I’ve been an intern for quite a while now; paid, unpaid, class credit, I’ve done it all. I’ve enjoyed bouncing around to different companies each semester and picking up some basics of a few different industries. As I work through my last semester of college and my final stint as an intern, I’ve realized that I’ve learned quite a few things on the way and thought I would share.
Know your worth, but also be willing to make sacrifices to advance your career.
The unpaid internship is often seen as the bottom of the barrel for most of us, but don’t pass up good experience on the sole basis of money. Obviously there are a lot of things that go into your decision to apply for or accept an internship and money might be one of those things for you, but if you are fortunate enough to not need money for a semester and you find an awesome internship that happens to be unpaid, take it. And be ready to work like you are getting paid. Don’t phone it in; you’re there for the experience, not the money. You'll learn a lot about your industry, make some valuable connections, and also gain a bit of self-respect for being able to hack it through 6 months with limited funds.
To balance this, though, it’s also important to know your worth and to know the laws around compensation for interning in your state. If you’ve interned previously and/or have solid experience on your resume, know that you are worth more to your host company and should be treated and compensated (when possible) as such. As the low man on the totem pole, you don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room, but just because you are an intern doesn’t mean you are someone’s foot stool. Never take an internship where you’ll just be an errand person/coffee-getter/trash-taker. Even if you think a particular company will look good on your resume, I assure you that true experience will look (and feel) much better. If you can’t learn from it, let it go.
Speaking of learning, always be doing it.
The key to getting the most of out any internship is to always be learning. As a newcomer, there will inevitably be a lot you don't know, but as an intern you have the ability to constantly be observing and picking up new tricks. Keep a close eye on the tasks your coworkers and bosses do each day, how they do it, and ask if they can explain their process. If your host company allows it, hold on to how-to documents and guides. Write down the things you learn, even if it’s just for yourself. Writing through your knowledge can help solidify it in your brain.
One of the best pieces of career advice I've ever received was "don’t specialize." It's better to know a little bit about a lot of things than a lot about a few things, and being an intern (especially if you intern multiple times) gives you the opportunity to dip your toes into a variety of different industries and sectors. Keep your horizons broad and always be open to new things.
Own up to your mistakes.
As an intern, you’re going to make mistakes; as a human, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. You’re learning (as mentioned above). But keep in mind that your higher-ups will be the ones taking the heat for your mistakes from their higher-ups. Own up to your shortcomings whenever possible and never let someone else take the fall for something you did wrong. Accepting and understanding your snafus will help prevent them from happening in the future and make you a much better employee/person going forward.
Document your accomplishments.
Keeping a record of your responsibilities as well as your accomplishments is a must-do. These are things you should be adding to your resume to demonstrate what you have done and what you are capable of.
There are a variety of ways to showcase your work and talent depending on the work you do, but regardless of your field, you should absolutely have a LinkedIn profile and be as active there as possible. There are not only an incredible amount of connections to be made, but also groups to subscribe to and all sorts of reading materials to keep you at the top of your game. At the very least, LinkedIn is a great public place to share your professional profile and also helps you monitor yourself as you progress through your career.
Ask for feedback.
Asking for feedback from your coworkers and bosses is hands-down the most important thing to do throughout and after an internship. You don’t have to (and shouldn't) constantly ask for reassurance, but little checks throughout your term followed by a more in-depth conversation with your boss(es) at the end will provide you with a wealth of knowledge. Be sure to ask specific questions focusing on what you have done well and what you can improve upon. Be prepared for some constructive criticism and take notes. This is also a great time to use your new mentor(s) as a resource by asking career advice if that person is in a position you’re interested in. You can also ask for recommendations, discuss ideal career paths, and hopefully learn a bit about yourself. Asking about your performance shows that you care and are genuinely interested in how to better at your work.
All in all, interning is the very best thing I’ve done for myself in my college career. There are few other ways to get real life hands-on experience without “2+ years experience”. Be sure you’ve done your research on your host company. Look for information on past intern experiences, find reviews on GlassDoor, and ask lots of questions during the interview process. If you put thought and care into your interning process, you’ll certainly come out on top. Good luck!