By Alisa Harris
Marketing & Communications Manager, College of General Studies
When you start an internship, there’s a lot to learn. For the marketing and communications interns I manage, it’s stuff like how to draft a good tweet, how to write a web post, or how to dream up ideas that advance our marketing goals. It’s my job to help you learn those specialized skills. There are a few things, though, that are all up to you—and they’re the fundamental building blocks of being a star intern, no matter what field you’re in.
I’m talking about the most basic of basic skills: 1) reading; and 2) writing. You can have a million amazing and creative ideas—and I want to hear them!—but when you’re starting out, these two basic skills are what really make you Most Valuable Intern. Can you read carefully—especially your manager’s emails or directions on how to compete a project? And when you write, whether it’s a tweet or an email to your supervisor, are you talking to your audience in the most clear and accurate way you can?
These skills are so important, they’re the first thing I look for in your application. It’s the bar any intern has to clear before I give them an interview: Did they read the application carefully? Did you send the application to the email address I asked you to and use the subject line I asked you to use? When I read your cover letter, can I tell from your writing that you read and understood the description?
They’re also skills I, as an internship supervisor, won’t have time to teach you. I absolutely will teach you complicated or technical information in my field! I can help you refine your writing and communicate in sharper and better ways. But the minimum I’m asking– carefulness, attention to detail, and basic accuracy—are all up to you, and they all start with careful reading and careful writing.
A few tips to help you out.
- Don’t read or write important things on your phone. Toggling back and forth between what you’re reading and what you’re writing, or doing it in a rush on the go means you’re sure to get the details wrong. You need a screen big enough to see typos and errors. Bring out the laptop. Open two tabs—one for what you’re reading and one for what you’re writing based on what you’re reading —and put them side by side to check your work.
- Stop yourself from skimming. Read every word. Read it twice. If you find your eyes glazing over or your brain spacing out and skipping over that big block of text, read out loud.
- When you finish reading, test yourself: do I know who, what, when, where, why? When you finish writing, check yourself: will my audience know who, what, when, where, why? For 99% of what I’m asking interns to do, from a tweet to a web story, these are the basic building blocks of information. Who is doing the action, what are they doing, when are they doing it, where are they doing it, and why does it matter?
- Accuracy is more important than style. By all means find a fun and clever way to phrase a social media post—but first get those “five Ws” right!
- If you don’t understand or you can’t find one of those “Five W” elements, look a bit harder. The info may be there, or a few clicks away. If an intern comes to me and says, “I didn’t understand XYZ so I looked into ABC to find out more, but I’m still confused on Z,” that’s great! I don’t expect you to know everything, but taking that extra step to find out is what saves me time instead of costing me time.
I know reading big blocks of text feels old-fashioned. We get info in quick bits now—a 280-character tweet, a 5-second Snapchat video. But when it comes to most careers, reading and writing is still how most workplace communication gets done. That might change but for now, focusing on these skills will help you stand out.