
If this opportunity doesn’t arise, you could send an email after the meeting, thanking them (eg for providing clear and helpful instructions or giving an interesting talk) and politely asking whether it would be possible to ask a few questions. Just like in-person internships, remember to think in the long term – such as by asking about connecting on LinkedIn.
5. Get noticed – for the right reasons
Working hard, making a contribution to the team and coming up with new ideas is all very well, but it won’t get you very far if nobody realises you’re doing it. Talk to colleagues about what you’re working on and find out about their projects. Be straightforward and factual about what you’ve achieved and what you hope to do next; you should never make out that you know everything and aren't there to learn, but neither should you be self-deprecating or overly modest.
Don’t underestimate the power of your network to talk you up. It can be tricky to draw attention to your own achievements without seeming to brag, but this isn’t a problem if someone else sings your praises for you. If somebody senior in your organisation tells the graduate recruitment team how brilliant you are, chances are they’ll listen.
For that matter, before your last day, double check with your line manager or the HR manager that they are happy to provide a reference to a future employer when the time comes.
Virtual internship tips: Take up opportunities to discuss your work and achievements with colleagues when they arise.
After making connections on LinkedIn, you could also post every so often about a project you have found interesting or a task you’re proud of completing – that way, your network can get an idea of the work you’ve been doing even if you don’t have the chance to tell them directly.
6. Take notes
To make the most of your internship experience on your CV and in future applications and interviews you’ll need to remember the detail of what you’ve done. Write this down straight away before you forget.
Key points to include in your notes are:
- what you worked on
- who you worked with
- training received
- skills learned/improved.
Make sure your notes include names (of people, projects, products, cases, training courses or software packages) and any relevant numbers, for example, that you worked in a team of three or reduced waste by 20%. Also note any feedback you receive, particularly praise.
Jot down any suggestions your colleagues make in order to help you progress in your career, such as contacts you could get in touch with or books you should read. Then get on with acting on these suggestions sooner rather than later. Your window of opportunity for following up on new contacts is limited (emailing someone saying ‘I met Jo Smith a year ago and she suggested I get in touch’ would sound pretty silly).
Follow us on Twitter @TjobsInterns.
Last updated: May 2021