This semester I supervised more than 60 interns who completed experiences at national television networks, magazines, and nationally ranked public relations firms. Based on the employer feedback and intern evaluations, here are recommendations that will ensure your internship is meaningful.
1. Tackle all projects with gusto. Whether asked to flip through magazines looking for story ideas, fill the copy machine toner, or set up a conference room for a meeting, consider this a chance to stand out and show skills as a responsible and organized employee. Attention to detail (this may mean typo free clip reports or carafes filled with selections of regular and decaf coffee) and problem-solving ability can be showcased in many venues and forms. More intellectually challenging assignments won’t come unless you master administrative tasks.
2. Stay busy! Do not accept that business is slow and supervisors don’t have much work for you. Offer to help groups other than the team to which you are assigned. Just be sure to get approval to do so beforehand. Offer to reorganize a file system, archive old files or supplies, create editorial calendars, research new business prospects, compile case studies, or update media lists.
3. Take initiative. Employers frequently criticize interns for lacking problem-solving abilities or their unwillingness to be proactive in generating ideas. Come up with suggestions regarding how you can contribute to the organization.
4. Get a seat at the table during meetings or conference calls. Offer to create the agenda, take the meeting minutes, and write the call report to outline deliverables and discussion notes. Interns can learn a great deal of information by listening and taking good notes. Also, this is a key opportunity for interns to show managers their contributions to agency productivity by generating a document that helps the staff deliver results based on the meeting discussions.
5. Find a mentor. Even an informal mentor can help an intern chart a course to success. The mentor should be someone who is admired and respected by senior professionals in the organization. Try to emulate this person’s work ethic. Ask questions, schedule a weekly check in with the person to garner feedback and to help you trouble shoot issues as they arise. Be sure to show your appreciation for his or her time with a note or accolades to his or her supervisor for the outstanding guidance. And don’t forget to ask for a recommendation letter when the internship is over.
6. Don’t dress like an intern. Sure, you can’t afford to buy designer suits yet. However, in my years in the agency and corporate world the inappropriate clothing worn by interns has shocked me repeatedly. This is especially true for young women in the profession. Avoid flip-flops, Capri’s, mini skirts, cleavage, and tank tops. Dress conservatively. You want to be taken seriously as an adult and an intelligent professional. Wearing overly sexy or casual attire (even on casual Fridays or in casual offices) is a distraction. Inappropriate dress will hurt your quest for professional respect or a seat at an important client meeting or location shoot.
7. Remember that you are ALWAYS “on.” Part of the fun of being an intern is meeting and socializing with other interns and junior staff. But be careful. Keep drinking to a minimum, even at informal non-work related gatherings. You don’t want to earn a reputation for being a party boy/girl, but for being a smart, future full-time employee. Moreover, hangovers don’t mix well with the deadline-filled nature of public relations or other communication industry work.
8. Avoid gossip. Stay out of office politics. When supervisors or interns chat it up and discuss other co-workers, stay mum. Once you get involved in negative talk, it’s hard to avoid it in the future and can reflect poorly on you. In addition, you should be staying busy and not have time to waste on rumors, gossip, or other counter- productive chitchat.
9. Learn to take criticism. Hopefully most feedback is constructive and positive. However, some managers may present areas for improvement in a less than pleasant manner. Do your best not to take suggestions personally. Stay positive and be realistic regarding your areas for improvement. Never get defensive. No one wants to hire a junior person who is argumentative or unable to improve his or her work style. By learning to consider criticism as a learning mechanism, you will become a smarter professional.
10. Consider yourself an employee, not just an intern. Your bosses will remember you, and many companies hire star interns when positions become available. Never think of the position as a part-time gig or résumé builder. This may also mean working late or on weekends, working during your spring break, or missing some beach days in the summer. Your dedication and commitment will be recognized, if not with a future job than with a stellar professional reference.
11. Carry a pen and notebook everywhere. Use them to record assignments, questions, and to-do lists, and to reflect on the experience.
12. Get business cards and contacts from all supervisors and colleagues. Do it before the internship is over. That way, you can maintain these professional contacts in the future. Upon conclusion of your internship, send thank-you notes to everyone for whom you worked. Mention something specific they taught you and express your appreciate for their time spent working with you.
Employers overwhelmingly cite internships as an essential prerequisite for hiring entry-level candidates. Following these guidelines ensures you will shine as a potential future colleague. At the very least, you’ll have an amazing professional reference when you seek your next job.
Lorra M. Brown is an assistant professor of public relations/professional communication at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. She serves as the internship coordinator and advisor to the Student Public Relations Association. Prior to her faculty position, she held senior-level positions at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and Weber Shandwick Worldwide.