September / October 2017

Co-Ops & Internships: Master the Basics for Maximum Benefit

David G. Smith

Hi David: I've landed a great co-op job that will start soon. Do you have any tips on how to maximize this opportunity?

Congratulations! Internships and co-ops are great opportunities that can enhance your résumé and build a strong relationship with the organization. How do you make a good impression while adjusting to a new work environment—especially given the limited time of an internship or co-op?


As Woody Allen said, “Showing up is 80% of life.” Start with the basics:

  • Be on time and be prepared: Tardiness is a surefire way to make a bad impression.
  • Smile and show energy: If you aren’t excited and ready to engage, why should your teammates want to work with you?
  • Dress the part: Match the attire of people around you.
  • Hit your deadlines: This will go a long way toward making a positive impression.
  • Limit distractions: Resist the temptation to let outside responsibilities creep into your time at work.
  • Follow the rules: Learn company polices and follow them to the letter.


Many internships focus on projects that are important to the organization. Whether yours is mundane or exciting, make sure your attitude reflects your drive and determination to produce quality work, and complete each task to the best of your ability. If you’re asked to schedule a meeting, have all materials prepared and ready to go. If you’re asked to prepare a presentation, make it visually appealing and accurate; be especially vigilant about bad grammar and typos.

Review the materials you’ve been given (SOPs, SharePoint sites, and training materials) before asking for help. Being resourceful will show that you respect your manager’s busy schedule, and that you’re engaged with your job. If you ask for help, make sure the question shows that you’ve done your homework. During meetings, listen and learn from others, take notes, and organize the information so you don’t ask the same question twice.

Don’t avoid or decline tasks. If you have extra time, volunteer for assignments others may not want to do or that may require skills you need to develop. Your ability to deliver beyond expectations will not only enhance your professional development, but can become a real differentiator when new opportunities arise. Remember: Your consistent, passionate ability to deliver excellence will create the foundation for your future.


Many companies allow you to participate in activities such as facility tours, training sessions, networking, or community events. These can help you learn more about the organization’s culture and values, as well as provide opportunities to interact with the broader organization and develop key relationships:

  • Meet fellow co-ops and interns: Like you, many of your peers will be standout students, but with different skillsets and backgrounds. They may have the potential to help solve work-related problems, or refer you to hiring managers later.
  • Get outside your group: Learning more about different functional groups in the company can help you develop your career. Most leaders are open to meeting with co-ops or interns who want to learn, so don’t be shy about asking. Do some research ahead of time so you can ask great questions, and don’t forget to say thank you!
  • Join organized activities: Many companies have sports teams, charity events, and employee outings that you may be able to join as well. These allow you to mingle with people that you would not meet otherwise, and can be a great way to learn about other groups and leaders.
  • Enjoy a lunch break: While you may be tempted to eat at your desk, don’t. The lunch hour is often when your colleagues are the most available and easiest to talk to. Use this time to connect with others and develop better relationships.
  • Find a mentor: Identify a mentor or sponsor before the end of your project. He or she should be well connected, in good standing with the company, and someone you can trust. Finding a leader that can advise you on how to grow your career and recommend you to others is invaluable.


Ask your manager which recruiter supports hiring for the team, then find out if you can get a meeting with him or her. Your discussion should include how to find and apply for a job, identify entry-level opportunities, and what recruiters look for when considering candidates. You might also want to ask about other programs for which you may be eligible as a current or former intern, and if you should meet with other recruiters as well. Thank you for your question—I wish you the best of luck in this important first step.

If you have a question about career development, send it to me at, and I will answer it in a future column.