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8 Steps To Being Successful In Your College Internship

A college or university internship helps grow your professional understanding and competencies of a particular area of industry while also developing your social and personal development as a career professional. For many students, internships are a leading factor in helping decide their career path after college, either confirming their current major decision or influencing a potential change towards a career that better aligns with their goals and values in life.

In this article, we get stuck into the steps you should take to be successful in your college internship and how to create a professional development plan that is clear, concise, and measurable.

STEP 1: Reflect On What Excites You About Your New Internship

Before you start your internship, it’s important to reflect on the interview(s) and conversations you had with your employer during the hiring process. What excited you about the role? Who did you meet during your interviews that you’d like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with your first week on the job? Reflecting on what you’re excited to learn more about, people to network with or processes, programs, or trainings you’d like to complete during your internship will serve as the basis of your professional development plan.

STEP 2: Start Researching People You’re Going To Work With

LinkedIn is a fantastic tool for finding jobs but it’s also a vast database of many career professionals across the world. Likely, the folks you’ll be working with in your new internship are on LinkedIn. Before you start your internship, consider reaching out to your future colleagues. You can simply request to follow them or send a full connect request (there is a difference between following and connecting with someone on LinkedIn) with a custom note saying how excited you are to be coming on as an intern with the company.  Doing a little research on your future colleagues helps you better understand where they went to school and what jobs they’ve held previously. This will help in casual conversation as you’re working with folks. You can also ask questions about their previous experience and trainings when you meet for informational interviews. Such as “I saw you completed the Google Career Certificate in Marketing on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear more about this experience, how was it?”. Even simple questions can be the basis of robust and fruitful conversations.

STEP 3: Meet With Your Manager In The First Week

Likely, the first week of your internship will be filled with countless meetings, HR orientation and presentations and trainings with other interns. The goal of the first week is simply to meet people, learn more about the role and organization and of course, meet with your manager. In this first week, it is important to establish a sense of professionalism with your manager by showing up to your first meeting ready and prepared to talk about your internship goals and what you hope to achieve. Doing step 1 and 2 will help in making sure you know what your goals are and how other folks in the organization can be a resource for you. Filling out a professional development plan can be a great way to ensure you and your manager are on the same page in regard to your internship goals.

STEP 4: Create S.M.A.R.T. Goals

The S.M.A.R.T. goal method is a simple way to help you create and follow an action plan that leads to your desired result using a consistent framework. For students and interns, it’s the perfect way to commit to a plan and achieve your goals vs. just meandering through your internship without a clear direction. S.M.A.R.T. stands for:

  • Specific: What is it you want to accomplish?
  • Measurable: How do you know this goal has been accomplished?
  • Achievable: Is it possible to reach this goal within your timeline?
  • Relevant: Is the goal worth working hard to accomplish?
  • Time-based: Is there a clear timeline or deadline for accomplishing this goal?

SMART goals

For example, let’s say you want to learn a new skill in your internship as it pertains to a project you’re working on. Let’s say it’s Java, a very common computer programming language. You might create a S.M.A.R.T. goal around learning Java like this:

Specific: I want to learn Java to help me contribute to a project I am working on during my internship.

Measurable: I will complete a LinkedIn Learning course and earn a certificate in Java.

Achievable: I have dedicated 2 hours a week on my calendar to complete this training, I believe I can commit to this.

Relevant: This goal is relevant to my internship and my professional development for future opportunities.

Time-Based: I plan to complete this certificate in the first 30 days of my internship.

As opposed to having a general, lofty goal of “learning Java” you now have a very detailed action plan for why this is important to you, how you can achieve it and how you can use this skill in your career. If you create S.M.A.R.T. goals with your manager, then there will a deepened level of clarity around what you want to achieve in your internship and why that matters to you.

STEP 5: Keep Track Of Your Progress

Don’t wait till the hour before you meet your manager for your individual check-in to consider how your internship is going. Keep track (I personally use an Excel document) of your tasks, accomplishments, challenges, and what areas of your internship you are needing help from your manager with. I advise you set up your Excel document with these tabs so you have a clear way of tracking projects and anticipating problems you should raise with your manager early. Attending supervision sessions with your manager having your progress tracker filled in is a great way to talk about your internship formally and professionally vs. just saying “yeah, all is going well, great internship”. Particularly if things are not going well, you want specific examples of what isn’t working, why you think it’s been a challenge and how you and your manager together can work to create solutions to problems. A good manager will partner with you in your success, so be sure you are showing up ready, eager to learn, and prepared for your progress check-ins.

STEP 6: Learn How Your Manager Can Support You

If you are new to the professional scene, which most interns are, not all managers are created equal and not all of them have the time and energy to care about your career as much as you do. In your first few meetings with your manager, learn how they can best support you. From introducing you to people across the company, teaching you individual skills or perhaps just simply encouraging and empowering you to do well, see how your manager likes to manage and play to their strengths. If you do get saddled with a absent or unhelpful manager, consider talking with your university or college career office and see how they can help you navigate the situation. If you don’t have one at your school, try talking to other interns at your company to see if their managers can be a better support option for you. Lastly, get a mentor.

STEP 7: Get A Mentor

A mentor and manager are not the same thing. A manager is specific to the job and organization you are currently employed with, while a mentor is someone that is independent from your role or company and acts as an advisor or coach providing expertise and professional knowledge from a more experienced perspective. At the core of the relationship, mentors are available to mentees to offer advice, provide support and answer questions. Particularly as an intern, you might still be very open to exploring different industries and roles, so having mentors to help with your career growth will open your way of thinking and doing things more broadly then having just a manager. As a mentee in a mentor/mentee relationship, your primary role is to listen and learn from someone more experienced than you. Not to say your own personal thoughts, opinions and experiences don’t matter, but the purpose of mentorship is to learn from others.

STEP 8: Get Social

The last step in being successful in your college internship is getting social! Remember, your internship is a time of exploration, growth, and learning and what better way to do that then to connect and network with the folks around you who are experts in their areas?! Be intentional with your social hours at work such as coffee chats or lunch dates. The most unexpected and helpful advice or guidance you might receive throughout your internship might come from folks outside your team so consider who you want to reach out to for additional one to one time and why. Coffee breaks and lunches are the easiest to organize for in-person internships, but you can also ask folks for their time over Zoom or Microsoft Teams if your internship is hybrid or virtual. Get on people’s calendars early and often, it shows your manager you are taking initiative not just in your job but in learning and developing in your career and field too.