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May 17, 2022, by Leah Sharpe

How Not to Be the Perfect Intern

By Anna White, Placement Projects Officer

A couple of years after I graduated, I was looking to change direction so took a short-term internship with an IT start-up. I was 23, newly back from having a baby and trying to escape a job I hated. I felt the stakes were sky high, so I put ten tonnes of pressure on myself and went off to work.

Several career stages later, in a job I really enjoy working with students to find, do and then reflect on their own work experience, I can also see how I could have approached that internship differently, learned a lot more about myself and, frankly, had a much nicer time.

An internship can be a positive experience where you get a foot in the door to an exciting sector, meet people who inspire you and can finally say you’ve gained that crucial bit of work experience to progress you career. But it can also throw up challenges.

Over the course of three blog posts, I’ll lay out some practical strategies for navigating some of them:

The challenge: pressure to impress

It doesn’t matter how cool you try to look; beneath the surface you’re desperately paddling whilst trying to remember the names of everyone you’ve been introduced to on the workplace induction. The desire to impress at work comes from a good place but, if not managed, can quickly become overwhelming and at its most extreme enter imposter syndrome territory.

Strategies to tackle it:

1. Refocus your energy

Pretending to know everything and being terrified of making a mistake is exhausting. Adopt a growth mindset and reframe your internship as a learning experience where you’ll work hard, try new strategies and be open to input from others. This doesn’t mean that outputs don’t matter, you’ve been brought in to do a job so that’s your primary responsibility, but internships are also opportunities to try new things. Taking risks in this way means that you might make mistakes, but how you respond to the mistake is what matters. Accept responsibility, understand why it happened and do what you can to rectify or improve the situation.

2. Own your ignorance

If you don’t know something, rather than trying to hide the fact, try saying “I don’t know, but can I take X minutes to learn?”. Or “I don’t have any experience of that, but I have done X, which is similar. Is there someone with that experience that I can discuss it with?”. You’ll look more impressive for taking ownership of your development than you will trying to fluff your way through designing a regional marketing strategy when you have zero marketing experience for example.

3. Dial up the positive experiences

When something good happens or you achieve something, why not make a note of what it was and how you felt, to challenge your inner critic. This can be as tiny as a moment where you felt able to contribute one thought to a group discussion, or as big as completing a longer project and getting a public congratulations. If you’re not a writer, do what my friend does and start a “feel-good folder” where you store emails which made you smile. Feedback from a colleague, a thank you from a boss or a customer review on something you helped deliver. Save it in your folder and review at the end of each month. Rather than a diary which can be onerous to maintain (though if that’s your thing, it’s a great way to process your thoughts, like talking to a therapist so go ahead!), both these activities let you reflect on what you’re doing well and can feed into your conversations in future interviews when you’re asked about your strengths.

In the next blog post, I’ll look at how to switch from student into professional mode as you approach your internship. 

Explore internships on our website and gain more practical tips to help maintain your career wellbeing.


Posted in Career wellbeingCareers AdviceUncategorizedWork experience