“Excel” at Your Internship or First Full-Time Job

Now that the school year has ended, students are beginning to turn their thoughts to summer internships or first full-time jobs. We would like to take some time to discuss how to “Excel” at your internship and receive an offer. Of course, these tips are also relevant for graduates preparing for their first full-time job.

The internet is full of advice lists on how to succeed at your internship. Most of them include items that should be common sense: don’t show up late, don’t drink excessively at work outings, don’t wear sandals to work, don’t text while your boss is working with you. Even though these should be common sense, I’ve personally witnessed all of those work faux paus in the corporate world (shockingly the person who texted while working with her boss did not receive a full-time offer). We don’t want to regurgitate information, so we’re taking a fresh approach and helping you understand the mindset of hiring committees.

In our experience, hiring committees look at three main areas. Fit, Engagement, and Competency. Keep in mind, while first impressions are important, showing growth is more important.  Your company will understand there can be some awkwardness and a learning curve when you start. It’s how you adapt that matters, so if you start off your internship on rocky footing know you have plenty of time to turn it around.  With that said, let’s get to the three main factors.

Fit – How well do you fit with this career/company

Questions hiring committee will ask:

  • Would they be comfortable with you interacting with a client?
  • Do you fit with the corporate culture?
  • How much do your coworkers like you?  More importantly, do they dislike you? (This won’t actually be asked, but you can be sure it will play a factor.)

Tips for how to influence the discussion:

  • Understand your office dress code.  Before you start, reach out to your contact and ask for some clarification. Business casual can mean vastly different things. You probably know that you shouldn’t dress down relative to the office, but you also shouldn’t dress up too much.  If your office is a very casual business casual and you wear a suit everyday, you will stand out negatively.  If your office has casual Fridays (and people participate) then you should dress down on Fridays.
  • As an intern your job is to make everyone else’s life easier. You will be expected to do boring and tedious projects. Always keep a positive attitude. When approaching these projects ask yourself if there is away to make the process more efficient and less painful: document your work clearly, look for ways to automate the process, or clean up existing spreadsheets. Remember: Spreadsheet Boot Camp’s best practice  sections are a great way to understand how to create well functioning spreadsheets. Volunteer to clean up or improve an existing spreadsheet and you’ll create a memorable accomplishment and demonstrate you’re a self-starter.
  • Make sure people enjoy talking to you. Keep your conversations positive and nonconfrontational. Try to participate in office “water cooler” talk.
  • Don’t annoy your coworkers with questions. I’ve seen quite a bit of intern advice that encourages readers to ask lots of questions.  Asking questions is good to a point, but no one wants to be pestered with question after question. Before asking a question, go back one last time and see if you can figure it out on your own, search the internet for answers, or try asking a fellow intern. Keep in mind that the more experienced your coworker is, the more valuable his or her time is. When you ask questions try asking less experienced full-timers, even if you aren’t working directly with them.

Engagement – How well does this career/company fit with you

Questions hiring committee will ask:

  • Did you enjoy your internship, the work you did, and the company?
  • Is this still the career for you?
  • If you received an offer would you accept?

Tips for how to influence the discussion:

  • Act like you enjoy the work you are doing. Yes, you are an intern doing intern level work and no it’s probably not the most exciting work, but you need to find the positives. Keep a specific project (or projects) in the back of your mind at all times that you are  prepared to talk intelligently and positively about. Make sure you understand the end goal of the project you assisted on, not just your piece of it. Chances are your boss (or other important people) will ask you  casual questions about projects you’ve worked on. Don’t confuse these questions with simple small talk. Your boss is making mental notes on your engagement. Also, don’t be afraid to request certain projects from your boss. This will make you appear more engaged.
  • Engage your coworkers. Make sure you interact with full-timers and interns. Get along with your coworkers. Not only is this something hiring committees will look at, but you can use that network.

Competence – Your capabilities

We’ve saved competence for last, not only because it’s the most important (if you don’t demonstrate competence then nothing else matters), but because it’s also the hardest perception to control.

Questions hiring committee will ask:

  • Do you have the analytical skills necessary?
  • Did you show growth over the course of your internship?  Did you learn quickly?
  • Do you have the people skills necessary?
  • Do you have the creative/outside-the-box problem solving skills necessary?

Tips for how to influence the discussion:

As we mentioned above, this is the hardest perception to control. To address how to control it, let’s break out competency into three main areas.

  1. What you can naturally do (i.e. IQ) : At this point in your life there is not much you can do to change this.
  2. What you have learned to do (i.e. Accounting Skills): You can change this, but it takes time.
  3. What people think you can do: This is people’s perception of your competencies.  There are a few simple things you can do to appear as smart as possible:
  • Learn the tools of the trade. In a highly technical work environment, the faster you learn the tools of the trade, the smarter you will appear.
  • Focus on efficiency. The best way to appear competent is by working efficiently. If you use Excel, make sure the master the shortcuts. I’ve witnessed interns who were immediately dismissed from consideration for receiving a job offer because their Excel skills were poor and they took too long to complete tasks. It was impossible to distinguish if they were not competent or if they simply didn’t know Excel. No one wanted to waste their time working with them or helping them. Conversely, I’ve witnessed some people who were Excel shortcut whizzes. They were initially thought of as rock stars when it turned out they were merely average employees who took the time to master Excel shortcuts. Download our Free Excel Shortcuts PDFs, hang them up at your desk and start incorporating them. Resist the temptation to use the mouse and by the time you end your internship you’ll be flying around the screen, impressing your coworkers.  They will associate that skill with your entire skill set.
  • Check your work. Complete a project, do something else, then return to the project to review it. Try to put yourself in your reviewers shoes and do high-level reasonability checks. If you’re using Excel, create built in reasonability checks. Learn more about them with Spreadsheet Boot Camp’s best practice sections.
  • Use resources to answer questions. As we mentioned earlier, instead of asking your boss questions, try researching online, asking other interns, or less experienced full-timers.
  • Carry a notepad. Keep notes when someone gives you instructions. You don’t want to force him or her repeat instructions.
  • Keep an ongoing list of questions. Don’t ask them one at a time. Instead ask them when you can progress no further without answers. Try to set up your work so it’s easy to make changes based on the answers you receive.
  • Look for ways to stand out. Volunteer to improve spreadsheets or processes. You’ll look like a go-getter and you will create a memorable accomplishment. Many times interns work on tedious projects that don’t allow them to demonstrate your skills. If you can improve a processes you can demonstrate value. Spreadsheet Boot Camp’s best practice sections are filled with information on how to create well functioning spreadsheets.

 Concluding Thoughts:

Most of this advice is advice you should implement throughout your internship, but what should you do before you start or when you’re bored the first weeks, while you wait for work to come your way?  Learn Excel (and/or any other tools you will use)! To drill home the point, I’ve witnessed a very high correlation between Excel skills and job offers for interns. Interns with the best Excel skills could produce higher quality work, faster. They were given more challenging projects and made memorable impressions when asked to clean up spreadsheets. Whether you use Spreadsheet Boot Camp or something else, learning Excel is a must for many interns seeking a job offer.

If you follow the advice in this post you should be well on your way to a successful internship.

Good luck!

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