Take the Internship
Written by Alexi Strong Gonzalez
As a college undergrad, I was picky about internships. I majored in journalism and knew I wanted to write for a publication as a career someday, and come spring semester I would half-heartedly scroll through my university’s job and internship postings to see if anything seemed to fit my very specific list of criteria.
Did it pay? Would I get course credit? Was it nearby so I could live at home? Would it give me exactly the experience I was looking for—nothing more, nothing less?
Unsurprisingly, few positions ever measured up, and the ones that did were looking for someone who already had internship experience. Summer after summer, I settled for some non-industry job that would pass the time and help me save money for the next school year. When graduation approached all too quickly and it was time to find a job, I found myself well-educated and extremely underqualified.
Thankfully, I had a couple of great employers who took pity on my lack of experience and gave me a shot. I got lucky. A couple years into my career when part of my job became helping to supervise interns, I truly realized what I missed out on. In supervising interns who were only a few years younger than I (many of whom have gone on to forge successful careers in marketing and communications), I learned that internships are extremely important—but not exactly for the reasons I’d thought.
Of course, the ideal internship is going to be in your field and give you specific job experience that will be relevant to potential employers when you graduate and are ready to start your career. But the most valuable part of an internship is that it teaches you how to have a job.
The interns I supervised over the course of about three years had strict schedules. They spent close to three full working days in our office while balancing their class schedule. They pitched creative projects to a team full of professional writers and designers. They adhered to our business deadlines and dressed appropriately for our office. They occasionally came along to meetings that included staff members from other departments or people in major leadership roles. They were involved in the planning and execution of our organization’s events. They used a commercial-grade printer and learned how to mail merge in Excel (I still have to watch a YouTube instructional video every time I’m asked to do this). When they made an error, the stakes were high, and they had to learn how to react, take ownership and fix it.
A major concern employers have with modern college graduates entering the workforce is a lack of what’s referred to as “soft skills.” They mostly have the education and training, but they don’t have skill in problem solving, attention to detail, interpersonal communication or leadership qualities. These skills aren’t inherent for everyone, but they can be taught and learned if you’re in the right situation.
Six years after graduating, I look back on those spring semesters and wish I’d have gone after the less-than-glamorous internships or the ones that didn’t seem like exactly the right fit. I wish I’d allowed myself to seize the opportunity to learn a diverse set of skills, even if at the time they didn’t seem directly applicable to the career I thought I wanted. I wish I’d put myself in the position at 19 or 20 to be in meetings with directors or VPs and to observe how professional adults communicate with each other. I wish I’d been exposed to real-world deadlines, beyond when the professor said my paper was due. I wish I’d learned how to use Excel and Outlook, and I wish I’d gotten accustomed to working an eight-to-five schedule earlier than two weeks after college was over.
If you’re a college babe, learn from my mistakes. Take the internship. Take all the internships, even if they’re unpaid and only five hours a week during the school year. Take something that will give you experience and work samples for your portfolio, but take it even if you’re not sure it will give you that. Take something in an office where you really like the culture and get a good vibe from the person who will supervise you. Take positions where they stress to you in the interview that they’ll have a lot for you to do. Learn how to get up early and be there on time. Learn how to sound professional when you email the boss. Learn how to reserve a conference room in Outlook. Learn how it feels when you screw up and have to own it and make it right.
Learn how to work. Learn how to have a job. That’s the best thing you’ll take away—and it’s the best thing you can do for your career.
Alexi is a journalism grad from the University of Florida who recently traded years in non-profit communications for a corporate marketing management gig she totally loves. She and her husband are raising the world’s most adorable baby boy while updating their beach house and catching movies when they can leave the kid at Grandma’s. You’ll find her bike-riding and watching football games at kid-friendly breweries on weekends. For alarmingly liberal political opinions and TMI motherhood musings, follow her on Twitter at @alexigonzo.