Internships are everywhere in the nonprofit world, and these days seem to be one of the only ways to gain experience and find a job. Everyone has heard horror stories about the terrible internship; we all have them. However, it’s rare to talk honestly about what makes an internship work well. Cindy, a former professional intern and now a supervisor, and Hannah, a current professional intern and college senior, give some tips on how to make the internship a positive experience.
Top Ten Things Interns Do Well
1. Come to Your Interview Prepared.
The best first impression an intern can make is to be prepared for the interview. You don’t have to know all of the answers to life’s questions, but do a little bit of research about the organization, have some questions ready, and run through your list of strengths and weaknesses opportunities for growth. Always assume the first question will be: “Tell me about yourself.” What will you say?
I tend to have relatively informal interviews with interns, because rather than evaluating your “fit” for any particular job, I want to see that you’re committed, prepared to learn, and ready to work hard. But remember that no matter how informal the interview may seem, you are still being evaluated. Be on your best behavior: dress professionally, don’t swear, and shake hands with everyone in the room. Bonus tip: watch your body language!
2. Send Me a Thank You Note.
Either mail or email is fine, and a short note is fine - just send it. This tiny little thing that will take you 15 minutes will set you apart from every other candidate out there.
3. Take Notes.
It’s ok to whip out a pen and paper during the interview and in any meeting, even around the water cooler! This internship is for you to learn, and you should take away as much information as possible. Take notes on everything: the names of everyone you meet, the history of the organization, the steps to complete a task, even where the bathroom is. I feel much more confident in an intern’s abilities when I see them taking notes.
4. Ask Me What I Need Help With.
Even though we both prefer that you have an independent project to work on, sometimes you will have a lull and need something to do. This is a great time to get on my good side! Sometimes the best question I hear is, “Is there anything I can help you with?” Although I might have a task like filing or data entry for you, it’s nothing I wouldn’t do myself. And speaking of “menial” tasks…
5. Accept Filing and Data Entry as Learning Experiences.
Some of the best job experiences I’ve had started at the very beginning: filing, data entry, and being the receptionist. This is like being on the factory floor and seeing how all the pieces fit together to make the widget - I can’t manage the factory without getting dirty in the details first. As a manager now, I’m grateful for those experiences that taught me the importance of accuracy, record keeping, operations procedures, and quality customer service.
6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
Tell me what’s going on with your life – when you’re running late, when you have finals, when you’re worried about a project. The more honest you are with me (of course, in a professional manner), the better I can help to make your experience.
Ask lots of questions. There will be plenty that I will forget to tell you, especially once we start working together. Asking questions helps me provide context to you, gives you more details, and lets me know what you’re interested in learning about. If I seem busy or distracted, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. Ask for a separate time to sit down and then take advantage of it.
7. Double Check Your Work.
Time is on your side, but mistakes are not. Taking the time to proofread and double check your projects will ensure that I can focus on the more important aspects of your work.
8. Keep Writing.
I look for good writers in interns, because I can then trust you to write on our behalf. The best way to improve your writing is to keep practicing and to make sure every piece meets your highest standard of writing. Remember that every email is a writing sample - even a short one.
9. Ask for Feedback, and Give Feedback.
A few weeks before your internship is complete, ask to schedule some time for an exit interview. I try to provide this but not all supervisors think of it. This is a good time to celebrate the projects you’ve completed, ask for a reference, and - most importantly - provide feedback to each other.
This might be the hardest but the most beneficial for both you and your supervisor. Learning to receive feedback, and what you do with it, will help you prepare for when your future salary depends on it. Learning to give feedback is something I’m still working on. This can seem monumentally impossible when someone is your supervisor, but when done sensitively can gain your supervisor’s respect and help you stand out for when an opportunity presents itself.
10. Keep In Touch.
The end of the internship is just the beginning! I love hearing from former interns and what they are up to now. I usually also provide some unsolicited advice and contacts that can help you with your future work. I’ve had interns who return to work for me when the time is right, and others who I admire as they reach new heights! We’re your biggest fans and want to help you reach success as you define it.