Tips for a Successful Internship

Troy Behrens

Troy Behrens, executive director of the Hegi Family Career Development Center, offers his keys to summer internship success. E-mail your career questions to

Dear Troy,

Summer is a busy time for students: It’s internship season! What are the best ways to maximize a three-month internship? What are the do’s and don’ts, and the best practices?

Tricia at The Guildhall at SMU

Dear Tricia,

As students embark on their summer internships, they will hear many words of advice regarding how they should act, think and dress on the job.

I’m going to give you my 16 sure-fire keys to internship success –– pearls of wisdom from 10 years of experience in recruiting, hiring, training and promoting interns in Corporate America. The students who had these 16 keys mastered before their internships made wonderful impressions and the most of their summers.

Never embarrass your boss.

Never accept an assignment you can’t complete, never criticize your boss in front of others, and never act so negatively that your boss gets phone calls from people complaining about you.

Keep your boss informed.

This will help you avoid those embarrassing situations and taking on too much work, and will help you maintain a proper training pace.

Offer solutions, not problems.

When asked to do something, think about how many different ways you can solve the problem. Never complain about the job and whine about how difficult or boring it is.

Be consistent.

Predictability in the workplace is comforting to those who don’t know you well but work with and supervise you. They need to be able to predict how you would perform or react in certain situations, especially when they are not present. The more confident people are with your consistency, the more responsibility they will bestow upon you.

Do what is asked and close the loop.

When you finish a job, let everyone who was a part of the project know you are done. How did you do it? When was it completed? What is the next step?

Work hard.

This means start early, leave late. Have passion for what you do. Think creatively. Shoot for high quality. Stay focused on your task. Manage your time so you can have your work checked and rechecked before you turn it in.

Learn your boss’s expectations.

Ask questions about what your boss likes and doesn’t like from other employees, and then do what he or she likes. Try to anticipate what your boss will want, so he or she doesn’t have to ask for it.

Make your boss look good.

Your No. 1 priority as an intern is to master your job and make your boss look good. That is why you were hired.A stellar job will benefit your boss, your department and, ultimately, you. If you do a stellar job, you will be complimented by customers or colleagues ­­–– but the compliment won’t be about you as much as about the boss, co-workers and company that trained you. They helped you look good by teaching you how to be a great employee, and as a great employee, you help them look good. It is the circle of business and internship success.

Respect your boss’s authority.

Your boss is your supervisor for a few reasons. He or she most likely is experienced, has an advanced degree in the field or climbed the corporate ladder from the ground up. When a boss asks or commands you to get something done, do it with no complaining, whining, guff or defiant questioning. Sometimes interns who are fresh out of school get caught up trying to prove how much they know.

Be available.

Have an open-door policy; allow people to walk in and talk to you about work and just to say hello. Always answer your phone and return voice and e-mail messages promptly. Being available also means you should offer to help colleagues when you have spare time.

Accept criticism and negative feedback.

Getting feedback from a supervisor or a co-worker that is less than flattering is not pleasant. Nobody likes to hear about shortcomings and failures. So how should you handle it?

First, listen and keep your mouth closed. Concentrate on letting your critic tell you what is wrong. It might be difficult to sit back and just listen, but getting into an argument to defend your ego is the last thing you want to do!

Second, repeat what you heard this person say. It will help you avoid misunderstanding what was said, and it will help you validate this person. For example, say: “Sally, what I’m hearing you say is that you think my planning for this meeting was unorganized because I didn’t have a large room reserved. If I would have asked you a few days in advance, I would have known that 20 extra people had signed up to attend. Is that right?”

Finally, learn from the situation. If Sally told you to tune up your organizational skills, ask her for specifics and how she thinks you can avoid getting into a similar mess in the future. Take the criticism and change the behaviors that made it happen. Remember, the worst thing about making a mistake is not learning from it!

Take ownership.

Regardless of what happens, you have to be front and center with your head held high when called upon to explain any situation. NEVER, EVER pass the blame for something that has gone wrong. On the flip side, try not to hog all the credit for things that go well. That is partly what it means to take ownership. It also means that you should monitor your progress, manage your workload and push yourself to 100 percent –– if you don’t care about your job, who will?

Reduce your need for supervision.

Did you ever notice that people who complain about a boss “always riding my butt and breathing down my neck” are usually the same people who turn in shoddy work and are in late and out early? Well, need I say more?

A hard-working, mature intern will not have a supervisor who micromanages her every move because she has demonstrated a great work ethic and has gained her supervisor’s trust. Most managers don’t enjoy holding either interns’ or workers’ hands.

Play it straight.

This is a simple rule to follow, and it is probably the most important. What it means: Never lie, cheat, steal, give false information, cover up an error, hide the truth, avoid criticism or cover for someone who has done something wrong. Once you lose your reputation for being honest, it is VERY difficult to regain co-workers’ respect. If you lack their respect, it will be difficult to remain on board with that company. So always tell the truth. Speak openly and honestly about uncomfortable issues with the intent to resolve problems.

Do more than you are asked.

In his book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, Mark McCormack reminds us that we should take everything we do so seriously that our job security might depend upon it.He says we should write memos with the intent to dazzle our co-workers. We should pretend our company’s CEO will evaluate everything we do.When we’re done with a project, he says, we should ask ourselves: “Is this project ready to be reviewed by our CEO, and am I ready to stake my job on the quality of the work I’ve done?” If you answer “NO” to this two-part question, you are not doing more than you were asked. Doing more than you were asked means providing extras to your job that make it that much better for those working with you. It also means that if you have spare time, you should pitch in and help others before they have to ask for assistance.

Accept assignments willingly.

Simply stated, you should accept your job assignment with a smile and positive attitude. It is OK to ask what the assignment is intended to do or why you are asked to do it –– but for the purposes of a long-term perspective, not as a complaint. Some interns feel some assignments are beneath them or unnecessary. Asking how this job fits into a larger project is a great way to find out that your work means something and that you are not being asked to do grunt work.

Managers do not like people who respond to new assignments with answers such as, “I’m too busy,” or “Ask Sally to do it,” or “That sounds like a boring job!” You might be tested at your internship’s start to see how willing you are to take one for the team on a really tedious job. Getting it done on time and with a positive attitude will earn you responsibility and the trust of your boss and co-workers so you can start your climb up the corporate ladder.

Good luck this summer, and keep the questions coming!

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