When I started college, I wasn’t sure whether my major, my GPA or my class selection would matter more. Turns out it was none of the above.

Welcome to 2016. Today, internships during college are becoming just as important – if not more important – than college classes and your GPA. This is particularly true in the journalism world.

I’ve spent most of the last four years either working as a intern (or pseudo-intern) or working closely with them. Some things have worked really well (like using my math skills to do some data reporting) and other things have flopped (like transcribing the wrong video clip just minutes before air).

Most of these ideas translate well to just about any career or internship, but particularly in whichever cut-throat, demanding world in which you find yourself, like maybe journalism.

Here are a few things I got right (and several I didn’t) and how to get what you want out of an internship.

  1. Say Yes to Absolutely Everything. I put this idea first because it’s the most important. If anyone asks you to pitch in on a project, jump at it. Do it with a smile. Then ask what else. If they don’t ask you, ask around the newsroom or take initiative to pitch your own stories. You’ll become known as eager and hard-working. And if you don’t understand a task, ask a smart, direct question that gets you the information you need while not wasting anyone’s time.
  2. Figure Out Why You’re There. When you walk in the door on day one, you should have a decent idea of what you want to leave with. Technical skills? Networking? Bylines? A job? Figure out what you want, and go get it. When you’re an intern, you have freedom like you’ll never have again to set your own priorities for much for your time. And it doesn’t hurt to share some goals with your supervisor – they ultimately want to help you get where you want to go.
  3. Grab Coffee With Anyone Who Will Let You. The highest priority for me at most of my internships was identifying what made each person there successful and trying to soak it up. Asking really good questions will not only give you great advice, but it will make coworkers want to help you more. A newsroom is a crazy place and sometimes plans get canceled or don’t work. Don’t be afraid to ask three or four times. It’s not annoying; people are just busy. People want to invest in young talent and help them grow, especially when they see potential.
  4. Ask Lots Of Good Questions – At the Right Time. The folks you’re working with have been in the business longer than you, so read writers you like and watch producers you like. Then ask sharp questions about what they’re doing and what makes them tick. Getting advice – technical or otherwise – was one of my most valuable takeaways. Just remember that sometimes it’s crunch time, and the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. Just watch and learn.
  5. Move Fast. In school, maybe you had weeks to do a big project. Or a few days to write a story. Not here. We’re constantly prioritizing several balls in the air: what needs to get done in the next five minutes? What can wait for a half hour? What about this afternoon? The initial draft of a breaking news story might be written, edited and published in less than ten minutes. People will value you if you communicate parsimoniously, learn quickly, and deliver fast, accurate results.
  6. Keep in Touch. Let people know how things are going after you leave. First, it’s valuable to share your successes with people who helped you get there. But second, it may help you get hired down the road. It’s a small world and there’s high turnover in this business. People I’ve interned with just in Grand Rapids now work in almost a dozen cities across the United States.

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