If you’re savvy enough to have landed a highly coveted internship, then congratulations. Internships are increasingly competitive — and important, says Jeff Selingo, author of “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.”
“The more experience you have in a work environment, the better off you’re going to be after college in terms of getting a job," says Selingo. “It’s more important than ever to have at least one internship, because increasingly employers are only hiring college graduates from their internship pools.”
But getting a foot in the door doesn’t guarantee it won’t slam shut on your big toe. Selingo offers his advice on how not to squander a golden opportunity so that temporary internship turns into a full-time gig.
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The advice we often hear about getting hired is simply to find a way to stand out. But that can be tricky for interns whose jobs entail getting coffee or making copies.
People who do what is assigned to them, with seriousness, those people are going to get additional responsibilities, and they’re going to get noticed, especially if they show some initiative. You have to be humble. I think if you take the early assignments seriously, they would give you additional responsibility.
There’s a fine line between taking initiative and overstepping your bounds. How can interns avoid crossing it?
You really need to study and gauge the culture of a place so that you’re not tone deaf to what’s going on. You need to think, "What value can I provide that would be helpful to the organization?" It’s really about understanding the culture of a place, and picking those lower-level things off your boss's plate.
What are some mistakes you see first-time interns making on the job?
Too many college students think that they should be running the place, sometimes as an intern. They think that they have the best ideas, and they don’t take what they consider menial assignments seriously. That doesn’t leave their managers or bosses with a good taste in their mouth.
We do see those rare unicorns who get amazing leadership roles right out of college, though. The fact that most of us have to pay our dues can be hard to accept.
My advice always to young people is that patience is an incredible virtue early in your career. In researching this book, as I interviewed people in higher level positions, I always asked them, “How did you get to where you are?” What’s interesting to me is that there’s always a turning point early in their career where they were patient, and literally within six months to a year, something turned for them.
How can career changers or older interns who’ve already had workplace experience stand out?
You need to separate what you’ve done from what you’ve learned. Think about how what you’ve learned contributes to your soft skills. Jobs, today, essentially look for the same skills over and over again. They look for people who can communicate, written and verbal. They look for problem-solvers. They look for organizational skills. So look at the skills set someone is looking for, and think about how what you’ve learned and how you’ve learned it can contribute to that skills set.
What should you do if you had a great supervisor and internship experience, but didn't get hired?
Definitely maintain that relationship. I have a personal story about this. I interned at U.S. News & World Report right after college. I really wanted to get hired there, and I didn’t. But one of the mentors of my life continued to work there. I kept in touch and over time, it became less about trying to get a job there and more about helping with career advice. Just because you don’t get hired at a place doesn’t mean that place, or somebody there, can’t be helpful. Especially if that person is in a particular industry, they can help you make connections and help you network.
So if you don’t get an internship, are you doomed?
You have time. The fact of the matter is that two-thirds of students don’t find that job right of college. You could find other post-graduate experiences that are more short-term. The advice is that just because you don’t have a job coming out of college does not mean it's the end of the world.
In the meantime, manage your own learning so that you’re constantly investing in your human capital. Increasingly there’s a new learning economy [MOOKS, online tutorials] that’s emerging beyond what we think of as traditional education.