Career Planning

15 Top Skills Every Student Intern Should Have

Find out the most important skills every student intern should have.

Guest Contributor, Christian Eilers: Goodwall

November 20, 2023

15 Top Skills Every Student Intern Should Have
Student interns should have both soft and hard skills.
During an internship, you'll earn a lot of great skills, experience, knowledge, and professional networking opportunities. But, before you get all the perks that come with internship opportunities, you need to land the internship and then knock it out of the park. Hiring managers look for candidates who possess certain soft skills, along with any hard skills required in the particular internship role. However, there are other skills you’ll want to build up on your own if you truly want to succeed during your time as an intern. In this post, we’ll give you the most important of both varieties.

15 Skills Every Student Intern Should Have

Here is a list of skills every intern should have and continuously improve upon:
  1. Communication Skills

    The ability to communicate effectively is certainly one of the most important skills interns should have, if not the top one. At any company, communication that is timely, actionable, accurate, and understood is critical for long-term success and day-to-day operations. Information is important, of course, but the way that information is conveyed makes all the difference. Some communication skills will be tested well before you secure the internship. For example, you’ll have to showcase great written communication skills and visual presentation abilities on your job application, resume, and cover letter. At the internship interview, you’ll have the chance to wow them with your verbal communication skills and active listening. Non-verbal communication such as eye contact and body language may play a role here, as well. Don’t let off once you land the internship position, either. To succeed as an intern — and in every role you’ll have in the coming decades of your professional career — your ability to communicate effectively will play a central role.
  2. Organizational Skills

    Student interns are given a lot of tasks, goals, and information all at once and constantly during the three to six months in the position. “Organizational skills” is actually an umbrella term for a group of skills that lets you use time and resources efficiently and effectively, including time management, delegation, scheduling, and setting goals, among others. To be successful as an intern, you’ll have to stay organized. From finance internships to political internships, keeping things straight will ensure you stay on schedule, up to date, and productive, and it will help you deliver at the highest quality. Plus, with the inevitable stress that comes with navigating a busy working environment, you’ll be better able to keep potential anxiety at bay.
  3. Initiative

    Initiative is one of those traits that can really set you apart from others, both now as an intern and even more so later on, as a full-fledged employee. Simply put, initiative is to take action on your own, without instruction or suggestion from your supervisor first. It’s a display of enterprise and resourcefulness that often impresses managers and coworkers alike. Taking initiative should be done after careful consideration; otherwise, it could be seen as inappropriate, overstepping, or an example of poor judgment. However, when done right, it shows you can think for yourself, work independently, and make decisions when needed — a surefire way to shine as a candidate, intern, or employee!
  4. Adaptability and Resilience

    A workplace can be quite a fast-changing environment, and interns often feel that acutely thanks to constantly shifting schedules, tasks, and goals. To thrive, you’ll have to be adaptable and resilient. Adaptability is your ability to adjust based on changing circumstances, while resilience is your ability to recover from setbacks and difficulties. Reframe negative feedback as constructive criticism. Think of setbacks and mistakes made as opportunities to learn. Try to view challenges ahead as obstacles to be overcome. Embrace change and be flexible when hardships happen along, as both are certain to happen over the course of your internship.
  5. Ability to Work Independently

    Though you may find yourself on a large team with dozens of stakeholders, hiring managers still prize the self-sufficiency skill in their prospective interns. Working autonomously is a great way to focus on deep work and knock out small or overdue tasks. However, it takes self-discipline, as you’ll be required to keep on top of yourself. Also, be sure to understand when to work independently and when not to — it’s better to collaborate and ask questions than to deliver work that is over budget, out of scope, or of poor quality. The ability to work independently goes hand in hand with taking initiative, and together they show how trustworthy you can be without supervision — a prerequisite for getting more responsibilities and promotions in the future. And, if you want the company to offer you a contract when your internship comes to an end, this is definitely one of the traits they’re going to be looking for.
  6. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

    The problem-solving process involves identifying an issue, isolating the cause, evaluating solutions or alternatives, implementing these fixes, and later following up to ensure the problem is resolved. The decision-making process identifies one or multiple possible courses of action, gathers data and potential options, and then attempts to determine the best course forward. The two are often grouped together, and they do share some overlapping elements. In fact, some people group problem-solving skills as a subset of decision-making skills, while others actually consider the decision-making process to fit under the problem-solving process. The abilities to solve problems and make good decisions are important for interns, college students, and employees, as well as in regular, everyday life. As an intern, you’ll be tasked with solving multiple problems with less information at the start compared to regular employees. You’ll need to make good decisions based on sound judgment, so always be prepared to explain how you arrived at your chosen solution or course of action.
  7. Curiosity / Inquisitiveness

    Always ask questions. While this is especially true during an internship as you try to soak up knowledge about employment and the industry, it’s good advice throughout your career, as well. Being inquisitive is more than simply getting answers to questions you have. It tells employers you take initiative. It shows off your passion for learning and your dedication to self-improvement. Curiosity will help you make better decisions, plan more efficiently, and work more effectively, making it one of the most valuable traits any intern could have!
  8. Interpersonal Skills

    Known in everyday conversation as “social skills” or “people skills,” interpersonal skills add up to the ability to interact with and work with others well. According to a soft skill study in the IUP Journal of Soft Skills, great interpersonal skills are associated with both how effective the intern is and employable they might be later. Made up of a group of skills including communication, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and more, interpersonal skills are highly sought-after in employees and interns. It forms the backbone of effective teamwork and collaboration, and your interpersonal skills will be measured with each and every professional interaction you take part in, from interviews to networking to leadership and beyond.
  9. Self-Motivation

    Self-motivation is your own internal drive to accomplish your goals and tasks. While initiative plays a large role in it, self-motivation goes far beyond simply doing things without being asked. It implies a desire to achieve success and earn top results, acknowledging and delighting in the act of needing to push yourself on your own. We all have different levels of self-motivation depending on what’s being considered. One person might be highly motivated to exercise each day after work with a personal goal of competing in a triathlon in a year’s time. Another person might have set a personal challenge to read 100 books in a year, for instance. As an intern, it’s important to show self-motivation toward something that aligns with the company’s goals. While your passion and drive is great, your manager will particularly appreciate these characteristics when it aligns with your team objectives. To help motivate yourself, think of your professional goals with the internship. Why are you there? What are you hoping to accomplish? Whether it’s work experience or networking opportunities or something else, use that as a North Star to help keep your eyes on the prize. When you can connect smaller, mundane responsibilities with your overall goal, you’ll be better able to sustain self-motivation as an intern!
  10. Tenacity / Determination

    Tenacity is the quality of being very determined while having the persistence to get things done when necessary. As an intern, you are often simultaneously the newest team member, the lowest in rank, the youngest coworker, and “just” (in the eyes of the long-term staff) a temporary colleague. Because of these points, unfortunately, you may have to deal with being overlooked or having your ideas dismissed, among other things. For example, while you will often work within one specific team, you may have to make the rounds through different departments to get buy-in, feedback, permissions, updates, and other things. Maybe clients, investors, readers, or end users are involved, as well, which can test even the most seasoned employee. In this case, tenacity is seeing your obligation to get the job done — and get it done right — without cutting corners or giving up early. Tenacity shouldn’t be confused with stubbornness or being annoying, though you might think it comes off that way. Nor should determination lock you onto a path that may not make sense after new information comes to light. But, when used appropriately, tenacity and determination can certainly set you apart from other interns!
  11. Receptiveness and Coachability

    Receptiveness refers to one’s ability and willingness to accept ideas, suggestions, decisions, and demands, and the ability to do so professionally. Similarly, according to Joseph Folkman, a leadership development researcher, someone who is coachable “not only responds well when given feedback, they ask for feedback. They view the input from others as a valuable tool in their development. They also are willing to take actions and make personal changes based on the feedback.” Essentially, you’ll have to have somewhat of a thick skin. When given feedback you feel is negative, accept it gracefully rather than getting upset about it. Thank them for the learning opportunity instead of storming off with an attitude. As an intern, being coachable means having a commitment to professional development. Don’t just thank someone for instruction or feedback, but really take it to heart.
  12. Ability to Plan and Prioritize

    Planning and prioritizing skills have everything to do with productivity, efficiency, impact, and organization. Your ability to plan requires time management skills, and being able to prioritize tasks goes even further, incorporating adaptability, problem-solving, decision-making, and analytical thinking. As an intern, you may find yourself being pulled in multiple directions at once. You might be given conflicting information or instructions, or you could be given several tasks all with a high priority and due yesterday. To avoid stress and achieve success, it is important that you are able to prioritize what’s on your plate yourself. Learn to estimate delivery times, and come up with your own personal scale of urgency and importance. Practice managing expectations early, especially when you’re certain of the impossibility. Incorporate flexibility into the mix, as you’re certain to get last-minute requests you hadn’t expected that are both incredibly urgent and of the highest importance.
  13. Critical Thinking

    In the workplace, critical thinking is often that which is open-minded, evidence-backed, rational, and based on analytical reasoning and reflection. As a critical thinker, you evaluate information logically, independently, and thoroughly, as opposed to rashly or based solely on intuition. Employers place a high value on critical thinking, as it usually goes hand-in-hand with making good decisions and being well-informed. In certain industries, it’s absolutely necessary, especially those dealing with data, money, health, law, and marketing. At its finest, critical thinking prepares you to answer tough questions, equips you to back up your reasoning with proof, and shows off your ability to view issues from all perspectives.
  14. Creativity

    One of the many benefits interns bring to the table is creativity. In fact, many companies and teams look forward to new pools of student interns, as they’ll bring with them fresh ideas, new perspectives, and creative approaches to things that veteran employees may be blind to. During your internship, show off your creativity by pitching ideas and suggestions, large and small. Don’t worry about creative contributions that don’t take off, as you’ll still be showcasing your initiative while simultaneously building up that all-important resilience we discussed earlier. A true win-win!
  15. Integrity

    More than just honesty, integrity has to do with ethics, moral principles, reliability, accountability, sense of responsibility, and trustworthiness. It’s a major part of the work ethic you portray, and your colleagues and supervisors want someone they can trust as an intern coworker, rather than someone who is unreliable, dishonest, or doesn’t assume responsibility for their actions. Integrity means telling the truth and fessing up to mistakes, even when it might see you reprimanded or doing extra work to fix the problem. It means giving credit where it’s due. It requires a commitment to acting honestly at all times, even when nobody is watching. Though it takes more effort to stay the honorable course than it does to cut corners, you’ll be rewarded over time with earning the benefit of the doubt, increased trust and responsibilities, and pride in your own work

Final Words

The 15 above are by no means all the skills interns should have, of course. However, working on the above and learning to show these soft skills on a resume and at internship interviews will go a long way toward landing you the opportunity. For every internship you apply to, be sure to research the position to understand the hard skills and technical abilities that are required, as well as other soft skills we didn’t touch on. The job description and the company’s website will be two of your best friends in this regard. To further build skills important to internships and getting hired after, join Goodwall! Connect with a global community of over two million students and young professionals around the world to showcase your achievements, advance your career, and support you as you navigate the world of work. Christian Eilers is a career and education writer with a focus on the topics of professional development, college entry, university life, internships, scholarships, and entrepreneurship. Leading the Goodwall Blog, he covers subjects including self-improvement, social impact, college preparation, career advancement, fighting climate change, and more. Christian is originally from New York City, and, in his spare time, he enjoys reading, writing, and building fun, temporary forts for his two cats to play in.

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