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Shannon Carlson

Shannon Carlson is a graduating senior in Industrial Engineering who will be going to work for Clarity Insights in Chicago after graduation. Shannon did her co-op at Allstate and shares her wisdom on how best to succeed in your internship or co-op experience.

How to Make the Most of Your Work Experience

Preparation is key

There is no such thing as over-preparing for your internship or co-op term. Even though it might seem impossible to think about starting work so soon after you just completed your finals, trust me, it’s worth it. You’re definitely going to want to nail down as many logistical things as possible before your first day. How will you be getting to work? If you’re taking the train, can you take the purple express? Does the intercampus stop near your office? If you’re driving, is there a route that avoids the highways? I speak from experience when I say that rush hour is no joke. What is the dress code of the office? Business formal? Business casual? Smart casual? (Yes this is a real thing). And finally, a more nuanced point, what are you going to do for lunch? Does your office have a cafeteria? Are you close to restaurants? Or will you be like me and pack your lunch each morning (in my case to avoid the Sodexo Workplace dining options).

At some point before you start, you’re also going to want to figure out who your supervisor is. Not only will it make your first day easier, you can also start to get acquainted with them and their background before you start. Are they an NU alum? (Find out from the “Our Northwestern” alumni directory!). Have they worked at the company long? (Connect on LinkedIn!). Would they be willing to grab a coffee with you before you start? (The ultimate good first impression).

And, as a shameless plug, talk to former interns and co-ops! We love to share our experiences and help in any way that we can. Get all your “dumb” questions answered without having to ask your boss and get an honest perspective of the position at the same time. The Engineering Career Development Office is a great resource for this- they keep track of where Northwestern students have worked and have an archive of student reflections about their experiences. Take some time to stop in before your first day!

Get to know your coworkers

Your coworkers can make or break your work experience. Getting along with them can make the days fly by and work infinitely more enjoyable. Some of my favorite moments during my work terms happened when my coworkers and I at lunch together in the cafeteria. We played card games, talked about Game of Thrones, and just generally took a break from the hustle and bustle of the work place. I also had the opportunity to travel with a few of them and got to know them even better through those trips. We explored new cities, tried new cuisines, and even went on a hike (in business casual attire!). And while having a positive relationship helps to make work more fun, it also makes it infinitely easier to ask for advice, feedback, and help if you need it.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

I know this phrase is probably old and worn out by now, but it’s still true! I was really worried going into my co-op that I would be asked to do things that I didn’t know how to do. But, in reality, everyone realizes that you’re still a student and they don’t expect you to know everything. Still, if you feel like you’re in over your head, ask for help! Ask about topics, processes, formulas, methods- whatever you don’t know, ask. It shows that you’re engaged and interested in the work you’re doing. And, it helps you learn more quickly so you can contribute more in the future.

This works in the other direction, as well. If you ever find yourself idle, ask for a new project! Nothing feels worse than being bored at a job where you’re supposed to be learning and nothing signals to your supervisor that you’re a hard worker than asking for more to do. It may seem intimidating to ask your boss for more work (what if they pile on more than you can handle or they just don’t trust you to do important things yet) but there’s no harm in asking. I can almost guarantee they’ll be able to think of something, and if they can’t, try to find a way to make yourself useful anyway!

Reflect on the gaps in your knowledge

Near the end of your experience, reflect on your time in the position. What skills were you lacking? Were there concepts you weren’t familiar with? Write down a list and then try to pick a couple of classes that will help you close that knowledge gap, even if it’s just by a little. Ask your coworkers and supervisor for feedback about skills that you should work on or classes that they found particularly helpful when they were in college. The skills you decide to focus on don’t necessarily have to relate to your major; things like public speaking, time management, and teamwork can all be areas that you decide to work on improving. Now, this reflection is especially helpful if you are going to return to the same company for another work term (possibly in pursuit of a co-op certificate). What would you like to improve on while you’re gone? What new skills do you want to learn and have the ability to practice when you come back? But, the reflection and mindful growth plan can also be helpful if you are going be looking for a new position later on. Being able to talk about what you learned since your internship ended, and how your work experience affected how you approached your coursework, can be extremely beneficial in a job interview.