10 Tips to Avoid Common Internship Pitfalls

Sure, you'll make coffee during your internship, but you'll also want to make a lasting impression on employers and colleagues. Here's how.

illustration by Kim Foxillustration by Kim Fox

So you landed your dream internship, huh? Bet you’re feeling pretty badass, but don’t let your confidence turn into cockiness and even worse, laziness. As you gear up for that big fall semester internship, check out our tips below to avoid the common intern pitfalls.

You’re constantly told that the entertainment industry is tough enough to find an entryway into, so why risk your foot-in-the-door with poor internship behavior? Believe it or not, some internships still turn into full-time jobs – yes, even in this economy.

1. Look alive, kid.
It may seem like the most “duh” tip in the world, but you’d be surprised how many interns sit around doing nothing. Stay busy. Get involved. ASK to get involved if no one has specifically assigned you a task. Ask to shadow someone, even. Find out who the people are who may need help and make an effort to connect with them. Uncover ways to have something to do every day you work. No one’s going to think, “Wow, he did such a good job sitting around looking bored, I think he deserves a glowing recommendation.”

2. Do as told, not as you see.
Full-fledged employees, even assistants, have different expectations and allowances than you do. Just because you see an employee — whether it’s your intern supervisor or the “big, scary boss” — do something against the norm, do not assume it’s an example for you to follow. If your boss comes in late one day or every day, or takes a super-long lunch, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for you to show up late or take an afternoon gallivant away from the office.

3. Follow directions, follow directions, FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.
It’s great if you have an idea of how you would like to complete a task given to you by a supervisor, but if he or she provides you with specific instructions, follow them. Going above and beyond what is expected of you is appreciated, but even if you do, just make sure you are also following the initial instructions. Those in charge are happy you’re there to help, and they should be willing to explain instructions they provide you with – but ultimately, they’re hoping you’ll do things in the way they took the time to specify.

4. Bring a pen, notepad, and your ears.
On a related (and totally basic) note to “follow directions,” make sure you have the right tools to take notes on tasks assigned to you. No one was ever yelled at for being over-prepared.

5. Spread your social wings – yes, even if it’s awkward. You might just find yourself a mentor.
Get up, walk around, show them that you enjoy being there – even if it is an unpaid internship, as these things typically are in the entertainment industry. You may have a designated intern coordinator or structured program (especially if you’re at a larger company), but that doesn’t give you an excuse to only talk to the person who gives you orders and your fellow interns. Learn what people do in different (but related) departments. If someone has a job that you see yourself in down the line, don’t be shy about learning more about what they do – and most of all, how they got there. People generally love talking about themselves, so most don’t mind taking a coffee or lunch break so you can “pick their brain” (a good general phrase to throw around in these circumstances) about their work and their career paths. You may just find yourself a mentor, which is crucial – beyond crucial. Having a mentor before you enter the job market is going to keep you sane, trust me. They’re most likely the person you can ask all your panicked, “what do I do?!” questions to without feeling like too much of a newb.

6. Seek out the youngest people who work there.
Going along with tip #5, it’s never a bad idea to start with the younger, more junior folks working at the company when it comes to networking. That may seem counterintuitive (because you assume they’re not senior enough to get you a job down the line), but there are a few reasons why it’s actually a smart move: They’re probably some of the most recent folks to be hired, so they know the current employment process; they’ve probably interned not too long ago; they’re generally less intimidating and completely swamped than say, a VP or GM. But most of all, if they graduated in the last few years and managed to get a job in the entertainment field so quickly, they’re probably doing something right – something you might want to know about.

7. Don’t assume that you “got away with something” if no one yells at you.
Let’s say you come in really late one day without telling your supervisors, but they don’t bring it up. You may assume they didn’t even notice, so you think it’s OK.


Don’t continue to, for example, show up late, call off excessively (and/or with flimsy excuses), skimp out on or pass off your duties, leave early, or dress inappropriately just because you think you’re “getting away with it.” Especially if you’re an unpaid intern, your supervisor may not feel as comfortable reprimanding you for certain mistakes. But people are most likely taking notice, making a mental note, and generally not keeping you in mind for a full-time position or glowing recommendation.

8. Speak up if you feel overwhelmed or confused.
This is always preferable to dropping the ball on a task, especially if you have more than one person assigning you tasks and working with you at your internship. It’s OK to say no – that’s why people at your internship may ask you what you’re working on or if you are free. You don’t automatically have to say yes, and it’s OK to explain what you have on your plate. This is preferable to missing deadlines.

Live Free and Work Hard

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9. Don’t fall asleep at your desk!
Don’t laugh. I’ve seen it.

10. And finally, some words of wisdom for you budding creative professionals, from “This American Life” host Ira Glass.
NPR hero Ira Glass makes a case for sticking through your early years in his oft-quoted ramblings: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”Get In Media

In addition to being a writer and editor for Billboard Magazine and Billboard.com, Jillian Mapes is Billboard’s intern coordinator. Two years ago, she was just finishing up her internship at Billboard.

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