DOs and DON’Ts to Make the Most of Your Internship

September 4, 2018 The Washington Center

10 DOs and 5 DON’Ts to Make the Most of Your Internship in Washington

Back on #NationalInternDay, TIME posted an article referring to internships as the new entry-level job. The article reflects employers’ increasingly held expectation that first-time job seekers go from college to the workforce with some professional experience. Thus, the internship is now a necessary step in your career journey.

Regardless of where you are in your internship decision, you want to know how to make the most of the experience and be job-ready before committing to the next step. The last thing you want is for the experience you need (and employers want) to not pay off.

Follow these dos and avoid the don’ts and you’ll be on your way to making the most of your internship.


1. Set goals and expectations.

The internship will have guidelines on what you are to accomplish, but it is equally important to have a plan for what you expect to get out of it and hope to achieve. It could be acquiring a specific skill, getting a stellar review or anything you value that will help you further a career. By knowing that at the beginning, you’ll find it easier to recognize opportunities as they arise to develop your goal. Things change sometimes, though. Be flexible as your situation evolves.

2. Look for guidance - directly or indirectly - on the office culture.

Offices are living creatures, they have a set method of behavior, communicating, and relating to others like you may see in people or your pet. How people dress, how they sign emails, what happens during lunch are among the many aspects that comprise the culture. Shadow others to get a feel for the ins and outs, the spoken and unspoken norms needed to become part of the team.

3. Be a sponge and absorb.

Treat moments at your internship like a campus lecture, actively listen and ask questions that help clarify what is happening and what you are learning. Take notes during meetings or when speaking with a coworker you can refer to later.

4. Keep to-do lists.

Deadlines are vital to an organization’s survival. If you are assigned any task, keep on top of it. Follow through on everything you are assigned and keep your internship supervisor regularly updated on your progress.

5. Show enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm and attitude will unlock doors to more responsibilities. Show enthusiasm for an assigned task and stay positive, particularly during a team project. Volunteer for more if you have the time and competency to contribute without neglecting your duties.

6. Draw parallels to your education.

Look at how what you are learning and doing apply not only to what’s happening at work but how it connects to what’s happening on campus. You may start to take some of the mystery out of a task by connecting it to a classroom lesson or discover why your professor was adamant about learning a particular work-related skill.

7. Talk to coworkers about their duties.

Get to know the people you work with - how they got started, what challenges they faced getting to where they are or have now. Ask for introductions to people in other departments too. The better you understand the organization and how people operate within it, the better you see how you’d fit in there (or a similar organization).

8. Seek and accept feedback.

How well you do on the job is important, as is identifying weaker areas. Be open to hearing how things are going and how to improve. Prove yourself to be capable, coachable and team-oriented. Learn to accept constructive criticism and improve.

9. Show gratitude.

Say thank you. Show gratitude to anyone who helps. The recommendation from an internship supervisor is critical. Make sure they know you, the skills and strengths you brought, and how to use them. And be sure you know the supervisor, what they look for from their team and how they communicate what they need. A sterling reference will be extremely valuable for you.

10. Give them a wow!

Be remembered. Be the intern they compare future interns to - in a good way.


1. Allow youth or inexperience to affect your perception of yourself.

Contribute ideas without fear of rejection. An intern with an idea is more memorable than an intern who sat quietly. Employers will see you want to help and aren’t just there to add a line to your resume.

2. Assume any assigned task is trivial.

There may be tasks that you are less than thrilled to be assigned. The fact is, if it is assigned, then it has some value to the organization and must be done. Prove that you are an eager and willing member of the team.

3. Sit idly.

Prioritize tasks and complete them on time, but don’t sit there without something to do. Ask if there is anything you can help with or volunteer for projects when you have free time to ensure you aren’t on Instagram when the CEO walks by and wonders if you are taking things seriously.

4. Try to hide a mistake.

No one is perfect. If a mistake is made, whether it is missing a deadline or omitting a person from an email blast, take ownership of the error. Offer solutions as to how you will rectify the issue and prevent others in the future.

5. Take work samples without permission.

You’ll want examples of the work you performed for your portfolio, especially the projects you are proud of. Though you worked on it, it probably belongs to the organization. Demonstrate you respect their property by first asking if it’s okay to share your work online or with potential employers.

6. Leave the experience behind.

Stay in touch with coworkers to continue hearing about projects, industry developments or for leads on jobs. Talk to your friends back on campus, too. Explaining your internship to others may reinforce the lessons you take away from the experience and give you a greater appreciation of all you accomplished.

By following these dos while avoiding the don’ts, you’ll possess the confidence to walk the walk and talk the talk of an experienced professional. You’ll complete your internship knowing how to feel comfortable in the workplace, how to effectively communicate in the office and how to leave your coworkers and supervisors with a positive impression of you as a professional.

Maybe even as a future employee.

About the Author

The Washington Center

The Washington Center is the largest and most established student internship program in Washington, D.C. Since our founding, we've helped more than 60,000 individuals from across the U.S. and around the globe expand their academic pursuits into rewarding jobs and careers. We use our scale and expertise to deliver solutions that open career pathways for learners, solve recruitment challenges for employers, while helping create greater access, equity, advancement and representation.

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