The Hill Life: Etiquette for Job Seeking Interns

Interns work for free hoping to find paid work in the future.  No one expects you to be an indentured servant forever.  But if you want to find a paid position without burning bridges with your intern office, you need to follow some basic rules. 

Be Upfront About Your Intentions. If your intern coordinator asks you if you can commit to a full semester, don’t say yes and then cross your fingers behind your back.  Simply tell the interviewer that you’re looking for an internship so that you can learn the ropes on Capitol Hill and that you intend to start looking for work towards the end of your internship.  Your honesty will be greatly appreciated.

Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep.  If you committed to intern for three months, you need to intern for three months.  If you are wary about doing that, say so and then find another internship. If they don’t ask you to commit to a certain time period, refer to rule number one.

The Hill is a small place and you don’t want to start burning bridges during your first weeks on the job.  I still remember the names of all of my interns and I can tell you which ones left on good terms and which ones did not. 

Don’t Lie About Your Experience.  When you interview for a paid position, you are an ambassador for your intern office.  We trained you.  We’re vouching for you.  And your failings are our failings.  So don’t lie about the kind of work that you did for us, how long you interned or your level of experience.

If you tell a prospective employer that you did legislative research, drafted press releases and staffed committee meetings, you better damn well have done it.  Because if they call me and ask about the quality of your press releases and you’ve never written a single one, I will not lie for you.  The person calling me is my colleague and I will not sacrifice my credibility to get you a job.  So be honest about what you’ve done for your intern office.

Plus, even if you do get away with it, the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing will become obvious in short order.  You don’t want to whittle away at your credibility from day one.

And on a side note, do not make it all the way through your internship without writing a single memo or attending a committee hearing.  Yes, it is our job to teach you but it is also your job to stand up and ask for a lesson.  The worst thing that you can do is sit at your cube and sort mail all summer.  You need to network inside your own office and use your time as an intern as a learning experience.  For more information on that, click here.

Give Notice.   If you can, give your intern office two weeks notice, do it.  If not, give them as much notice as possible.  I would recommend no fewer than five business days.  But if you get the job on a Wednesday and need to start work on a Monday, that’s fine too as long as you let your supervisor know immediately.


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  1. Kait says:

    Thanks for this post – I greatly appreciate the advice you give. What do you suggest for someone that is coming out to DC in the fall w/ a JD that has previously interned for a summer in an office, and (hopefully) will have just passed the bar. Do you think it hurts applicants? I'm willing to take any level staffing job – I'm just hoping it opens some additional doors.

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  2. Nina says:

    I really love these posts. I send them to all the interns from my alma mater because we come from a small school, and I won't have some flip-flop wearing skintern ruin our collective reputation. Also, they should get off my law. /cranky old

    Seriously, these are great.

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  3. Katie says:

    Thanks for this post, Belle.

    I am a recent grad and I have been on the job hunt for the past 8 months. At the moment, I am also looking for (full-time) paid internships that may open the door for me in getting employed. Since I have been on the job search for the last eight months, I am concerned how this might hurt of my chances of landing a internship or a job. What you think of gaps in resumes due to unemployment? Do you think they hurt you?

    Also, as I am looking for opportunitites in the D.C. area, I would LOVE LOVE if you can share in post how to live in D.C. on an intern budget.

    Again-thank you! You give such helpful career advice.

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  4. p says:

    Even though I am no longer an intern, I always look forward to these posts!
    @Katie, for my 2 cents, I do not think it's a huge deal to have a gap like that on your resume right out of school – most employers understand that it's a tough economy and it's not that you're lazy. My advice would be to move to DC and look into a temp agency (or several). They can give you flexible, short-term opportunities while you look and you'll have something to put on your resume.

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  5. MM says:

    Katie –
    My personal feeling is that everyone understands what a tough job market is is right now, so a gap on your resume shouldn't be a big deal – but if you can do some volunteer work in the mean time to help fill that gap, it certainly wouldn't hurt.
    Also, since paid internships can be more difficult to come by, I would suggest also looking for a part time internship that can give you relevent work experience while at the same time working a part time job to pay the bills – babysitting pays pretty well in the DC area ($10-$15/hour), or there's always waiting tables, etc. That might serve you better than waiting for the perfect paid internship to come along, and not having that internship be full time shouldn't hurt you – people understand that you need to eat!
    As far as living on an intern budget, live with roommates, resist the temptation to go out for drinks/food as much as possible, and use Belle's posts as inspiration, but shop for those looks at places like target, marshalls, and goodwill and you can still find and acceptable wardrobe. Also, Craigslist and Ikea are your friends for appartment furnishing. Hope this helps – good luck!

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  6. KG says:

    Belle, what is your advice if you just didn't “gel” with your intern office? In my experience, and it could have been that I did something wrong that I'm not recalling, but it just seemed like it wasn't a good fit and I didn't do my best work. Is there a way to find a job despite not having the most positive experience? I have a lot of anxiety about the fact that I know I can do better, but I'm afraid it's too late. Any thoughts?

    July 6, 2011/Reply
  7. Belle says:

    Um, well, as long as you didn't do anything really wrong, you should be fine. I've had plenty of so-so interns, but I wouldn't give any of them a bad recommendation. You might try interning in another office, but unless they really have a reason not to recommend you, I wouldn't be too worried.

    If you really feel you didn't learn anything though, I'd try to find another internship, maybe in the gap months between summer and fall.

    July 6, 2011/Reply