Dear summer interns,
You're doing everything wrong.
As your fellow Millennial, with only a few years on you -- I graduated from college in 2009 -- I'm equally appalled as you are by cultural implications that our generation is narcissistic, over-confident, and lazy.
But those are the qualities I see in the interns I've managed, trained, or observed in the 5-6 years since I was a summer intern.
It's not too late. You can check yourself before you wreck yourself -- and your career.
My first internship: the summer after my junior year, New York City, an indie fashion magazine called Z!nk. The week before, I bought a new bag that would fit my laptop, and a few calculated outfits -- this was a fashion magazine, after all. The night before, I practiced my subway route to work from the NYU dorm I was staying in with three other fresh-faced summer interns.
The first day, I arrived at 304 Park Avenue South 10 minutes early and managed, after a few fumbling minutes, to find the correct set of elevators to take me up to the top floor, twelve: Penthouse South. So cool.
I stepped out and looked to my left: IMG Models, a glamorous glass-walled office bearing mammoth framed copies of magazine covers. Girls with necks like giraffes, holding black leather portfolio books on their laps, sat in the waiting room. I looked to my right: a large unmarked oaken door. Small unmarked buzzer beside the door frame.
I headed to the door, clenched the handle and turned it slightly to the right and pushed -- but the door didn't budge. I frowned. Took the handle again, turned it harder, pushed my shoulder against the door. Nothing.
I took a step back, assessing the door situation. Was there another door I was missing somehow? Did I have the date wrong and the office was closed?
I glanced over at IMG Models, and saw the address of the building and floor number written on the plaque outside their door. Definitely the right place. I looked at the buzzer. Hesitated for a second, then pressed it.
Complete silence; not even a diminutive "bzzz."
Really? Did this really have to happen?
Resigned, I took out my phone and dialed the number I had -- thank you GOD -- programmed in the night before. The receptionist picked up. I stuttered into the phone, not quite sure how to convey what I was asking. "I, uh, I'm pretty sure I'm in the right place. But how do I... get into the office? "
There was a long pause. I could almost hear her frowning. "You can just... open the door," she offered.
I tried the knob again, turning it hard as I could to the right, leaning with two braced arms against the heavy door, and heard it click, then give. With the phone sandwiched between my ear and shoulder, I said thank you, and to my mortification, as I looked up in the entranceway of the office, she was sitting directly in front of me at the reception desk, phone receiver in hand. We made eye contact, and I sort of laughed and pointed to my cellphone, blushed ferociously, and clicked End on the call. She hung up and gestured, straight-faced, to her left, and I headed over sheepishly to the leather couch in a makeshift waiting room where the other summer intern was sitting.
Things improved from there.
What I learned at that internship, aside from how to open a hideously heavy door: the science of fact-checking articles (a skill that landed me my next internship, after I aced the second-round fact-checking test, and has stood me in good stead at every writing gig since); the art of navigating the New York subway system (many days were spent returning garment bags and racks of clothing to fashion houses from Chelsea to Brooklyn); and, most importantly, yes-man-ness, the attitude of accepting all assigned tasks with conviction.
Quick caveat: cheers to recent media buzz around the inequity of unpaid internships -- I'd be a millionaire by now if I cashed in those hundreds of hours of free labor over the course of several summers and college semesters. Employers must, and many don't, treat their interns with respect, as they do their salaried employees. But that doesn't mean that, as an intern, you're entitled to the same self-government as the employees around you.
Which brings me to: your pocket guide for transforming your summer 2013 internship.
Don't make it an option for your employer to not hire you. Treat every arrival time, every task you complete, every interaction with anyone who works there full-time, as an interview. You are never not on the clock while at work as an intern.
Do ask for more work. If there's an idle moment, you're screwing up. I once had an intern Gchat me informing me that she was leaving for the afternoon since she "felt bad just sitting and browsing Facebook on company time." More recently, I had an intern pop by my desk and ask if there was anything she could help with. Attitude can make a bigger impact than skill set.
Don't cozy up. One intern, on her second day, told me I look tired and asked if everything was okay. Another intern initiated a conversation with me about his college major and what he hoped to accomplish after graduating. See the difference?
Do capitalize on face time. Introduce yourself to everyone in the office in person, not just via email. Strike up a conversation in the kitchen. Greet people by name. It's your responsibility, not your managers', to make sure people know who you are and what you're doing there.
Be a sponge. After two months, an intern emailed my colleague who ran our intern program announcing that she felt she had learned everything there was to be learned at our company, and would be leaving effective immediately. That is complete bullshit. If you don't leave your internship without at least three skills you can add to your resume, you did it wrong. Keep your eyes and ears open, your pen clicked on, your computer powered up.
Write everything down. I have 15 reporters' notebooks crammed with scribbled notes from all of my internships. Bring a pad of paper and pen to every meeting you have with anyone. Aside from remembering exactly what you're asked to do, without having to later ask for clarification, you'll appear professional and earnest.
Put. The. Phone. Away. I can't tell you how many times I've walked by an intern's desk to see him or her tapping away at a pocket-sized screen. The message that sends is one of boredom and frivolity. If you're not taking the company seriously, why should they treat you as a serious candidate? An internship is an onramp to employment. See #1.
Internships, at their best, are crucial learning experiences and connection-formers. A boss from a summer 2008 internship gave me a reference as recently as 2012. Use your internship this summer as an opportunity to prove wrong all those pundits and bloggers and naysayers who say Millennials are entitled brats.
Yeah, it sucks making xeroxes and picking up a cardboard trayful of extra-whip, no-foam lattes and standing in the hour-long line at Shake Shack to pick up burgers and fries for your editors (yup, I've done all three).
But it's all worth it, I promise.
I'll see you on the other side -- where, internship experience in hand, we'll save the world together, as a generation.
Your Fellow Millennial and Advocate,