The Worst Thing You Can Do in Your Internship

Internships present a unique opportunity to students and recent graduates. Not many people can enter a company, work closely with multiple areas of the organization, and then leave on good terms a few weeks or months later. So how do you screw up your internship when provided such a small window of time? Sure, you could leave a typo on your presentation, send an email without the attachment, or miss that important conference call. But what is the worst, most unconscionable thing you can do in as an intern? Do exactly what is expected of you. 

I know, I know. There are probably worse things you could do (burning down the office, throwing up on your boss, and losing a client, for instance), but I had to grab your attention somehow. Now that I have it, though, let me tell you why you should never simply meet expectations.

Most employers know to keep reasonable expectations of their interns. It is understood that your time with the organization is limited and that your experience level is lower than that of most of your coworkers. It is also normally assumed that an internship is a learning experience. In other words, you’re not expected to know everything. This helps relieve some pressure for most interns, but it has also created a stigma about us. Interns are popularly portrayed as anonymous, voiceless, and often clueless assistants who appear and disappear largely unnoticed.

You might be thinking, “What’s so bad about being quietly sufficient?” Indeed, most interns follow this approach, and the world hasn’t ended as a result. But careers aren’t built by being a “sufficient” employee. Technology isn’t advanced by being “meh.” Advancement is driven by disruption. Going against the expected. Challenging and exceeding pre-conceived notions. Turning traditional thought on its head. This way of thinking has produced history’s greatest leaders, most innovative products, and most progressive policies, and should guide your approach to any new opportunity, regardless of the size.

Does this mean you should stage sit-ins to protest company policies or disregard instruction in favor of doing your own thing? Absolutely not. But there are many ways an intern can exceed expectations and still follow the rules.

Take Interest

One of the easiest ways to exceed expectations is to display authentic interest in your work. Ask your manager if you can shadow a few employees throughout the week. Sit in on meetings, even if your attendance isn’t required. Take your coworkers to coffee or lunch and ask them about their experiences in that company or industry. Rather than check your phone during your free time, conduct research on the company, its competitors, policies, and positioning. Take everything you learn during your internship and use it to your advantage. A well-informed opinion or question can really challenge perception, especially when coming from an intern.

Go Beyond the Requirements

Sure, meeting minimum requirements has worked for you in college. But in building a career, you aren’t just trying to finish something. You want to be constantly improving, learning, and advancing. So if your boss asks you to complete a task and you finish with time to spare, keep going. Add more research to the appendix, add more data to the spreadsheet, come up with an additional concept or prototype. Try to make your work as professional and in-depth as would be expected from a full-time employee. After all, isn’t that the goal of an internship – to become a full-time employee?

Make Yourself Indispensable

My first internship was in a fundraising role with a nonprofit arts organization. My coworkers had very reasonable expectations of their interns, and my tasks reflected that. Stuffing envelopes and filing copies wasn’t exactly the sexiest thing I could be doing with my summer, but I took pride in my work and held high standards for my performance. My coworkers noticed this attention to detail and began assigning tasks with more and more responsibility. Eventually, I became an indispensable member of the team, and my 12-week internship quickly turned into 12 months, followed by a summer as a regular, full-time employee. If you can find a task or responsibility that you can take ownership for, your employer will begin to see you not just as an ancillary, but as a leader. Streamline a process, perfect a system, demonstrate expertise, extend your internship—do something that will force your employer to see you in a different light.

Sure, you can be successful in a role by meeting expectations. And in some positions, it may even be recommended to play it safe. But if you want your internship to be more than another bullet point on your resume, challenge yourself to do the unexpected. Who knows what it could do for your career.

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Matt Hudgins

After interning his way through college, Matt now works as a marketer in Seattle. Despite his background in business and communications and his passion for media and the arts, Matt ultimately hopes to retire on a llama farm in the Azore islands.

  • PETA Intern

    Something we cover in orientation! Love the post.

  • Geri Carrillo

    “: The Worst Thing You Can Do in Your Internship :” @KatieProfessor

  • jana


  • Kaplan Hoying

    What nonprofit arts organization did you intern at? I’m from the Pacific Northwest as well, and I’m curious.