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So you’ve landed a summer internship … Congratulations! The benefits of internships are multiple. It has been shown internships held during college lead to higher-paying jobs upon graduation. Internships also allow students to make those important connections which, more and more, can give job seekers an edge over similarly-talented competitors in the job market.

Consider the following scenario:

(And scene)

Suppose Eric and Frank have applied to work for Bank III, excited to put their newly-minted finance degrees to the test. Eric and Frank attended the same university, are both heralded as academic leaders and both belong to First in Our Families, the first-generation student organization on campus. Eric has an impressive academic background. He spent his summers taking a few classes and working part-time at Maudo’s, the place where he’s worked since high school; he knows the job, the owners are nice and the money is good. Frank earned high grades as well; however, he elected to use the summers of his sophomore and junior years to intern at two different finance firms: P.J. Cents and Ro Dollars. Frank planned in advance so that he could manage his finances while completing the unpaid internship at Ro Dollars; however, P.J. Cents offered him an hourly wage so that he could devote his time to it entirely. At first, working for these big firms was nerve-wracking, but he kept at it and made a great impression with each company. What’s more, Frank was really surprised to learn that his supervisor at P.J. Cents went to college with the woman who could be his new supervisor at Bank III. What a small world!

So, who gets the job: Eric or Frank? Of course this question is rhetorical, and Frank enjoys a well-deserved celebration with his friends and family while Eric returns to his stack of applications. But, let’s rewind a bit, shall we? Let’s assume for a moment you already have that internship placement and explore some important considerations to make sure that you get the most out of your experience (like Frank).

  1. Make a noticeable difference. Do something no one else will and take the opportunity to improve the company. Little projects can make a huge splash, and can show initiative and keen perception! So you’ve been at your internship a week and you keep hearing frustrated remarks about the disorganization of the client database. No one has time to put it in order? Sounds like a job for Super Intern! And, if what needs to be done isn’t readily apparent, don’t be afraid to ask.
  2. Keep the end in mind. A great way to begin a position is to have a clear idea of how you’d like to be remembered. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep getting up early to read yet another 15-page meeting brief that seems to have little relevance to your day-to-day job. In cases like this, remember that you’re working to attain a strong reference letter from your supervisor at the end of your position. On the more challenging days, refer to a 10-item list of the qualities you most want to be remembered by so that you never lose sight of your goals. Want to be remembered as reliable? Get there on time … every day! Here is an example of a 10-item list.
  3. Discover your personal brand. Learn how you can be authentic—true to yourself—and still be professional. Every conversation, every lunch and every meeting is an opportunity to gain valuable information—about yourself. If you are still in college and have never been a full-time employee, you may not know much about who you are as a professional. Your internship is a great opportunity to get a sense of what your professional self looks like in action. You can test out that 10-item list you developed from tip #2 and see if it fits. Everyone goes through a process of learning their own brand, and first-generation college students often have less information to work with at the beginning. So, you’re not only learning about your industry, it’s okay to use this time to learn about yourself as well.
  4. Identify a mentor. The importance of mentors for first-generation college students cannot be overstated. Find someone who is doing exactly what you want to do and learn from him or her. Develop the kind of relationship in which you can inquire about those hidden rules of the workplace. Try to meet with your mentor outside of your office to develop that rapport. For example, asking “How have you dealt with asking for more challenging tasks at work?” over coffee or lunch will likely yield more honest responses. I once observed a terrific panel about workplace authenticity and heard some important questions posed about appearance and professionalism. A student approached a panelist who had also grappled with these questions and this panelist was able to give her feedback. Learning from a person who is doing what you hope to do and who has a similar background is invaluable! Something to note: your supervisor may not be your strongest mentor or the person with whom you connect the best. Search for the right fit.

We all have the power to make the most out of moments and even something like an internship can make a huge difference! Best wishes to you as you embark on an experience which could be equal parts illuminating and meaningful (and maybe, just maybe … even fun). Go forth and be great!