Making the most of your internship

Ad agencies and companies are constantly looking to sign designers up for an internship—both to help those starting their career and as a way to find potential hires (on a trial basis). Win win, right?

Not really. Most internships are unpaid—which can be hard when you’re starting out and need the cash—and just because you landed it doesn’t mean you have a full-time job afterwards.

To find out how to become an agency’s potential hire, I’ll be giving pointers that include where to begin, what to do when you’re actually there, and everything in between.

One of the questions that’s asked the most is “Do you have to intern before you can get a job?”

Not necessarily, but having to work for free (or in some cases minimum wage) has become the norm. You’ll have to get everyone’s coffee, do the jobs that no one else wants, and hope to scramble your way onto the bottom rung of the creative ladder.

In fact, a study by showed that 86 percent of college graduates reported completing at least one internship; a further 69 percent said they completed two or more. So how do you secure a placement in your dream job that can challenge and inspire you, all while managing to stay fun and exciting? And how do you make a good enough impression once you’re there?

Follow these guidelines and you should be well on your way not only to a successful internship, but a successful career.

Look for an internship close to home

Take advantage of your school and their alumni connections. Many creatives and agencies fish for interns in familiar waters. Make sure you check with your teachers or the school bulletin board as they might alert you to studios or agencies that you hadn’t previously considered.

Take advantage of creative events

Making the most of your internship: Going to events

Most art and design schools have a graduation show where agencies will try to pluck up top talent. This is a golden opportunity to showcase what makes you so great, all while forging connections for your professional network.

Search agency career pages

Don’t miss out on seasonal opportunities. A lot of studios run annual internships during the summer months. This is usually a less busy time and they’ll be able to spend more time teaching you valuable career skills—and you won’t have to fight the onslaught of multiple project deadlines.

Finding the one

The company(s) you admire the most should be your first priority, but not your only one. Finding an internship is a lot like dating. Keep an open mind, take some risks and sit through a couple of awkward conversations before finding the internship that clicks.

Making contact

Creatives hate getting generic emails with a “Dear Sir/Madam”. Always write individual emails that are tailored specifically to the company you’re going after. Take your time to read through an agency’s website. Familiarize yourself with their clients and get a general feeling for what the studio/agency is all about. Find out who the best person to contact is and address accordingly.

“A nicely written email or letter that indicates you’ve done your research, and above all shows a desire to work with us is all you need,” says DesignStudio design director Richard Lyons. “I would be instantly sold by a microsite that lists your top five projects, a bit about yourself, your contact details and application intention that is all tailored to DesignStudio.”

Keep your portfolio simple

All you really need is a simple portfolio—a PDF to include in emails and a website—that sums up your style and character. Quality not quantity: this should be your best work.

Making the most of your internship: Your portfolio

When you go for an interview, you should also have a physical portfolio, as well as your digital one. They’ve probably looked at it on their phone already, but some creatives still prefer to look though an actual book of work. Also, be prepared to discuss your work, all the way from brief to concept to final product.

If you want some extra pointers on this subject, you can also check out my post on 10 tips to improve your portfolio design or how to make your portfolio site stand out.

Treat your internship like a real job

As an intern, you should be willing to get your hands dirty and throw yourself into every project, regardless of whether it’s a simple newsletter or a big ad campaign. Most studios provide mentoring and will even include you as part of the team. And while there’s no guarantee, if you treat your internship like a real job, there’s always the chance that it will turn into one.

On the other hand, one of the quickest way to kill a good internship is to be negative. As much as the work may suck, try to avoid complaining, being rude or disrespectful to your coworkers (even if they’re pricks). Don’t show up late all the time, leave early, miss deadlines, etc. A common mistake among interns and new hires is treating secretaries and clerks as being beneath them–avoid this behavior as they have the boss’ ear.

Set personal goals while you’re there

While some internships are very structured, others are not. You might need to spend some time before starting your internship to set some goals that you want to accomplish. They can be as simple as deciding what area that you want to specialize (design, production, marketing), perfecting interpersonal skills, building contacts or learning new skills. Whatever your goals, you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment once they’ve been achieved.

Ask lots of questions

Smart people understand that there’s no such thing as a stupid question; remember that an internship is a learning experience. While the employer expects a certain level of professionalism, you’re not expected to know everything.

Seek advice and ask questions whenever you encounter something unfamiliar. Be open-minded about new ideas and procedures, and remember that school doesn’t teach you everything.

Try to find yourself a mentor—someone at higher up in the company that’ll look out for you and make sure you’re learning what you need to know—and accomplishing what you need to do. Mentors can also shield you from office politics and can be good sounding boards for you to discuss ideas.

Leave your internship accomplishing what you wanted

Making the most of your internship: Leaving your internship

I mentioned earlier about setting personal goals. Hopefully upon completion you’ll have some tangible results—both for your resume and your portfolio. Maybe you wrote copy for a brochure, designed a print ad, managed some SEO, programmed a website, etc. It will all help in the end, both with experience and new skillsets when you finally land your dream job.

Finally, enjoy yourself!

This is probably the most important part of any internship. Most placements are a great experience, so make sure you have some fun while you’re learning. You don’t need to be so uptight that people think you have a stick up your ass, just loosen up and try not to stress yourself out; while you want it to be a full-time gig, it’s not.

In the end you should leave with some new contacts, new experience and at least one new piece of work to add to your portfolio.