Internship: Image: Marten Bjork/ Unsplash
Image: Marten Bjork/ Unsplash

Four things I wish I knew before my internships: your ultimate checklist to not just survive it – but smash it

Congratulations on securing an internship after what felt like a never-ending marathon of application forms, tests and interviews. As a soon-to-be-grad who’s been through both a summer internship and a full placement year, I’ve learned a thing or two. Of course, I’ve made my fair share of silly mistakes along the way.

But that’s all part of the journey, right? In this guide, I’m sharing my personal experiences as a reflection for myself and a go-to resource for you to make the most of this exciting opportunity. You’ve got this.

1. Know your goals, stay organised but flexible
Before starting, become clear on what you want to achieve like a return offer, or simply exploring the role. I prepared a list of items I wanted to find out to achieve my goal, such as how a commercial advertisement is created, the preparations required for a video shoot, and the differences between PR and media roles. As I worked with different people, I got answers to my initial questions.

Within your bigger goals and key questions, staying organised on a day-to-day basis is crucial. I had a task progress tracker on Excel to note project titles, completed tasks, current status, next steps, deadlines, and the stakeholders I worked with. This helped me to hit milestones, complete the steps required to achieve my goals, and allowed my manager to track my progress and assign me new tasks. It also enabled me to consolidate the information into an end-of-internship report to discuss with my manager. Managers are often busy, and you need to take responsibility for keeping them updated.

2. Don’t underestimate tedious or simple work
It’s quite easy to label admin tasks as unimportant. When I first started, I thought I could finish those quickly and effortlessly and move onto more meaningful work. But as an intern, you sometimes have to do things that aren’t the most exciting. However, if you do them well, better things will probably await you. See this as a learning process and not a burden. Try to avoid complaining to co-workers or supervisors and instead, view it as a chance to prove yourself.

Often, you have to complete smaller ‘test’ tasks before moving on to bigger projects. These mundane assignments actually provide a deeper understanding of the company’s operations and help build a stronger foundation. Your manager will take notice when you handle the tedious work well, and you’re more likely to be given a more important responsibility. Embrace these tasks as opportunities to see the bigger picture and learn how different puzzle pieces fit together.

3. Don’t try to overachieve from day one
Many guides will tell you to ‘go above and beyond’, but that’s not always the best approach as an intern. Don’t come in all gun’s blazing, trying to drastically innovate, criticise everything or immediately try to change the existing way the company operates – this is often counterproductive and can come across as inauthentic.

Start small instead and earn that level of responsibility over time. Easy ways to make a good impression include arriving early to meetings, setting up, preparing meeting minutes and double-checking presentation slides for the seniors.

Eventually, you may identify bugs in the existing systems and think of better ways of doing something which you can later suggest. But the key is patience and a measured approach. Don’t be overeager and try to go above and beyond too quickly. Earn the trust and respect of your team before pushing for bigger changes.

4. Know the unspoken rules
It’s not always about the on-the-job tasks. You have to pay attention even when you’re not directly working. Be sensitive and observant, picking up non-verbal cues and reading between the lines. In Japan, there is a concept called ‘Kuuki o yomu’ which translates into ‘sensing the surrounding atmosphere’. For example, observe your team leaders’ expressions during meetings or social lunches. There is a culture of ‘socialising over sandwiches and salads’ in my company where you can pick up a lot of insights, both on the social and work side. These unspoken dynamics are not written down as official rules.

Moreover, in the workplace, there may not be formal networking events or mentorship programmes, especially at smaller companies. But that doesn’t mean the opportunities aren’t there – value every collaboration opportunity. When I worked with an external photographer, I learned a lot about their professional proposal format. I was also able to share my own work with them, even though this person wasn’t formally designated as my mentor. The key is being perceptive to the subtle norms – be proactive in finding ways to grow through informal interactions.

Bring your a-game
Remember, you’re still early in your career path. Approach this internship experience with authenticity – it’s a chance to explore different paths and find what suits you best.

Every mistake is a learning opportunity on your journey to success. With the right mindset and commitment, you can not only survive your internship but thrive in it. Good luck!


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