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Advice for a Past Intern: Top 10 Things I Wish I Knew Back Then

August 31, 2012

By Dave Ellis

I read a few posts recently, with poignant advice, the gist of which covered “Top 10 Things I Wish I Knew In College.” If I was the author on that subject, however, I would have included a good hangover cure in the list!

The subject got me thinking about some questions I get from intern candidates. It seems some good advice could help them become more successful in their internships.

In my case, each of my internships was fun in its own way, and definitely helped me define my career path. Looking back, however, I wish back then I could have looked ahead… the proverbial “I wish I knew then what I know now”.

If I could go back, what advice would “Present Day Dave” give to “Past Internship Dave” in order to get so much more out of his internship experiences?

In no particular order, I’d tell him:

1. Have FUN!

It’s an internship… not a test to decide the rest of your life! You’re meeting new people. You get paid (in most internships) to learn! You’re starting an exciting new chapter in your life. Find a way to enjoy the challenge!

2. Keep in Touch

An internship loses much of its value if you don’t stay in contact with the people you meet. Sure, the position looks good on your resume. But don’t lose the personal connections. You’ll find them very important in the future. Good rule of thumb: make contact with mentors at least every three months.

3. Someone Is Always Watching

Sing along to the tune of Santa Claus is Coming to Town: “They know when you’ve been tweeting; they know when you’re on break. They only hire the very best, so be good for goodness sake!”

In many companies you have a very good chance to be hired as a full-time employee after your internship. But every day you have to prove yourself; and every day you’re being tested. Every detail – your attire, the quality of your PowerPoint presentations, and your attitude – is being evaluated. Every… Day.

4. Make Mistakes

This is an internship… internships are where you make mistakes, and learn from them. As an intern, you’re not in a high-profile enough position to destroy your career or the company with a mistake or two. So if you have good ideas and ambition, take some calculated risks! Remember I said “calculated”… trying not to get caught photocopying your butt doesn’t qualify!

5. Work Like You Already Have a “Permanent” Position in the Company

Realize that this organization saw something in you that stood out above all the rest of the (possibly hundreds) of candidates who applied. Show up to work every day with confidence. You were chosen and you belong there. On more than one occasion I’ve heard interns refer to themselves as “just an intern”.

No – you’re more than that! Act like it!

6. Find a Mentor at Every Internship

In your internship you’re surrounded by great people who have a lot more experience. Why re-invent the wheel and learn everything from scratch? Make a connection with someone who has the skill set you want to develop. Emulate their strong points and learn everything you can from them. This will speed your professional development immensely.

7. Start Building You, Inc.

In the quasi-immortal words of Allen Iverson…“practice!”. An internship is your time to start building your personal brand; to discover what you love to do. Focus on those skills and hone them to perfection.

8. Develop Your “Transferable Skills”

The industry in which you intern may not be your future career path. But many skills you learn will be useful in any job, and in any industry.

My first internships with Minor League Baseball teams have nothing to do with internet start-ups. However, the marketing experience and skills gained with those teams – the analysis projects; the PR and promotions writing – would become an invaluable foundation for Internship Dave’s future career at start-up companies.

9. Stand Up For Yourself

Not all employers manage an internship program well. But you remember this: an internship is NOT slave labor. If you’re being treated badly, speak up! You’re there to help the company and to learn business skills; not just to get coffee for the boss.

10. Network!

You’ve likely heard this one before so I won’t belabor the point. It’s so important though that I couldn’t overlook it. Whether online, within your company or throughout the industry, make and nurture professional connections. This is likely to become one of your most valuable skills throughout your entire career.

So there you go, Past Internship Dave! Take this advice from your future self – and you’ll get farther ahead, faster. And you’ll avoid a lot of the career bumps you will otherwise encounter.

Oh, and believe it or not… a few years from now, in 2004… the Red Sox win the World Series, and Apple’s stock will skyrocket after they create this thing called an “iPhone”. Bet on it.

About the Author: Dave Ellis is an original member of the YouTern team and instrumental to its success… in fact, he’s so awesome there wouldn’t be a YouTern without him (and he might have written this bio himself). Dave serves as YouTern’s Community Manager and Content Manager, and enjoys his role as the company’s overall “Man Behind the Curtain”. In his spare time, Dave volunteers, rescuing and rehabilitating sea lions and baby elephant seals. Connect with Dave on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter!

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