How college students and grads can make the most out of their summer internship

How college students and grads can make the most out of their summer internship was originally published on College Recruiter.


If you are starting a summer internship you’re most likely very excited, but also nervous. Here we offer some expert advice from Dr. Robert Shindell, President & CEO of Intern Bridge and Pam Baker, Founder & CEO of Journeous. These experts want to help you get the most out of your internship. In our interview with them, we discussed how you should approach the program, how to overcome the trickiest parts of getting started, how to avoid some of the most common mistakes, and what you can learn from even a poor internship experience.

Watch the full half-hour interview with Shindell and Baker at

The best attitude to have going into an internship

The best way to enter into any internship is with a lot of curiosity. Pam Baker of Journeous emphasizes the value of everything you can learn from your role, the industry, the environment, and the people you work with. Another important way to enter any internship is with intentionality. Know what you want to get out of the experience and what you want to learn.

When it comes to an internship, it’s okay to be a little selfish. Dr. Robert Shindell of Intern Bridge recommends that you come up with a list of things you want. A useful acronym he encourages interns to apply is PLAN: Prepare for the journey, Launch into action, Adjust as you go, and Network with those who know. “The idea of preparing for the journey is that even before you start the internship or within the first week, you identify those selfish goals that you want to accomplish,” says Dr. Shindell.

To do this without overreaching, Dr. Shindell says it’s important to understand more about the organization. You should have done research during the interview stage, but don’t let it stop there. “Continue learning about the organization, your department, and your function there,” that way, Dr. Shindell explains, “you’ll be able to better Adjust as you go.”

Launching into action means to go at it with a positive attitude. Dr. Shindell warns, “Don’t just sit there and wait for things to happen, you have to be proactive and make the things happen.” Focus on the things on your list and go after them.

Do keep in mind, however, that things are never going to go as perfectly as you planned. This is what it means to adjust as you go. Dr. Shindell says, “be flexible and know that at some point during your experience you may have to just adjust on the fly.”

“Sometimes the best learning experiences happen when things don’t go as expected,” Baker adds. There is still a lot of value in negative experiences, because you learn the skills to handle them. In fact, if your internship goes as exactly as you planned, there was probably a missed opportunity in there somewhere.

Networking is critical. Seek out key individuals within the organization and make yourself known. Dr. Shindell says, “Just introduce yourself. Say, ‘Hi, my name’s Robert Shindell. I’m interning here this summer. I’m really excited about it and I would love to sit down with you and talk about the things that you do in your everyday life here at XYZ company.”

The trickiest thing about ramping up, and tips to make it easier

Dr. Shindell says that over 80 percent of students with internships have never worked outside of the home before. The most important thing to realize to overcome this lack of experience is to know that you are there because they want you there.

The company made a choice to hire you, and you should feel good about that. Dr. Shindell encourages interns by reminding them that the employer desires them to be there, so relax a bit. That initial transition into the work world can be scary. Dr. Shindell advises frustrated students to take a deep breath, and realize that you will be fine. You have support people there to help you grow your skill set. In fact, companies don’t expect you to know everything; they did not hire you for that. They hired you because you fit their culture, you have a talent or skill set that they’re looking forward to working with.

Baker advises interns to explore your network on LinkedIn or reading reviews on glassdoor. These tools will allow you to learn some of the unwritten rules within that company.

If an internship isn’t a great fit, there are benefits to continuing the program

Internships are rarely complete failures. Very rarely does Dr. Shindell see such poor behavior by a supervisor that it ruins the intern’s experience. Sometimes employers don’t created the right structure for the intern, and Dr. Shindell encourages students to remain connected with some faculty or someone within the career center at their university as a resource to talk to if things are going poorly.

But most of the time, if you feel it’s not going as well as you hoped, it’s not a lost cause. Baker recalls when her fourth grader asked, “Mom, do you know what it means to fail? It’s the first attempt in learning.” From your point of view, you may be experiencing what feels like a failure, but you are learning and growing. The best way to learn from a bad experience is by seeking out guidance. Ask how to deal with it, and learn from those who have had similar experiences.

The best way to learn from a bad experience is by seeking out guidance.

Disliking an internship is not necessarily a bad thing in the long run. Eliminating career possibilities that clearly don’t interest you anymore is satisfying. When you think about the world of opportunities, all the different wrong paths you could take, it’s good to shut a few doors.

Of course it’s great to have some doors that you want to keep open. You can do this even with a bad internship. If you are on good terms with your boss, you now have a good reference. You now better know how to communicate what you want, what you need, and what’s blocking you. Communication skills are one of the most needed and transferrable skills you can offer a future employer.

Related: Communication skills factor into who gets promoted

There’s much more to learn even if you’re not enjoying the internship. In her article The Power of the Lousy Internship, Baker gave some advice to a friend whose daughter was home from college and having a bad internship experience. She points out the value of learning the skill of problem solving, “She had a problem in front of her: no clear set of job responsibilities, along with access to people who could help her solve it: others on her team, her boss’s peers, and her own power of observation.  By asking a few key people what they were working on and where they might need some help, she had a chance to get busy on a project that could add value to a colleague – or perhaps someone more senior.”

Do not burn bridges even if you don’t like the industry and the company because your colleagues and supervisors will eventually move to a new company themselves. If you have a relationship with that person, then you have a leg up at whatever company they’re at.

Common intern mistakes 

One of the biggest mistakes an intern can make is come in to the job without a plan. Baker emphasizes the value of going in with a plan. Know what you are trying to get out the experience.

Another common mistake is exaggerating your skills on your resume. Baker says she has seen people come in with a resume that says they have experience in an area and consistently demonstrate that that is not true.

Sometimes, Dr. Shindell sees interns treat an internship like they treated their college classes but some habits don’t work as well in the work place. You might be able to show up 15 minutes late to just get notes from your neighbor, but that doesn’t go over well at work. You have to be on time and take it seriously.

Similarly, interns who don’t take the internship seriously enough may miss out on a job opportunity afterwards. Dr. Shindell sees many students who are confused about why they didn’t receive a job offer after completing the internship. At many companies there is some competition amongst the interns for who will receive a job offer , and Dr. Shindell sees many interns make the mistake of not realizing this and not getting themselves ahead of the others. You should develop your professionalism and do little things every single day that will separate you from the others.

Many interns struggle with finding a balance between taking enough initiative and not too much. When should you ask for help and when should you just give it your best shot? When should you stay in your lane and when should you try to contribute to other areas of the company? Baker says that “The people who can find a good balance; have the ability to observe, make decisions and take some initiative but not too much, are the one that are going to succeed.”

The people who have the ability to observe, make decisions and take some initiative but not too much, are the one that are going to succeed.

Finding this balance isn’t going to happen over one summer. Interns should not be afraid to ask their coworkers, others’ managers, other departments, or anyone in their network that they respect for help with finding this balance. Leadership consultant Cy Wakeman said “mentoring should be done by a crowdsourcing approach,” and Baker and Dr. Shindell agree with that. The advice of just one person is limiting, but if you seek guidance and feedback from many people you can compile it and get a broader idea of what to do.

Related: Build your leadership skills as an entry-level employee: Interview with Cy Wakeman

Learn how to articulate your new skills as you go through an internship

Dr. Shindell recommends asking yourself the following questions: “What did you actually do? How did you do those things? What were the projects that you worked on? How do you think you can use the skills you improved in the future? How do you think this impacts you five years from now?” Follow this simple model: Plan, Do, Reflect, Project. When you follow those steps, you will be able to understand the bigger picture.

Baker explains that the ability to translate your experiences into terms of soft or hard skills that you’ve gained from them can be eye opening. To be able to say, “I had this experience and this is why it matters to you, my potential future employer” is very valuable.

Dr. Shindell talks with his students about building careers like a brick building. “Those bricks are our life experiences and the translation is the mortar that holds the bricks together.” As students begin to piece those different concepts together, they build their wall of experience.

By College Recruiter
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