How to make the most of your internship: lessons from a summer in America’s capital

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Illustration: Dillon Yeh

I spent the summer after first year researching state tax laws, attending meetings about mutual fund investment strategies, and interviewing individuals as varied as the president of a body parts modeling company and the CEO of a marijuana jobs listing website.

After working in student journalism for the past five years, I had landed my first professional internship at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington, DC. During my two months at Kiplinger, I learned a great deal about the journalism industry as well as the ins and outs of personal finance, but in this column, I’d like to share several lessons that apply in any internship.

1. Use your existing connections and form new ones

I found out about Kiplinger through my mother, who told a friend at church about my interest in journalism. The friend had a sister who works at Kiplinger, and after emailing her, she agreed to send my resume to the company’s managing editors. After several follow-up emails, I was offered a position working on both the website and the magazine.

If my mother wasn’t a naturally talkative person, I would have never found out about Kiplinger. You may not have an equally chatty parent, but it’s likely you have family members or friends with connections that can help you. Ask around—you’ll be surprised by just how many people your loved ones know.

2. Learn from everyone, including your fellow interns and people who hold high-level company positions

My colleagues at Kiplinger included a former Bloomberg BusinessWeek White House correspondent, a reporter who worked at USA TODAY for 16 years and a former Time magazine staff writer. To take full advantage of the wealth of career experience surrounding me, I set up meetings with several editors. These men and women were generous with their time and advice, offering tips on everything from a career in copy editing to the unstable nature of freelance travel writing.

I also learned a great deal from the other two interns. Both were older than me and had a wealth of editorial experience with college newspapers; as we bonded over lunch and moments that only other interns can understand, they shared advice on everything from finding internships to upping my Twitter game.

The one-on-one guidance I received at Kiplinger provided a helpful supplement to the 40 hours a week I spent researching and writing articles, attending magazine and web meetings, and participating in special events such as a video shoot, a field trip to the magazine’s printing plant and the National Press Club’s annual awards dinner.

As you begin your internship, remember to take full advantage of the time you have with your new colleagues. They’re working in positions that you likely aspire to hold one day, so it wouldn’t hurt to ask how they got there.

3. Act professional

Since I interned at Kiplinger between my first and second year, I was the youngest person in the office. Most people assumed that I was actually a rising fourth year, and this worked to my advantage. Colleagues held me to a high standard that I was eager to meet. I tried to act professional in all walks of office life: I arrived at meetings several minutes early, I met all of my deadlines armed with giant stacks of background research, and I got more blisters than I can count by wearing heels almost every day of the week.

If you secured a summer internship, it’s likely that you already appear professional in your employer’s eyes, but it will work in your favor to maintain this attitude. If you do, you can be sure that you’ll secure your next internship with the help of a glowing reference from your current boss.

4. Be proactive and innovative

On my second day at Kiplinger, I emailed the website’s managing editor to ask for my first assignment. He asked me to find a source for a feature on the cheapest places to live because the story’s writer was currently struggling to do so. Within an hour, I had tracked down a relevant source, emailed him, received a response, and written up a background blurb.

When I met with my boss at the end of that first week, I also pitched several story ideas. One, about jobs you won’t believe you can get paid to do, took me almost the whole summer to complete, but it gave me the chance to interview individuals in industries ranging from crime scene cleaning to food taste testing. If I hadn’t shown initiative in the beginning of my internship, I would never have had the chance to show my dedication to completing tasks efficiently—and I certainly wouldn’t have learned that some body parts models break into the business by having unique ears or a bald head.

5. Don’t (over)stress the little things, but do learn from your mistakes

I’m the kind of person who remembers every embarrassing thing that happens to me, so I can recall in vivid detail the day when I made more mistakes than I ever thought possible. One of the other interns and I were tasked with uploading a matching slideshow and article to Kiplinger’s website. We were told to launch the pieces at the exact same time, but I accidentally published mine an hour early. Looking back, I realize I probably didn’t need to run to the other intern’s desk and panic about how I was going to be fired, but at the time, it seemed like the only viable outcome. Despite fear of losing my job, I knocked on my boss’ door and told him about the mistake. He laughed and told me that what was done was done. Throughout the summer, I made several more mistakes that at the time seemed catastrophic but today are simply funny memories. If you find yourself in a similar situation this summer, don’t worry. Nobody will judge you as much as you judge yourself, and by tomorrow, they won’t even remember that you once tried to write a headline promoting solar systems instead of solar panels.

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