You’re a month into your new summer internship and things are going great. You’ve perfected the whole business attire thing and learned who’s who in the office. No more filing mail or fact-checking stories; your supervisor has finally given you your own assignment to complete! She hands you a packet of information, rattles off a long list of directions, and tells you she’d like the finished product on her desk at the end of the week.
Here’s when the panic sets in. As soon as she walks away, you realize you have no clue what she wants you to do. You look around and realize you’re on your own. Everyone else is busy, effortlessly doing their own thing while wearing 6-inch stilettos. You suddenly wish you would have stuck with your summer job at the local diner.
You know you need help but you don’t know who to ask or even how to ask them so you sit there for hours upon hours pondering what to do. Her Campus doesn’t want you to end up in this kind of a situation, so we’ve talked to internship experts and interns just like you to learn the dos and don’ts of asking for help at an internship.
How do I ask for help?
Be polite and prepared.
Lauren Berger, the CEO of Intern Queen, recommends asking all of your questions at once and having a pen and paper with you so you can take notes. “If your boss asks you to do research, approach your boss and say, ‘I’m having problems; are there any techniques I can use to get this done faster?’” Berger says. Don’t just storm in and complain about not understanding something. “When asking for help, make sure you communicate what steps you have already taken to find the answer and ask where else you should look or who else you should talk to. This shows that you are conscientious and willing to do the work yourself rather than be handed the answer every time. For example, "I looked online and talked to the staff representative, but I'm still not sure of ... Where can I find that answer?" suggests Alaine, a senior at Miami University (OH).
“First, always ask 'Is this a good time to talk about a question I have on xyz?'” says Shelly Marie Redmond, the founder, CEO, and internship supervisor of College Lifestyles. It’s important to be confident and to follow through on whatever method you decide to use to get the help you need.
Know how your boss likes to handle questions.
Kelsey, a junior at Boston University, says, “At one of my internships this summer, we have an IM system so we can all keep in touch with our supervisors. My supervisor loves being asked questions of all sorts, but I think it's important to definitely make sure asking a million questions is alright with yours! I'd suggest starting off a question with ‘Sorry to bother you’ the first few times and then see what he or she says.” Also, be sure to just ask! Does your boss/supervisor prefer you to approach them directly in-person? Should you email them first? IM them? You can ask your boss their preferred method of communication on the first day (or now, if you haven’t asked her yet).
Make your questions matter.
“The general experience I've had at jobs/internships is to not be afraid of asking questions, so long as your supervisor is free,” Annie, a junior at University of Chicago, says. But remember to be a hard worker if you want others to take your questions seriously. “When you show an appreciation for a company/organization, help flies in your direction. But if you are in and out, late on assignments, and bragging about your 14 other internships and night out on the town—it is a lot harder to get help,” Redmond says.
Who should I ask?
You might think it doesn’t matter who you ask as long as your question gets answered, but it really does make a difference. “Do read the policy and procedure packet to determine if a proper chain of command exists for asking questions,” Redmond says. The rule of thumb is to use your resources before reaching out to your internship supervisor whether that resource is the Internet or the intern who works next to you. “I think this all depends on the atmosphere of your internship. I am currently an intern at a relatively small PR firm and find it easy to ask for help all the time! I work pretty closely with the Account Executive and we get along really well so I do not find a problem with speaking up,” says Alexa, a junior at JMU and HC campus correspondent.
“Last semester at Seventeen I gave myself a question-asking rule. If I didn’t know how to do something I went to my instruction manual first, then my fellow interns, and if all else failed I went to my editor. I think that questions are a big part of an internship. You are there to learn and you aren’t expected to know everything right away,” says Shaye, a senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
You should be looking out for your fellow interns and they should be looking out for you. It’s true, you probably want to stand out from the crowd and go above and beyond the other interns, but always be helpful and friendly so they will help you when you need it. “I intern for Miami magazine and the people there are really helpful. If I need help with anything, I ask. They understand that I'm an intern and are really patient with me. However, I also know that they can't do my job for me, so if I'm looking for the paper clips or don't know how to print on glossy paper, I'll ask one of my fellow interns or try to figure it out myself,” says Jaime, a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I like to see interns reach out to one another. I would encourage asking a question to an intern who has been with the company for a while (semester, etc.),” Redmond says. This way, you’re still going to a more knowledgeable source but you aren’t interrupting your supervisor. But remember, don’t always trust the other interns. “When I was interning at FOX, we were assigned the task of organizing scripts and one of the other interns assumed we were supposed to organize it alphabetically but they wanted us to do it by date—don’t assume!” Berger says.
Sometimes the answer you need is right inside of you. Dig up all the information you’ve received since starting your internship or use the wonderful Internet to help you solve your problem (Google is your best friend—you want to be as resourceful as possible, whether it’s fact-checking or something as “silly” as how to change the printer cartridges.) I’m a marketing and sales intern for a children’s clothing company and am responsible for putting together a buyer’s packet. I had no idea what this was and had never done it before, so I searched online for examples and tips. My boss was very impressed with my work and I figured it out without having to ask her for help.
Use this as your last resort. It’s way better if you’re the intern who takes initiative and gets the job done on your own instead of constantly asking your boss for help. There are certain circumstances when asking your supervisor is the best option: If you think your company’s reputation is on the line or if you’re dealing with something super important like a celeb interview. Aside from keeping in mind the type of assignment you’re working on, you should also consider who is going to see your work. If the project you’re working on is going to be handed in to the CEO of the company or editor-in-chief, asking your supervisor for help is a smart idea. A smaller project like organizing your company’s address book or coming up with a press list is something you should be able to figure out on your own.
“I felt like I was pestering my supervisor a lot of the time, but she actually didn't mind the questions at all because at the end of the day, I was learning and these questions needed to be asked so we could avoid problems from creeping up,” Annie says. Berger says you should always ask your supervisor for help when you’re not 100 percent sure about something. “The internship coordinator would always rather have you bother them with a two second question than mess something up,” she says.
“I do try and figure things out for myself the first time around not only to learn but to try and make a good impression on my supervisors and show them that I can figure things out for myself!” Alexa says. Your supervisor has enough to do as is and will appreciate your ability to find the answers to some questions on your own. If you’re doubting yourself, it’s okay to check with your supervisor or another intern to see if your solution will work before implementing it.
When should I ask for help?
Berger says you should give it two weeks to transition into the company because it takes the company a while to transition too, especially if they aren’t used to having interns. “Then ask your internship coordinator or direct boss to set up a five minute meeting, that’s the perfect time to ask for help,” she says.
In the beginning
It’s easier to prevent a problem from occurring than to fix damage that’s already been done. That’s why you should ask for clarification and help at the start when you’re assigned to a new task or given a big responsibility. “There are a lot of things I had to learn like proper procedure for submitting my work to a manager, how to access the company directory and other company databases, even little things like project deadlines. When you join a new company, almost everything is new. The people you work with have been working within the system for much longer than you have so something that comes naturally to them isn't as obvious to you,” Alaine says. Even though you might run into problems down the road, asking for help in the beginning ensures that you start off on the right foot.
When you’re unsure about something
We all need help once in a while whether we like to admit it or not. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re unsure of something even if your internship is well on its way. “There were specific formatting rules for a certain section of the magazine that I was working on, and I was having some trouble figuring them out. I asked my boss, and he showed me the correct way to do it,” says Jessica, a Her Campus contributing writer and senior at Ohio University who interned at CityScene, a monthly publication in central Ohio.
“I worked in a PR office last year, so it was super important, especially in the beginning, to ask about EVERYTHING you weren't sure about before replying to someone/dealing with a client,” says Annie.
Shaye explains why asking for help can save you time, “One time my editor sent me an email asking me to do some research for a few celebrity quotes. I spent two hours working on this research until I finally read the email again and realized that I was doing way more than I needed to be doing. I emailed her for clarification and after she responded I realized that I could have done the work she wanted in a mere 30 minutes! From then on I made sure I asked for clarification whenever I wasn’t sure of a project. I think it’s safe to say that an extra email is much better than a few extra hours of work (for both of us)!”
In the event of an emergency
Never barge into a meeting, interrupt a phone conversation, and/or call after business hours,” Redmond says. The only acceptable time to call after business hours is when an emergency arises like if you’ve missed an important deadline or found a major error in something. If this is the case, remain calm; you don’t want to show your supervisor that you collapse under pressure.
Oops. I waited too long to ask for help and messed something up. What now?
This isn’t the ideal situation but try not to worry too much; everyone makes mistakes. The key is to own up to your error and ask how you can fix it. “If you messed something up already, go to your supervisor immediately. Never try to hide it. They will find out and probably end up not trusting you later on down the road. Just explain to them what you did wrong, and why you did it wrong. Maybe you misinterpreted the directions or just got confused,” Jessica says.
Don’t be too nervous to ask for help.
“Last summer I interned in the editorial department of Black Book Magazine in NYC. When I first began working there, I was too nervous to ask my supervisor to clarify or elaborate on her expectations for assignments, and consequently I completed assignments sort of incorrectly, with the wrong format or with more emphasis on some sections and not enough details in others. I soon learned to ask my supervisor to clarify exactly what she wanted before I began the assignment, so as to save us both time,” says Rosa, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis.
Suggest a way to fix the problem.
Berger says you should always propose a solution like staying an extra two hours the next day or coming in early the next week. “Even when you ask questions you want to make sure you always have a solution and aren’t just complaining,” she says.
“It was my second week at Seventeen and my editor finally gave me something that seemed like a ‘more important’ job. She was letting me conduct a preliminary interview for a possible news story! As a journalist the number one rule is to record everything. However, the word preliminary threw me off and I didn’t want to ask her if I should record the interview—I didn’t want to seem like I was getting too ahead of myself. So, I conducted the interview, didn’t record it, and wrote something up. When she asked if I had recorded it I instantly knew that I made the biggest mistake ever. It took me weeks to finally feel like I recovered from this and my only regret is not asking the simple, ‘Should I record preliminary interviews, too?’ question. No question is stupid, and you do the stupid things when you don’t ask the questions you need to ask,” Shaye says.
No matter what you do, don’t lie to your supervisor. Redmond shares with us a not so great experience she had with a past intern. “This past semester at College Lifestyles, I had a writer who stated she had an interview with a reality star. I was excited and told our entire team via email and during our Skype call. When the interview wasn't posted after a week, I asked and received the famous line 'I haven't heard back from her.' I received the same line for a couple of weeks and finally I asked if the interview was confirmed. She stated, 'My boss (other boss) said she was interested.' Not only did I look like a fool in front of my team, the writer flat out lied and I felt the job was not taken seriously,” she says. “Just be honest. A simple, 'The interview was not confirmed but I did ask' would have been so much easier and I could have said, 'What is your plan B?'” Being honest and asking for help is always the better solution in a case like this.
How have you gotten help at your internships? Leave a comment to share your tips with other collegiettes.