Five Ways to Fail an Internship (and How to Avoid Them)

I remember my first internship. I’d waited until the last minute (senior year) to apply for what was a prerequisite to graduation. I had my reasons/excuses (working several part-time jobs/assuming my student newspaper job would do/adviser avoidance) but the fact remained: I couldn’t graduate without an internship. So I applied and landed one at the city’s local magazine.

I wrote up a few briefs, I made a few calls, but mostly, I spent a lot of time wondering what my boss expected of me. In short, I wasn’t a good intern. Yup. There it is. When I flip through the handful of magazines in my storage containers, I struggle to find one thing with my actual byline. And yes, that’s on me. Not my editor. Not my internship coordinator. Me. Now that I’ve worked with interns as a peer and a senior leader, I’ve had time to really evaluate why my internship stint wasn’t as successful as it could have been. And what potential interns can do to avoid my mistake.

1.     Don’t wait for assignments. Journalism (and many other industries) is a busy line of work. No matter how good a manager, it’s often difficult to find time in the day to nail down a task to assign out when you’re not sure of your intern’s skills. In my case, I did nothing to show my editors how capable I was, and waiting around all day didn’t help. Get a lay of the land and pitch your editors a few stories a day that you think would be a good fit for your readers. If your editors have to ask you what you worked on all day, that’s not a good sign.

2.     Ask for feedback. I had a colleague once who was surprised by how harshly our editors was coming down on him. His clips were great, he insisted. He added that his editors always made whatever changes his work needed and published it. Great tactic for when you’re on deadline, but not so great when you’re teaching a young reporter the ins and out. How can someone learn if you correct the mistakes for them or imply they never make errors? My technique is to always give the intern a chance to make changes or submit a rewrite. But in the news business, that’s not always possible, I get that. In those rare cases, I have done a rewrite, but have as soon as possible scheduled a chat or touch-base with the intern. Why did I make the changes? What did I like about the piece? What would I have wanted him to tweak? These are all learning opportunities that we cheat interns when we make changes, publish, and never address the issue.

3.     Let your editors know what you are interested in. Depending on the publication, the editors or writers you work with on a regular basis may not be the same as those who interviewed you. If you’re interested in high fashion and are interning for a position at a publication that is for expecting moms, it may seem that it’s not quite a fit (I pause here to acknowledge that we sometimes take an internship because we need the college credit or for books or to pay that credit card bill, and that’s OK as long as you make the best of it once you have it). But take the position you get and work it to your advantage. The worst thing you can do is take an internship and eschew anything not specifically related to your interests. In the aforementioned example, maybe you can suggest a piece on maternity fashion. But don’t cut off a potential opportunity by being too narrow-minded.

4.     Be careful. I can’t stress this one enough. In many organizations, interns are treated just like staff. They pitch stories, they’re assigned stories and their articles are published with very little hesitation. But that’s granted the editors can trust you. Turning in article after article with errors signals to an editor that you’re not careful and can’t be trusted. Misspelling common words (and, even worse, formal names, as in those of celebrities or other well-known people) shows your editor that you don’t care about getting it right. And true or not, that’s not an impression you want to give.

5.     Understand what you’re signing up for. If you aren’t a writer, don’t apply for a writing internship and fudge it. You’ll not only be wasting your editors’ time, you’ll be wasting your own. I once I had an intern who applied with pretty good clips (I hadn’t known they were edited beyond recognition). Turns out, that wasn’t the intern’s forte, but photography was. That intern wasn’t a fit for my publication, but after a few conversations, the intern swapped programs midstream and ended up as a photo intern somewhere else. Your internship is much more than a paycheck or some credits, but it really and truly is about learning. I promise. You’ll thank me later.


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