One thing I really regret about my summer internships (many of which occurred at the height of the dot-com boom, when startups were everywhere) is that although I made plenty of money, I learned very little. The money was typically gone by the end of the first and second term, so I still spent most of my year broke and it didn't make all that much difference even in the short term, and made absolutely no difference in the long-term.
On the other hand, having some solid experience working at a cool startup would have made a much longer-lasting impact on my career, life, and so on. You don't have to do great internships while at university, but it sure helps.
First, pick one thing you want to learn. You're likely starting this whole process with the idyllic perspective that, "Golly, it's swell they gave me a gig". This is factually true, but I prefer the perspective: I am choosing to work with these fine people because they have a thing to teach me. Every job I've loved shares the same characteristic: I'm learning from people I respect.
Don't work for a company where you won't learn anything (I spent a whole summer being paid richly, at least for an intern, to hone my minesweeper skills; don't do that). And make an effort to sponge up everything that you can out of them.
Michael also offers some more practical advice:
- Find a mentor, if you haven't been assigned one.
- Find cohorts, i.e. people in the same situation as you who you can exchange thoughts on your work with, and who will tell you when they think you're wasting time.
- Talk to everyone, even if you feel naturally anti-social.
- Keep asking questions all the time. Don't get stuck on something, ask for advice. -Don't waste time with office politics and drama.
One thing I'd add about asking questions - make sure you ask them the smart way. Don't ask as soon as you get stuck on anything. Set yourself a time limit, try solving it yourself, and if you can't figure it out, then ask a question, and don't forget to mention what you did to try and resolve things yourself. This will earn you more respect, and better answers.
Play the internship game right, and when you start working for real you'll be miles ahead of those of your coworkers who learned nothing during their summers.
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