General Education

Landed the Wrong Summer Internship? 6 Tips to Make It Work.

Landed the Wrong Summer Internship? 6 Tips to Make It Work.
Image from
Jules Wonodi profile
Jules Wonodi August 17, 2019

How to make your summer internship work for you—even if it's not aligned with your career goals.

Article continues here

For those who've survived the college admission process, there comes a time when we face even less-charted waters: the summer internship.

Sure, __the summer internship has become increasingly standardized; 10 weeks, humble status, and, most importantly, paid. Recognizing value, college students scramble to find summer internships that support their career aspirations. But what do you do when your career aspirations are undeveloped or, in my case, undefined?

As students, we spend our lives working toward getting into our dream school and landing our dream job. Naturally, it makes sense to also want to secure the "dream internship", one that matches our goals and interests. But what to do when your summer internship doesn't exactly deliver on those expectations? Remember that, at its most basic level, even a bad internship is still an opportunity to learn.

When you focus less on the essential duties of your internship, you may discover new ways to get the most out of your summer. Here's what I did during my 10-week internship to optimize a position that, in the end, wasn't right for me. By adjusting certain behaviors and habits, I was able to prepare not just for a career after college, but life itself.

Be creative wherever possible

As a naturally artistic person, it was challenging to realize that the daily tasks of my internship wouldn't provide many opportunities for self-expression. Having accepted a marketing internship, I was tasked with writing Facebook ads. Sure, this was further along on the creative spectrum than other requirements of my work—but those ads needed to represent the company brand, not my own.

So, I took other opportunities to be creative. In preparing a PowerPoint, I designed each slide as if it was an art project. It could easily have been a routine assignment, but I transformed it into something in which I was personally invested. Day-to-day responsibilities, like organizing Excel sheets, helped me realize that even menial tasks can be an opportunity to get innovative.

When you have the option to make a project your own, do it. Instead of treating your work like a checklist, commit to learning as much as you can during your summer internship.

Feigning interest is something you'll need to do throughout your career. So, silver lining?

Investigate other departments

Because I interned at a startup, I had access to departments outside of my own—a bonus for any intern. Sitting in on department meetings helped me understand how my work fit into business operations and the company as a whole. Through those meetings, I also developed an interest in product development.

Later, I had lunch with the team's senior director to learn about new opportunities in this field.

Make your internship an opportunity to learn about more than just the department you work in. By being curious, you'll be able to learn about careers across all kinds of fields—some of which you have probably never heard of.

Be open about your career aspirations

I was scared to be open with my colleagues about the fact that my internship wasn't aligned with my career goals. To combat this, I reminded myself that none of them were still doing the same jobs they did when they first graduated. The head of product started out working in advertising. The head of editorial started out working in fashion.

Careers evolve. And that's okay.

In hindsight, I wish I had vocalized my interest in screenwriting and production.

Being honest about your goals will strengthen the connections in your professional network. And, who knows? Those connections may introduce you to their professional networks, which could lead to new opportunities down the line.

Make the most of free time

As a college student, there isn't an hour of the day that passes without some impending deadline or neglected reading calling for my attention. As an intern, those responsibilities (or, "homework") vanished. The hours beyond 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. were all mine. To make the most of them and have a summer experience that was more than simply "work," I couldn't just go back and forth to the office every day.

My internship required that I move to Boston from Philadelphia, where I live as a University of Pennsylvania student.

After arriving in Boston, I made sure to see my new apartment only as a home base. I found reasons to take detours on my commute home, stopping by the Boston Public Library to read, and spending time at coffee shops in my new neighborhood. By filling my evenings exploring Boston, my internship felt like a part of my life, instead of the center of it.

Learn what you don't want

Learning what you don't want in a career is just as important as learning what you want. During my internship, I took note of the projects and tasks I found particularly draining or uninteresting.

I examined my relationships with my coworkers. I realized that I had become married to my laptop and would rather be on my feet and dealing with people than work with spreadsheets. I now prioritize projects that are deeply collaborative with few instructions over more regimented work that can only be accomplished alone.

This fall, I'll attend job fairs knowing what kinds of questions I need to ask to determine which careers and business environments suit me. It's all because I have the experience to compare them to.

Know that your time wasn't wasted

Do I think my internship brought me closer to working at a production company or Hollywood studio? Probably not, but it allowed me to learn about the ins and outs of a business by being part of its daily operations.

I'm more aware of how scrappy you need to be to create career opportunities for yourself and secure professional connections. It helped me feel less anxious about post-graduate employment, now that I've had a taste of what the working world is like.

Summer internships are not the be-all and end-all of the college experience, despite what your advisor makes them out to be. And when they end up being not so great, know that you have more say in your circumstances than you think.

Jules Wonodi is a history major at the University of Pennsylvania—and also a former Noodle intern. She's from Baltimore, Maryland, and has always been passionate about education.

Questions or feedback? Email