Dear Summer Intern: This is an audition for your future
FORTUNE — Once upon a time – i.e., eons ago – one of us had a summer internship that mainly involved playing golf with the boss, who appreciated the company of a college kid with a single-digit handicap. Not much work got done, but it didn’t seem to matter, particularly to the boss. The other one of us (the one whose handicap is so obscene it can’t be printed in a family publication) once had a summer job that revolved around asking, “Would you like your eggs bagged separately?” It was boring, sure, but the hours were great if hitting the pool is your kind of thing.
As the song goes, “Those were the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end….”
Well, they did. They really, really did. Today, due to economic conditions that need no explanation, most college grads have to fight and claw for entry-level jobs in their chosen fields, and many, perhaps as many as 25%, aren’t even able to get a well-shined shoe in the door.
So say goodbye to your father’s, or even your older brother’s, summer internship, when the office was, for all intents and purposes, where you passed the time between weekends at Cape Cod, and the best thing about going to work each day was that it meant — hallelujah! — you weren’t going to classes or taking exams.
Say hello instead to a summer that offers what might be your best hope of landing a real, live job upon graduation. That is — if you can just remember two little things.
O.K., maybe they aren’t little.
The first is to be keenly aware of who is courting whom this summer. Sure, the cheerful hiring people might have assured you that your internship is designed to introduce you to the company’s wonderful staff and culture and help you gain valuable industry experience, which is all well and good. Take that stuff in. But the bottom line is that, whether you’re working at an investment bank or a radio station, your summer internship should be more about giving than getting. Indeed, it should primarily be about you giving a helluva performance, over-delivering, making an impression with your insightful, unexpected ideas and terrific, sweat-the-details kind of output that prompts people to say, “Holy Cow, this kid really wants it.”
You need to do stuff that makes your boss look like a hero. Suggest a small process improvement, come up with a cool packaging idea, offer deep-dive insights into a customer segment. Do something, anything, that might make your boss think, “It would really stink if this kid worked at one of our competitors.” That’s the kind of wow you’re after…every single day.
Our second “little” piece of advice is both easier and simpler. Be likable. Just that. Fun, upbeat, friendly, authentic, filled with positive energy, happy, agreeable, chit-chatty about sports and the weather and The Avengers, or frankly, whatever everyone at your company likes to be chit-chatty about. Get in the game and play, even literally, if there’s a softball game to be had. Let people know you. Let them hear you laugh. Let them see your humanity. Sure, some people are so freakishly smart, their personalities don’t matter and they don’t have to make the kind of nice we suggest. But those people are rare, and most of them don’t need summer internships anyway because they’re millionaires by age 18, with a couple of patents or apps to their name.
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one last summer to-do item, which is not to take place at work but rather in the privacy of your own cheap rental. The pastor and author Terry A. Smith makes the case that people are happiest when they are working in their “Area of Destiny” — that gorgeous piece of emotional and intellectual real estate that exists at the intersection of what you’re uniquely good at and what deeply interests and excites you. We couldn’t agree more; indeed, we talk about “Area of Destiny” so often with our own college-aged kids that they’ve been known to greet us by saying, “My area of destiny is fine today, thanks, how’s yours?”
They’re joking, but it’s not a bad question to ask yourself. So this summer, while you’re over-delivering and winning likability points in extremis, also think long and hard about whether you’re on the road to a career that someday will give you the chance to simultaneously do what you’re good at and what you love. Because that is the place you want to land. It’s where you belong.
And the first step in that direction, dear summer intern, is getting an A on the job right now.