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Here’s How to Ace Your First Internship

Many will agree the corporate world is a treacherous maze for bright-eyed students looking to make their first mark in their career field. With COVID-19 only increasing the competition in the internship market as companies cut their costs, making a lasting positive impression on your interviewer and supervisors can be incredibly difficult as an inexperienced applicant. While pointers such as dressing the part and learning as much as you can are intuitive, they may not help you stand out from the crowd of equally — if not more — qualified applicants. Here’s my experience with how I scored and made the most of my internships during the pandemic.

The interview

Demonstrate your willingness to learn

Many employers look for optimism and enthusiasm in their interns, and how willing they are in learning and helping out, even if it is a small task at times. This should come naturally especially if you’re interested and passionate about the field.

Another way to express your willingness to learn is to set expectations for yourself and your supervisor during your interview. Besides sharing about your current abilities and past experiences, establish your readiness to learn new skills, and more importantly, what you want out of the internship. This will allow them to know and help you achieve your goals more quickly.

Be transparent about your skillset

Be honest about what you can and cannot offer. Your interviewer will most likely take note of the skills you mentioned and may ask you to put them to use during your time there, so ensure you’re transparent about the skill level you have, whether it’s in progress, or if you’re an expert.

Don’t be afraid of admitting you don’t know something. The interviewers usually have lower expectations for students still in or fresh out of school, as compared to individuals who have already been in the field for an extended period.

Do your research beforehand

Who is their target audience? What type of employee are they looking for, skill and character-wise? These are some questions you may ask yourself when scouring the net for an internship opportunity. Understanding the company’s vision, working style and your possible future colleagues will also help you see if that company is suitable and aligns with your career path as well as where you want to end up in the future. One way to understand your company more is by looking at the job description they put out on job listing websites or the like. What skills and degrees are they looking for in particular that you have, and what are the other skills you may be able to learn on the job that may assist you in the future? Does this internship have a place in helping you secure your dream career?

Ask questions!

Remember that the interview is not only to screen you, a candidate for the job. It also works the other way round. At the end of the interview or when your interviewer raises points that piques your interest, make sure to ask questions to understand how this internship can help you learn and benefit you as well. 

You may ask more general questions such as: “Is there anything we didn’t cover that is important about working here?”, or “What type of employee tends to succeed in this company or this industry?”, as well as more specific ones that may help you get a better understanding of how to improve yourself to be a better fit, like, “Based on my skills and experiences so far, what do you think will be my biggest challenge?”.

More personal questions such as “What is your favourite thing about your job?” may help you understand different sides to your job, and even give you something to look forward to.

During the internship

Set expectations for yourself

Before you step into the company on the first day, it’s good to have a list of things you want to learn about. These can range from hard skills such as Photoshop or SEO to soft skills like improving communication, multitasking, and leadership skills. It’s also important to establish a “baseline” of sorts with your supervisor. 

As a newbie to the corporate world, there may be many things you want to accomplish by the end of your internship. However, you must rationalise and master or build on foundational skills before learning more advanced ones. To pace yourself and make appropriate micro-goals, you may ask yourself the following questions:

1. What’s the best way to follow up on the expectations set during your meeting? How can you exceed that?

2. What essential skills do you foresee yourself needing in your career that you haven’t already mastered?

3. What can you learn from this internship that your previous experiences did not cover?

If you happen to be juggling other projects or school along with your internship, make sure to make adjustments and split your time effectively among them.

Take more initiative

To truly stand out, demonstrate your enthusiasm by extending your help outside of your regular duties. You don’t have to limit yourself to your department too, especially in start-up companies with a small number of employees. Helping out colleagues in other departments will allow them to get to know you and your capabilities better while gaining new skills that you wouldn’t normally be able to learn. 

However, it’s important to strike a good balance between being helpful and taking on too many menial tasks to the point that it affects your original duties. While being willing to help out often will win you brownie points with your colleagues, the main goals you’ve set for yourself should always be prioritised. 

For many of us, an internship is our first opportunity to experience the corporate world. Ask to sit in at meetings you’re interested in if possible, or ask to meet your supervisor for a chat regularly to receive feedback on your work for the week. This way, you’ll naturally pick up the essential skills needed in your field and it’ll be easier to apply them later on. 

More importantly, learn to communicate your struggles. An internship is a good place to learn and make mistakes, so ensure you clear up as many of your difficulties as you can then. The great thing about working online (which is more common nowadays) is that meetings with supervisors and colleagues are just a few clicks away!

Post internship

Ask for a testimonial

As hard as you may have worked for your internship company, a testimonial will be one of your only tangible proof of your experience there when you apply to your dream company. As such, you must ask for a letter of recommendation from your supervisor as you complete your internship journey with them. Look out for unique and personal details in your testimonial that can boost your value in your future employers’ eyes, rather than generic ones such as “hardworking” or “enthusiastic.”

Expand your network

In certain fields more than others, networking is one essential skill to have to succeed and progress faster in your career, as they open up opportunities more quickly. However, due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely that you’ll be attending large functions and meeting like-minded people that may develop into long-lasting connections. Instead, try moving your connection making online! Now that we have sites like LinkedIn, it has become much easier to build and keep connections that we’ve made from our internships.

In smaller or start-up companies where the employees tend to be much closer than in larger, more established ones, try keeping in touch with the friends you’ve made for any possible future opportunities. They may also be really helpful with filling you in on their experiences at other companies, as well as the do’s and don’ts in your field, so you make lesser mistakes along the way.

Perhaps the most important advice I’ve received so far is to try to be irreplaceable. Many companies oversee hundreds of interns over the years, and it can be difficult to truly stand out among them. Aim to be a perfectionist to the best of your abilities, always be open to critique and willing to extend a helping hand to your busy colleagues. Making the best out of your time during the internship not only helps to grow your skills, but you’ll also hopefully be making long-lasting connections that will serve you well in the future.

Nicole Ng

Nanyang Tech '24

The real-life Emily Charlton from The Devil Wears Prada. Reach her at nicolengxinen@gmail.com.
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