The best-ever advice for those who are nervous about starting an internship

It all began in early October with the first career fairs. You entered the room(s), all bright-eyed and optimistic and began handing out your resume to visiting companies like Santa handing out coal to the naughty children. Flash forward to late-Autumn and you’re in the midst of interviews of all flavor profiles and genres: first and second round, on-site, Skype, phone, pogo stick–and more that haven’t even been dreamt of.

Now, you’re more than likely days or weeks from starting your job, and the pressure and nervousness and questions and uncertainty are rising.

You probably feel like you don’t know everything you need to to be successful. You might be unsure about how to stay organized in a new setting. Maybe you’re just not yet confident in your abilities.

Having had two internships–I’ve had my fair share of uncertainty. I got my first internship–an engineering internship–when I had only taken one engineering course and no statistics. My second–in supply chain management–after having had only one Supply Chain course. Both times, I was nervous about forgetting things or making a mistake.

In each case, I was trying to impress the company and in each case, it seems that I did. So. In all that time, I’ve had the chance to compile some advice for those who are on the cusp of their first internship and for those intern old-hats who need a reminder of just how awesome they are.

1) Ask questions

You’re new. You don’t know where the bathroom is (but kinda have to go). The copier isn’t cooperating with you and you can’t figure out how to reserve a conference room for your 10am meeting tomorrow. You’re not the first one to run into these issues and you surely won’t be the last.

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Thing is, others in the office know how to do all of those things and are more than willing to show you how. Just ask questions! Also, look for some kind of onboarding guide for that. Many companies have booklets with basic instructions on how to do the mundane things of the job that can help ease your transition. If they don’t, document your experience and make it–it’s useful for them to have and can really impress the company.

2) Get to know people outside your work area

So you’re working in the marketing department? That’s awesome! Congrats on your internship. Thing is, as a marketing professional in training, you’re going to be interacting with people from supply chain and engineering and finance on the daily.

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It’s a great idea to go ahead and introduce yourself to key people in those areas so you have someone in your camp to turn to should you have any questions. Beyond that, talking outside of your department can give you a holistic look at the company. One good question to ask is “as a worker in [my department], what can I do to work better with your department?”

Some companies will ask you to set up meetings with those key people as part of your internship. If not, take the initiative and do it yourself!

3) Understand that you’re not expected to be a subject matter expert

During my first internship, I was thrown into a meeting with our German supplier on the second day to discuss faulty parts. I knew nothing about what they were talking about. I’m sure I took more notes than I needed to take because I didn’t know what to write down.

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But what they don’t expect you to know is everything about your major. You’re probably a rising junior or senior. Think about all you don’t know. What this is is a chance for you to put what you do know to practice and to gain skills and exposure to new things you can use later in life. Just remember that.

4) Be polite

Remember, you’re more than likely under review for being hired full-time after your internship. Before, during and after, you should try to be on your best behavior. Be professional. That’s not to say that you can’t relax a little and have a little fun with your co-workers. But it does mean that you should try to keep that in the back of your mind.

Even if you aren’t going to be hired full-time. The company and the people in it just invited you into their place of work. You’re essentially a form of guest into their space–and it’s simple common courtesy to be polite to everyone.5) Connect with higher-ups

As an intern, you’re in the unique position in that everyone will be more willing to help you since you’re still a college student. This is your chance to LinkIn with people high up in the company and to introduce yourself if you can. Some people have gotten mentors out of those encounters, so don’t be so quick to downplay the power of just saying hi.

6) Find a way of staying organized and stick with it!

Agendas are nice when you’re in school. But in the work world they might not be the best solution available. Some people keep a small notebooks, some use their phone or some combination of complicated and non-complicated tools. Either way, once you find what works for, stick with it.

Personally, I use something called a RAIL, which stands for Rolling Action Item List. It’s a chart that give the assigned date, the due date, the completion date, and the actual item. I print a sheet out and add things to it as I’m given assignments. When I finish it, I cross it off. Simple.

If you’d like to download a copy of my RAIL to use for yourself, click here.

7) Have fun!

If you’re lucky, you’re going to be interning in a city you’ve never been to before. Take the time to explore the city. If there are other interns, get them together and go experience this new city! Life is more fun with cohorts, so don’t be afraid to build yourself a new family. And don’t forget to enjoy the internship.

8) Stand behind the operator

In the world of manufacturing, whenever we had someone new or a visitor who would visit the plant floor, we would tell them to stand behind the operator. The reason we tell them this is because the operator knows his or her machine better than anyone. If something were to go wrong, it’s easier to follow what they do and do so yourself than if you were beside the person.

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Likewise in the office, your manager knows the culture better than you do. Be observant, note how he or she interacts with coworkers, bosses, and those he or she is in charge of. It’s one of the best ways to learn how the culture of the office works.

9) Short emails rule

Granted, some of the first emails you will send will be a little longer, since you’ll be introducing yourself. But the majority of email I send at work have neither a greeting or a signature. They’re continuations of a preexisting conversation. In those cases, the niceties of email just get in the way.

Contrary to the etiquette taught in college, people are busy. And short emails rock.

10) Research on your own

Yes, you’re new. Yes, you aren’t going to be able to find all of the information you need and you’re going to have to ask where to find things from time to time. But don’t get too dependent on your manager to provide you with information. After a while, you’re going to have to remember where the sources are and start keeping your own record of sources.

While it doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally need to ask your manager to back you up on something, it does mean that you should try to get data independent to ease the load on those in charge of you and so that you can provide useful effort soon.

11) When the going gets slow, help others

This might vary from office to office. But as long as your manager is ok with it, if you run out of things to do you can offer to help someone else. Not only will this give you another perspective on life in the company, but it will also give you a mental break from whatever it is you’ll be working on.

An added bonus, if you do a good job, you’ll have more people in your court later in life.

12) Don’t just jump to conclusions

Businesses are data-driven. Hunches are nice, but they won’t get anyone’s attention unless you have some facts and number to back them up. Especially as an intern, when your experience is low (see number 3) you need to have analysis and stats to back up your claims. That’s one of the most important lessons I learned as an intern and can really be a huge boost to your perceived impact.

Remember to always try to have some kind of supporting data.

BONUS) You know that thing that’s called “being an intern?” Yeah, you can totally do that thing!

I know, the nerves are real. There are so many variables floating around in your head and so many things left to do. But I can guarantee you one thing: this summer will be fantastic. You’re going to learn so many lessons you wouldn’t have been able to learn if you hadn’t taken the job, and you’re going to leave with fond memories of the company and your city.

Remember that you’re not expected to make millions of dollars of impact–you’re there to learn and help them learn. Who knows? You might just find out it’s perfect for you.

Now break a leg out there! But not literally.

Cover image by Alyssa Smith

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