College extracurricular activities and getting good grades are important, but one of the most important things that employers want to see on recent graduates' résumés is internship experience. It shows a familiarity with the work world and the start of a professional track record that nothing else can substitute for. But simply doing an internship or two isn't enough; you also need to impress while you're there -- and how to do that isn't always intuitive when you're new.
If you're one of the many college students preparing to start a summer internship next month, here are eight pieces of advice most managers wish students arrived knowing already.
1. Working an internship is different from being in school. The rules and expectations for a job are different from what you might be used to in the classroom. In an internship, your work will impact people other than yourself, which means it needs to be done well and done on time -- whereas in school, slacking off only impacted you. Additionally, expectations and accountability tend to be higher, and employers tend to prefer employees who fit into their business culture (unlike in school, where individuality is often rewarded).
2. This really does go on your permanent record. Part of the reason you're doing an internship is to begin establishing your work track record, professional reputation and professional network. The people you're working with are the people who are going to vouch for you to other employers in the future. That permanent record you heard about in high school that never really seemed to materialize? Now it starts for real.
3. You might not use skills you learned in school and that's normal. Particularly if you're a liberal-arts major, much of what you learn in college is about teaching you how to think, rather than hard skills that you'll use on the job. If you go into an internship expecting it to relate directly to the classes you took, you might be disappointed. Instead, see it as an entirely new class, and don't be shocked if it doesn't reference too much from your academics. (On the other hand, you might find that it does build on your classes; it depends both on your line of study and on your internship.)
4. In fact, some things in your internship might be the opposite of what you learned in school. For instance, college often rewards lengthy explorations of a single topic. In the work world, shorter is nearly always better. Your manager will probably want you to quickly get to the point -- providing the upshot and a few key points, rather than a lengthy paper. Another way work can be different is that in school you're often encouraged to pick a point of view and argue for it. At work, you'll be expected to consider each side of an issue thoroughly and make a recommendation that accounts for the complete picture.
5. Part of the point of an internship is to get exposure to how things work in an office and in your field specifically. Interns sometimes think that the learning component of an internship is confined to their specific projects. But often, far more learning happens simply by being in the office where you're interning.
6. Effort is nice, but it's not what matters. It's great to try your best, of course, but it's not the main measure by which your work will be judged. The quality of your work and the results you get are what matter most at work, not how hard you worked to produce them.
7. Getting feedback now will be less painful than getting it later. Part of the point of most internships is to learn how to function in an office and that can mean a painful learning curve as you get used to a set of different norms. It can be embarrassing to be corrected on things like not paying attention in a meeting or using text-speak with a client, but it's far better to get this feedback now as an intern -- while the stakes are lower than they'll be once you're a regular, full-time employee.
8. Your internship gives you access to a network of people in the field you want to work in. Take advantage of it. Too often interns just quietly do their work and then end their internship without ever getting to know people in that organization. Instead, get to know the people you work with and build relationships with them. Talk to them about what they like and don't like about their jobs, what they wish they knew at the start of their careers and what you're hoping to do after graduation. Most people will be happy to have these conversations with you and stay in touch after you return to school, but you need to put in the effort to make it happen.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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