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5 Ways to Make the Most of a Disappointing Internship

03/17/2014 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

We've all been there. That job where you're watching the clock. The job where 5 p.m. never comes and 9a.m. comes too soon. It's never a fun feeling. It's even more disappointing when you started out with extremely high hopes of the experiences to come. No one applies for a job or an internship with the intention of wishing each day away, but it happens.

I've been there. I've done the internship that made scraping popcorn paint off of a wall sound fun and running a mile sound painless. The upside to a disappointing internship is that internships typically have a set duration. You're never truly "stuck" in any situation, but internships are especially temporary.

So you're there. You've applied for the program, made it past the rigorous interview process, and been accepted to...well... definitely not do what you thought you'd be doing. Maybe it's the setup of the program. Maybe it's the people. There's no challenge. The atmosphere is hostile. The tasks are mundane. Not even the savviest coach is going to be able to make these "responsibilities" look moderately impressive on your resume. Stay calm -- experiences are what you make of them. Yes, there are limitations to this, but they might be broader than you'd expect.

5 Ways to Make the Most of a Disappointing Internship:

Make Friends

Don't make the mistake of ignoring the people in your internship program. Once you realize that the experience isn't shaping up to be what you wanted it to be, it can be very easy to slide into your own anti-social vacuum. Fight the temptation. The people you're interning with are going to be your network -- don't neglect them. Invest in those relationships. This is your community -- chances are, their journey is similar to yours. Help each other out. Share experiences. Make allies. One day, they might be able to put in a good word for you somewhere, just as you might be able to do for them. When I was a performance major, an alum from my program shared an interesting story -- someone in her graduating class dropped out of the performance industry...and wound up in casting. You just never know. Plain and simple -- be nice and make friends.

Find "The One"

During each of my internships, I managed to find one person at the company with whom I was able to bond. I'm here to tell you -- one is all you need. Offer your services to everyone. If they all seem too busy to care, find the ONE person who seems semi-interested in your help. Blow that task out of the water. Speaking from experience (the experience of both BEING an intern and HAVING an intern) it only takes one task. If you do it thoroughly and with care, I guarantee you that person is going to lean on you again. The more work you do for that person, the deeper and more thoughtful their perception of you becomes. Yes -- the ideal situation is to get to know the entire staff and have a sack full of references and new friends. But if it's apparent that there's very little room and interest for staff/intern bonding, it only takes one. This doesn't mean you shouldn't work your butt off for everyone, but make it a point to foster at least one strong relationship. Because flash forward a year or two or ten, when you're applying to jobs, you will have at least one person from that company who knows you're capable of more than fetching coffee and whose reference for you will be deeper than the fill-in-the-blank form letter tucked away in the depths of their external hard drive.

Show Interest

Here's my take -- full time staff get annoyed with interns for two reasons:

1. They're under pressure and they want you to read their minds.

2. They perceive a lack of investment on the part of the intern.

Alright. That being said -- perhaps neither of these reasons is fair, but I'd wager my favorite pen that they're true. Have you ever been in a situation where someone snapped at you because you didn't know what to do? You may have messed something up because hey -- it's day two and yeah, you don't have protocol memorized yet. Not your fault. Chances are, that person is wrong for snapping and he/she knows it, but the problem is that a) you're getting lumped into a general category of people and b) you can't really snap back. The generalization is this unfair assumption that interns aren't invested and don't care. I think this is, for the most part, wrong. I think what happens is that interns are actually nervous and don't want to mess up. So instead of confronting the issue when they do mess up, they slink back and hope the error disappears. This is perceived as not caring. If you mess up -- and even if you don't -- take the time to ask how people want things done. Ask them how you can help make their job easier. Tell them you want to do the best possible job. If you mess up, sit down with someone and talk it through. I promise -- they'll be impressed that you cared enough to want to better yourself. Even for the three months you're there.

Take Meetings

Once you build a certain level of trust with your coworkers, ask to take meetings. I would suggest doing this towards the end of your internship. Tell them that you'd love to learn a little bit more about what they do and the path they've taken to get there. Ask to steal just five minutes of their time -- I guarantee they'll give you more than five. Have your questions ready. Ask them where they went to college? What was their first job? How did they wind up with this lovely company that you're not enjoying? (omit the last half of that question). And what does their job entail? Remember -- these people were once interns too. They are probably very willing to help. You just have to ask. Show interest and show commitment. Remember that individually, people are not the company whose internship program you don't like. They have insight and experiences they can offer, too.

Stay Positive

Look. This is a temporary situation. Yes, the internship might have not been everything you'd hoped it would be, but the good news is you do not have a contract with this company. Once you get through your twelve week stint, you don't ever have to look back. Do what you need to do in the privacy of your own home to get through it (within reason...!). Complain to your roommate, draw huge red "x's" on the calendar to celebrate the end of each day -- whatever. But leave that at home -- don't bring it into work. When you're at work, stay positive. Try to make the most of each day. Disinterested and distant co-workers might not have anything good to say about you, but definitely don't give them anything bad to say. Be eager to help -- even if it's constantly refused. When you look back on this experience, you're going to want to have no regrets. Allow the future you to rest assured knowing that you did what you could to make this the best experience possible. At the end of the day, it's a credit on your resume and another opportunity to learn -- even if it's not in the areas you initially expected.

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