What to Look for in an Internship

By Wendy Lalli

As a creative director and ex-recruiter I regard summer internships as invaluable experience for entry-level employees. When I’m considering hiring someone who is just out of school, knowing that they’ve been an intern while still attending classes tells me they have several positive qualities.  Here’s a rundown of those qualities in order of their importance: (1) They take themselves and their careers seriously, (2) They’re ambitious, (3) They’re energetic and (4) They understand that real life experience can teach you things you’ll never learn in a classroom.

But not all internships are equal.

Some internships, even if they’re at major agencies or prestigious corporations, may offer very little in terms of personal development. Others with smaller firms can provide you with unique opportunities to learn by “doing” that you’d never get in a larger company. Knowing this, how can you find the right internship for you?

Make it all about you.

Consider what you’d like to learn and how you’d like to learn it.  What skills do you want to have when you graduate that you currently don’t have or need more experience in?  Presumably, these are skills you know will be in demand now and for several years to come. This isn’t a minor point. While universities try to offer curricula based on the latest industry practices, change happens so rapidly that ensuring courses continue to be relevant can be very challenging. Plus, a professor may be teaching communications today the same way he or she taught it before the advent of mobile marketing, social media and other industry-wide developments.

Create your own internship program.

Internships can help you fill in the gaps between your academic knowledge and how marketing is currently being practiced. But you may have to use a little initiative to get what you need and want.

For example, if part of your internship duties is to proofread blogs written by product managers and marketing writers, ask if you can try writing one of your own. Even if you’ve never researched or written a blog before, your proofreading duties should give you an idea of how it’s done.  Offer to write on your own time if necessary. If your supervisor agrees to your request, ask them or the product managers or other writers you’re working with if they can suggest topics that would be most useful for the company.  You have nothing to lose from this effort and a lot to gain. If your blog is published on the company web site, it’ll be a great addition to your portfolio. And asking for help from product managers is a great way to deepen the relationships you have with other professionals. If the blog is well-received, you may be asked to do more – on company time!

Turn your boss into your mentor.

After you’ve been on the job long enough to have an idea of who does what, ask to have a short conference with your supervisor. Tell your him or her that you want to do as much as you can to help the department so you’re volunteering to work on your own time if there are projects that would be suitable for your skill sets. Make it clear that you want to get the most you possibly can get out of your internship experience by learning on the job, and add that you’re willing to make this effort in addition to the work you’re already doing.  Perhaps you could help with internal communications, social media postings, pro bono projects for charities, and so on.  This will enhance your book and, again, give you an opportunity to develop a closer rapport with your boss and other team members.

Be a big fish in a smaller pond.

If you intern at a smaller agency or firm you usually have more opportunities to do real assignments like blogging, posting, preparing ad campaigns, brainstorming on projects and more.  The fewer people available to do the work, the more work each one of them will probably get to do.  Whether you’re being paid or not, treat this position as if it was your first paid job. Because Internships, especially with smaller firms, are often auditions for future hires. If you do well as an intern, you may be offered a full time position on staff after graduation.

Socialize up and down the food chain.

As an intern, you’re considered part of the company team even if you’re only there for a few months. Take advantage of your insider status and try to get to know ALL your coworkers, not just your fellow interns. If some of the group meets after work on Friday nights for an end of the week drink, ask if you can join them. They’ll probably be delighted to include you but if, for some reason, it turns out to be a private party, take it in stride. Wish everyone a happy weekend and try to connect with people who are more welcoming.

Bring in some cookies or doughnut holes from Dunkin’ Doughnuts for the group one morning and send an internal email telling folks where they are. Remember, making friends out of professional contacts is the most productive form of networking, and feeding people is a great ice-breaker.

Take your contacts with you when you leave.

One of the biggest benefits you’ll enjoy as an intern is the opportunity to build your network. But this only applies if you know the names, phone numbers and email addresses of your colleagues. A day or two before your last day, stop by the desk of everyone you’ve met to say good-bye in person. Ask for their personal email address as well as that with the company and their cell phone number. Also ask permission to LinkIn with them. That way, you’ll still be able to reach them even if they leave the company for another job. On your last day, send a short, sincere email thanking everyone on staff and giving them your contact information.

Hope you find these suggestions helpful.

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