20 Things Liberal Arts Students Need to Know At a Professional Internship


So it's late July, and if you're a college student packed in a sweaty shoebox-sized city apartment like I am, you're probably a large portion of your way through the "golden ticket" to post-grad success: the summer internship.

At small liberal arts colleges (hello, NESCAC) like mine, once April rolls around "So what's your summer plan?" questions start spreading like the flu in January, and if you haven't landed a summer internship, well, "Yikes!" Now, of course, there are many of us that graduate and lead successful, fulfilling careers without ever achieving intern status (Yes, really!). But we aren't TOTALLY crazy: According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers 2014 Internship & Co-op Student Survey, about 60 percent of interns received full-time job offers last year.

Unpaid, paid, stipend, free Chipotle under the table — however they've lured you in, you're here: the aspiring liberal arts academic pretending to know something about law, finance, marketing, journalism, you name it. Plus, if you spend the other nine months a year amid farmland like me, you're probably equally overwhelmed by the subway system (wait, they don't stop for bikers here?!) as you are by the professional work environment.

But as liberal arts students it seems we are taught just about everything BESIDES professional skills. Sure, we've read an (un)healthy amount of Shakespeare, can lead a kick-ass community service project, and can likely spit a random fact or two about anything from quantum physics to Russian history (ask us about our distros, I dare you). But is being "well-rounded" really the key to success when your boss is spitting terrifyingly unrecognizable acronyms and you're the only one in the room not salivating like Pavlov's dog (hey, at least we get the reference!)?

We might have some seriously frustrating moments, but we're doing a hell of a lot better than you might think based on the smirks people give you when you tell them you're English major. Check out this list for a laugh about everything us lib arts kids know (or NEED to) so we can swim, not sink, among our fellow pre-professional interns this summer.

1. The majority of co-workers don't recognize your school.

They probably don't know it by name, or know where it is. Nothing makes you cringe like hearing "Oh I've never heard of it, is that a community school?"

2. You should appear totally chill when no other interns know your college.

It's not the Harvard business major's fault that the whole world heralds her brand name. Plus, your less-blabbed-about institution just amps your unique flare.

3. You can hint at your school's crazy low acceptance rate, WITHOUT sounding like an asshole.

(2,100 - 2,400 SAT range? Nah, it's NBD) Gotta find a way to let the other interns know it's an even playing field, but key is to keep it SUBTLE.

4. Never touch anyone's fridge food. Ever.

This isn't your limitless swipe dining hall... touching anyone's food but your own in the office fridge is a TOTAL no-no.

5. Excel.

"Wait, it can add up all the numbers in columns or rows for you?!" I know you might not have touched Excel since your fifth grade library tutorial, but there are some crucial data logging skills you've really got to catch up on.

6. On that note, suck it up and learn your times tables.

"30 percent of $125? NOOOOOOO!" I'm talkin' to you, humanities folk: I know we all promised we'd never take a math class after our senior year, and yes, godspeed to whoever put a calculator on your iPhone. BUT when your boss asks for a quick number crunch, you'll be exponentially (har har) more embarrassed by your dead-silent brain freeze than that D you got in AP Calc.

7. Never apologize for your major.

Learn to defend it by proving it's the most marketable, universally applicable skill set anyone could ever want. Write down three solid reasons your choice was totally intentional, memorize them, and you'll be sure to impress when they ask for intern introductions at the next big meeting.

8. On that note, never apologize for anything related to what you do and do not know at this internship.

You're here because they picked you, just like they picked everyone else.

9. Don't freak when everyone at the meeting is spitting acronyms or words that definitely aren't English.

It probably feels like you're the only intern who apparently hasn't learned this secret profession-specific language, but you're most likely not. In the meeting: fake it till you make it. But WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU HEAR, look it up after, and drop all the terms next time you're around someone important — "EIC needs a clicky head/dek stat? No problem, on it!" (Journalism school overnight? Check!)

10. Rely on your outstanding writing skills.

Other interns might have spent months memorizing facts from profession-specific textbooks you've never touched, but even you science and math lib arts kids have to write a disgusting amount of essays for every class in and out of their major. A 20-page product design report by tomorrow might scare that engineering major shitless, but make sure boss knows for you, this is totally chill (remember those discussion papers you had to write every single week for that philosophy class? Yup. You got this.) Plus, thanks to that prof who consistently demands punctuation perfection (no TA graders where you're from) you'll be spotting your co-worker's grammatical errors from a mile away.

11. Swallow your pride and take A LOT of criticism.

(You're beautiful and eccentric and brilliant. But no.) I know, "on the hill" peers and profs are all about cultivating your "creative soul and mind." But sadly, in the office no one cares about your interpretive spin on how this investment MIGHT be consequentially endangering dolphins in New Zealand. When the boss needs a report of her ideas, in her format, and, oh yeah, NOW — just do it.

(Save the personal opinions for happy hour)

12. Dress the part.

The rustic hipster look totally makes you look unconventionally intellectual back at school, but there's really no room for flannels, politically-polarizing graphic tees, ripped tights, and Chacos in corporate dress code.

13. Elevator talk.

"Too awkward! Must leave!" Confused how every other intern can spark small talk that convinces you they're crazy brilliant AND makes you want to be their best friend in just a 10-second convo? Me too. Are they trained in this? Observe and learn my friends — everyone knows its hot as balls outside, and they don't need to hear it every time you share an elevator.

14. Conversely, if you get the urge to tell your boss about your floundering sex life or roommate who won't clean the dishes: Don't. Generally.

(Personal life to yourself, y'all.) While grabbing a drink with your favorite prof is not only acceptable but also every kid in your 15-person class's dream, unfortunately the standard ain't the same with your boss. Unless they ask you. In that case, FREE DRINKS!

15. Play up public speaking.

(Other interns gonna be like...)

Remember that acting class you took? Or the ridiculous number of PowerPoint presentations you gave in the past three years? While it might terrify interns who never raise a hand in their 500-person lectures, you're comfortable speaking around authority and can present your thoughts eloquently, persuasively, and succinctly. Thank you, discussion-based classes! Next meeting: make sure you participate.

16. Work those connections — like, really hard.

When someone tells you they went to your school:

When you meet someone who does have some tie to your school, know someone who went there, or, the holy grail, WENT THERE THEMSELVES, do everything it takes to become their BFF. Surprise, surprise: Turns out small, community-focused schools make us kind of obsessed with each other. So if you can, wring those alumni biases dry.

17. Knowing a little about a lot of things is actually really helpful.

When you catch your co-workers movie reference then bond about it:

All those "random" classes you took certainly weren't useless, nor are your seemingly irrelevant array of minors. You'll be sure to impress when your boss brings up current politics or the latest Sun Dance film and you can converse competently.

18. Turn ignorance into curiosity.

Don't feel stupid for not knowing profession-specific skills, or worse, pretend you can format that report and turn in jargon your boss will have to trash. Rather, preface all your uncertainties with sincere curiosity and interest: "I'm really interested in how to do X, Y, and Z, and would love to learn from your expertise!" Flattering your boss while appearing engaged, and avoiding incompetence? Triple-threat.

19. Don't forget to make friends with the other interns!

Yes, you might secretly hate them for knowing everything you don't, BUT they are a key source of info and probably really cool, too. Plus, you can celebrate together once the summer's over, or just every Friday at 5 p.m.


Victory lap! You landed this sweet internship, you're killin' it, and you CAN keep up with kids who do have a pre-professional education. Turns out if you make the effort, life will teach you what you need to know, and giant lecture halls ain't necessary to learn elevator chitchat or the ins and outs of a new field.

Images: The Luxury Spot; All GIFs: Giphy