How to be a Great Intern

(originally published in Asian Fortune September edition,

As another summer intern season draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the dozen or so interns from various academic institutions I have worked with and feel compelled to offer some tips for those who plan to use internships to enrich their experiences and make themselves more attractive to future employers.

It is no easy task to find a good internship these days. With so many adults competing for paid jobs, more and more students are turning to internships than ever before; it is thus all the more important to make the most out of your internship. Tough economic times can spell opportunities for student interns who are willing to take jobs with or without pay, because chances are you will be used as experienced professionals to work on challenging projects that organizations can no longer afford to hire full-time staff for.

Regardless of your educational backgrounds or skill sets, here are a few practical tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls and make the most out of your internship:

  1. Check your emails and voice mails. Once you give out your phone number or an email address on your resume, it becomes your responsibility to check them often so you don’t miss important messages for interviews. The fact that you don’t routinely use certain email accounts is no excuse because you will be performing adult tasks and will expect to be treated as one.
  2. Take the interview seriously, whether it is over the phone or in person. Check out the organization’s Web site before your scheduled interview, and prepare a few questions in advance that show you have done your homework and you value this opportunity.
  3. Follow up promptly. After the interview, make sure you send a simple thank-you note, email or hand-written, to either reiterate your interest in the internship or politely tell them you are no longer pursuing that opportunity. Having this habit will serve you well.
  4. Dress appropriately for work. Even during the summer time, when the dress code is a little more relaxed, it’s still wise not to wear jeans with holes, very short skirts, tank-tops, low-cut tops or flip flops to work, unless that’s the normal dress code for professionals too.
  5. Learn to follow verbal instructions. Students may find this challenging because they are more accustomed to written instructions from their teachers or professors in the forms of class syllabuses or textbooks. In the workplace, most of the instruction you will get is likely through verbal communication. You may consider taking notes while receiving verbal instructions to make sure you fully comprehend what the expectations are.
  6. Take initiatives and don’t wait to be told what to do. How much you get out of each internship experience depends on your level of initiative. I had interns who were so shy and passive it was easy to forget they were there, while others excelled because they expressed curiosity about certain subjects, asked thoughtful questions and sought to do more than their assigned tasks.
  7. Pay attention to little things that can make a big difference in people’s perception of you and your ability. Simple things such as formatting your Excel spreadsheets to make sure they print properly and making a PowerPoint more visually attractive go a long way. Don’t let these important details trip you up!
  8. Don’t be afraid of asserting your voice if necessary. Professionals who have been in the trenches doing the same things for years may not have the creative thinking or fresh perspectives you can bring to the table as a new generation that grew up with the Internet. The best interns are the ones who can offer extra value, like a better way to do certain things.
  9. Always strive to exceed expectations, and don’t settle for mediocrity. Treat each internship, paid or unpaid, as if your future career depends on it. Do a good job in every job you do, even if you don’t like the job.

Doing a good job in any internship carries over into your future opportunities, and an impressive reference from your internship supervisor is invaluable. Stay in touch with your former employers and periodically update them about your life and career moves. They may even be able to offer advice or connections. After all, an internship is really a process of self-discovery. What you learn about yourself always matters more than what you can possibly learn about any particular job or task.