Can you feel that? That slight rattling on the ground beneath you? That’s the collective trembling of all college seniors, those accomplished but rightfully intimidated students on the verge of entering the workforce after their impending graduation. And, no, the process never gets any easier or less stressful.
Fortunately, Lauren Berger is here to help. Known as the ”Intern Queen,” Berger is a renown internship and career expert who’s made it her mission to visit college campuses and keep it real with students. When she’s not on her many campus tours, Berger oversees two websites, Intern Queen and Lauren Berger Inc., and she’s also a successful author. Today marks the release of her second book, Welcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career, an entertaining and, most importantly, helpful guide to navigating your first on-the-job experience.
Taking time out of her currently hectic college tour, Berger spoke with Complex about her past mistakes, the do’s and don’ts of entering the workplace, and finding success through helping others find their own.
How did you land your first internship?
My mother always told me that I needed to get an internship—she started when I was a freshman in college. I finally went to the career center and was told that I couldn’t get an internship until I was a junior or a senior. I was bummed, but I went back to my dorm and googled a couple of companies on my own and cold-called a company, and ended up landing an internship.
What I learned from that experience is that you have to take initiative and tell people what you want. When someone tells you "no," you have to go out of your way, take initiative, and find that chance. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and cold-call if you need to.
Are employers only looking for juniors and seniors, or will they be willing to hire you if you have that passion as a freshman or sophomore?
Traditionally speaking, employers want juniors and seniors. However, what's happening is that students are starting to intern younger and younger. They're going through college much more qualified and skilled than they have been in the past. Employers' perceptions are starting to change a little bit and they are much more open to bringing on freshman and sophomores than they have been in the past.
What should a good interview consist of?
A good interview candidate is someone who walks in very prepared. Someone who has done their homework and went on the website and learned everything they could about the company before they even walked into the interview. The best internship candidate walks in confident and really tries to walk the like between being passionate and professional. It's really important to find that balance in your tone and the way you present yourself.
What are some do’s and don’ts of being an intern?
A don’t is don’t harass the internship coordinator everyday with a new question leading up to your internship. There's an actual human being on the other side of the computer and they don’t want a new email from you every single day.
Take a deep breath and think about all the questions you have before the internship starts. “What should I bring on the first day? What is the company dress code? Where should I park?” All of those questions should be condensed into one email. It shouldn’t be a constant back and forth; you don’t want the coordinator to be annoyed with you before you even start.
You do focus on the first impression but you don’t only focus on the first impression. What you should do is focus on building a lasting impression. It's not just about day one—it's about day 12, day 20, and the last day of the internship. Were you consistent? Did you bring your A-game on day one and did you bring it throughout the duration of your internship?
What's the key to networking and setting yourself up for future employment or another internship?
The best thing you can do is build what I call "below-the-surface relationships" with people in your office. That should be with fellow interns and actual executives with the company—don’t just focus on relationships with your boss. Focus on relationships with assistants and entry-level employees. Even the janitor is important. But when I say "below-the-surface relationships," I mean that you don’t want fake relationships with everybody—you want to find out what's important to people. Did someone just get married? Did they just have a baby? Are they upset with their dog? Did they just get back from a trip to Hawaii?
Try to ask questions to dig a little bit and find out more about the people you're working with. These are things that you can talk with them about. “How was your trip to Hawaii? Hope you and your new baby are doing great!”
What's another good way to help yourself stand out amongst the rest?
I mentioned not focusing on the first impression but the last impression, and, again, on day one everyone is on their A-game. But when it comes to day ten and day 20, that's when you really have an opportunity to stand out. Everyone else is going to get a little sloppy and start wearing jeans with holes in them; they're going to start texting and you're not going to do that. You're going to maintain your sense of professionalism. You wont have the knots in your stomach anymore and you can still be outgoing, friendly, and professional at all times. That's what's going to make you the reliable future job candidate that someone wants to hire.
What advice would you give to students who are attempting to balance their education and internship while still trying to maintain a social life?
We are all too busy for our own good and life has really become this never-ending to-do list. It used to be that a entrepreneur’s day never ended because they make their own plans and their own schedule. But in today’s world no one’s to-do list ends. It doesn’t matter if you work at Target or you're a celebrity publicist or just a college student. Everyone makes their own crazy, and ambitious to-do lists and nobody can complete those lists.
My advice is to set boundaries for yourself and understand the difference between something being urgent and something being important. The urgent stuff has to get done and the important stuff can wait until tomorrow. You could always argue that something is more important than something else, but, again, recognize the difference between what's urgent and what's important. That's going to help you set positive boundaries in your life.
What have you learned from your earlier mistakes?
I wrote Welcome to The Real World because I had a very chaotic first job experience. Just like the Taylor Swift song, I would describe it as miserable and magical—that's what she calls the age of 22. It's ironic because I was 22 with my first job out of college. You learn so much about yourself and so much about the world both personally and professionally. That learning curve is huge.
When I started my first job, my world was flipped upside down. I was working for a very powerful talent agent and I wasn't thinking in a very detail-oriented manor. I'd never had such a heavy work load and such high expectations set for me before. I just didn’t know what to do. I was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Iad no time for my personal life, I was fat, and my clothes were dirty; my car would break down, and I would forget to put my paycheck in my bank account because I had forgotten to set up my direct deposit. I made every mistake, even sending my boss to the wrong meeting.
I kept saying to myself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was going to be like this?” So my new book is me getting an opportunity to tell everyone else that the real world is going to hit and it's going to hit you hard, and here are the ways that you handle it. I wish I had this book after college.
Do you think the millennial generation has a lack of professionalism or passion?
No. It's tough because I'm part of the millennial generation and I do think that we are responsible. The one misconception is about the amount of hours that you work, and that probably starts to blur into this "busy" concept I was talking about earlier. I tell my employees that I don’t care how many hours they work—if they don’t get results, it doesn’t matter. It's important to educate young people on being result-oriented in the workplace.
What are three on-the-rise industries young people should be looking into?
Digital marketing is huge, anything with social media or online television. You've seen Netflix and Hulu and a bunch of really cool companies starting to do their own original programming. In general, flexibility in a corporate environment and working from home have been really popular.
Which is more beneficial: internships or education?
I don’t think one is more important than the other these days. Education and experience really compliment each other. Going to class is really important, and then the internship is the opportunity to apply what you are learning in the textbook to real life. The two can play very nicely together; you just have to let them.
I don't agree with the students who say, “Oh, school isn’t important, I only have a 2.5 GPA." Get your GPA up ASAP, because if you don’t have a better GPA, someone else will and they will have internship experience and you wont be able to stand out. And if you have a 4.0 but no work experience, you better get something on your resume because an employer is going to want someone with on-the-job experience.
What's the most common question that students ask when you visit campuses?
It's funny because a year ago, the questions pointed to a lack of experience. This year, however, I've noticed that students are asking more questions about time management. "I'm doing all of these things, so how do I manage it?"
It's interesting to see how the conversation has shifted over the past year or two. We just put a blog on the website last week and it was called "Are you too involved on campus?" I felt like a year ago I really had to push students to get involved and now I have to push students to focus on organizations that are really important to them.
Employers don’t care if you are a part of ten organizations or you went to a meeting; they want to know that you led the meeting and sat on the executive board for that organization.
Is there really a lack of opportunity for employment among college graduates?
First of all, there are always going to be people in life who get ahead of us because they know somebody, and that's just life and politics. I'm sure that there were several internships that I didn’t get because the boss’ friends daughter got it.
However, when you say, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any professional contacts before I started my internships. Because I did my internships, I was able to make so many great professional contacts and I was very good at cultivating those contacts over time, so when I moved from Florida to Los Angeles, I called one of those contacts and they made another call for me and got me an interview at one of my dream jobs.
On your website, you discuss adult internship opportunities. How can older people reach out to companies and obtain positions?
Adult internships have been popular for a few years now. There's a trend amongst some stay-at-home moms and dads going back to school and want to get there foot in the door, and my advice to them is to call out the obvious. If you go into an interview and you're ten or 20 years older than the person interviewing, you say something about it and break the ice. Let them know that you realize there's an age difference but you respect this person and their authority.
If you're a freshman going into an internship that only takes on seniors, call it out in the beginning. “Yes, I'm a freshman, but I want to work for your company because of X, Y, and Z.”
Interview by Vincent Angiolillo