How to Make a Good First Impression at Your Summer Internshi

Published: Jun 07, 2010

 Education       Grad School       

Let me put this bluntly: if you successfully secured an internship for the summer, you were one of the lucky ones. I doubt this is news to you; everyone has at least a few friends who applied everywhere imaginable without any success. So congratulations. Count your lucky stars, thank your appropriate deity and send your industry contact a nice bottle of wine. You did good.

Now all you have to do is be an intern. After all the grief you most likely went through to get the internship in the first place, it seems like the program itself should be a cake walk, right? Sadly, this is not the case. An internship can be a few different things. For some, it's a way to pass the time and get some office experience. For many, it's a chance to learn more about an industry and gain specific and useful professional experience. And for others, it's an extended job interview for a position after you graduate. In any case, it's worth a great deal for you to make a good impression from the get-go. The question is, how?

As an intern myself here at Vault, I realized that I had the perfect resource to answer just this question: Vault blogger, editor of the Vault Guide to Top Internships, and intern boss Carolyn C. Wise. I sat down with Carolyn and asked her a few questions about how to make the best possible first impression as an intern.

Carolyn C. Wise, senior education editor at Vault and author of the Vault Guide to Top InternshipsMadison Priest: First off, is there anything you would hope an intern would do before his or her first day, or do you just want them to show up on time?

Carolyn C. Wise: Well you can always contact the intern coordinator beforehand. The likelihood is that you've been in touch since the interview and he or she has already been preparing you to arrive, but it's certainly best to ask questions if there's anything you don't know about what you should wear, what time you should be there, whether there's any reading or prep work. It's also valid to ask what kinds of things you might be doing as an intern so you can get familiar with them. For example, if you might be writing Twitter feeds, then get on Twitter, get an account and learn what that's all about. That said, a lot of internship programs have training and orientation at the beginning, meaning that they understand that interns may be coming in with a clean slate. They train you on office etiquette; they teach you what you're going to be doing, how to handle all of the software on your computers, things like that. So if you know that there's a training program at the beginning of your internship, prep work is less necessary. The best thing is to arrive prepared, ready to learn and excited to be there.

MDP: You mentioned office etiquette. For somebody who has never had an office experience before, what tips would you give them?

CCW: The first thing I'd say is be nice to everybody. It doesn't matter if it's the receptionist or the CEO; you want to be nice and polite, and introduce yourself appropriately. You shouldn't go around introducing yourself to everybody necessarily because that could be annoying, but definitely familiarize yourself with your team.

You should also dress professionally. And in your correspondence, don't use inappropriate or unprofessional language. Always remember that everything you do on your work computer actually belongs to your employer, whether you're sending an email or writing an article.

MDP: So, in that first week, how should you go about making introductions to the people you're going to be working with closely?

CCW: Well, the likelihood is that if you're going to be working with someone closely, he or she will be introduced to you by your manager or your supervisor. In the first week, there's a lot of watching, a lot of figuring out who does what and whether you'd like to do that. Then once you've scoped out what different people in your office do, you can ask your manager, "Are we ever going to be working on any projects like X?"

You can also always go and strike up a conversation with someone outside of your department once you know something about them. For example, if you are interested in what the marketing department is doing, you can go into the office and say something along the lines of, "I read your newsletters and I think they're really great. I'd love to learn more about them. Do you have time for coffee?" That would be a great introduction.

Intern working hard during the first week of her internshipMDP: On a slightly different note, how much does an intern's performance in the first week or two influence the projects and opportunities available to them over the course of the summer?

CCW: Well, first impressions are always a big deal. That's just the way it is. So I think how capable you are and how well you handle your assigned tasks in the first week certainly influences what you will be doing later on. But it's a fine line because you don't want to be so good at making copies or coffee, scheduling appointments or taking notes that that ends up defining your experience for the rest of the summer. But if it does, you can always go to your internship coordinator and say that you'd like more challenging work. Be sure to keep that conversation light. I suggest that you make a joke out of it. For example: "Well, now that I've mastered the copy machine, I wondered if you have some other adventures that I could go on?" You definitely want to always put it in a positive light. You never want to complain, but you do want to bring your concerns to your manager's attention because the likelihood is he or she doesn't even realize what's happening.

MDP: What qualities do you look for in that first week to create a good first impression?

CCW: You look for professionalism--someone who can hold their own. I personally like to see independent work: whether someone can take on an assignment and figure it out. Questions are always welcome, but someone who can ask the right questions and learn how to complete the task is great. Being able to work independently and complete assignments will definitely define what you do for the rest of the internship program because you'll get more and more work.

General enthusiasm is huge. You want to be ready to learn, ready to try new things and ready to meet new people because there is going to be a lot thrown at you all at once.

MDP: Speaking of questions, when I talk to my friends who are just starting out in the corporate world, some of them are scared that they're asking so many questions and annoying their manager, and some of them are frustrated because they're asking too few. So how should you go about asking questions? Should you err towards too many or too few?

CCW: Well, you know the adage you learn in school, "No question is a bad question." It's not quite true in the office world. You do want to do as much figuring out on your own as you can. If you've got questions and you can't answer them independently, the first place to go is your fellow interns. They're a wonderful resource because they're going through the exact same things you are. But if you find that you have questions you just have to ask your manager, schedule time. Schedule lunch; schedule coffee or a meeting in which you go in with a pad and talk to them, because if you have a lot of questions and you're not able to figure them out solo, it's likely that there's an underlying problem. It's not necessarily your fault, but it might be a communication thing or that there wasn't enough training for you, the intern.

MDP: All right, what are your intern pet-peeves? Do you have any fun stories?

CCW: Oh man, I had an intern who just wasn't enthusiastic about anything. You'd give him a task and his face would drop. That was a big no-no. Most internship coordinators know that creating spreadsheets or updating databases is not exciting, but there's a reason why we need them done. So being upbeat and enthusiastic and ready to perform those assignments makes it more likely that you'll get more interesting stuff next time.

And just a bit of advice: if your manager gives you a task and you finish it quickly, don't immediately start peppering him or her to get more tasks. Send a short email to let them know that the task is complete, and move on to something else if you have it. If not, then that's a great time to network around the office and conduct informational interviews. But don't use that time to update your personal blog or Facebook account. Spending too much time on Facebook or other personal social media sites is definitely bad, particularly in the first week, because it implies to your managers that you don't want to be there--that you're not interested, not engaged and you're not excited by what you're learning.

MDP: What last bits of advice would you give to someone coming in as a summer intern?

CCW: Well, I think the first week is all about learning, so show up on time and be professional, nice and enthusiastic. If you have any questions about the internship--the structure, itself--those should certainly be cleared up in the first week, either by talking to your internship coordinator, your manager or human resources.

I think that you want to ask about the possibility of a full-time offer towards the beginning of the internship, but not in the first week. You probably want to do that around week three. You want to put your interest on your employer's radar so that they're thinking of you in terms of the full time job. They're asking, "How would this person translate to a full-time environment? Would they be able to hack it? What kind of tasks and responsibilities would this person have?"

Finally, I think the first week is a great opportunity to bond with the other interns because those are the people who are going through exactly what you're going through.

--Written by Madison Priest