An internship can be a transforming experience, especially if you work hard to make the most of it. You’ll develop your knowledge base, build your resume, and connect with peers and mentors. Students learn so much by observing — and, if they’re lucky, participating in — the everyday activities of companies. Think of being an intern as your first step in a long and fulfilling career.

How to Prepare

Before the internship begins, you can prepare yourself to succeed.

Ask questions. When you’re looking for honest, straightforward answers to questions about your upcoming internship, your best bet is a former intern. They’ve experienced the same opportunity you’re embarking on and know exactly what this adventure will hold. Ask around on your college campus to find former interns, and then start tapping into their wealth of knowledge. The campus career services office is another outlet for your relevant questions. Chances are the company you’ll soon be joining has worked with campus representatives for years, so those staffers likely have the answers you seek.

Research the company and your department. In our interconnected world, it’s easy to find a library of knowledge about the company you’ll soon join. Make your first stop the organization’s website to learn more about its services, products, mission and values. This information is public and a real boon for preparing for your internship. Many companies also distribute recruiting materials to your campus, and these are generally available in your campus career services office. Brochures or booklets aim to attract prospects, but they also educate students on information the company deems important. Conduct a website search for news and press releases. Information about philanthropic efforts, company expansions or organizational events often pop up in a basic search and can serve as talking points for conversations with your co-workers.

Trace your steps. If you live close to your future office, visit it ahead of time. Make the trip at the time of day you’ll typically be traveling for a realistic idea of how traffic and stoplights will affect your commute. Plan to arrive early for the first week; you’ll be confident you won’t be late. If you can’t make the trip ahead of time, use Internet-mapping services. These provide an estimated travel time taking traffic and construction into account.

Maximize the Opportunity

During the internship, make the most of the chance to learn about the company and career as well as to impress the people who can make you a permanent job offer.

Ask smart questions. You’re not pestering employees when you ask questions. Generally, people will gladly take time to answer and even follow up. Try to understand the big picture of a project. If questions aren’t welcomed during your internship, consider that a red flag. If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions now, you likely won’t in the future.

Find a mentor. Often, a company matches interns with employees, but mentoring relationships also happen organically. Don’t limit yourself to one mentor only in your department, and don’t limit yourself to learning only about the task at hand. A mentor can help you understand office policies and project processes, and they also can offer advice on connecting with colleagues or finding the right community service fit.

Take initiative. It never hurts to ask about projects or processes that interest you. Or, within reason, try to find something out on your own. Someone who steps up, shows passion and asks for more responsibility is a valuable team member now and in the future.

Get involved. An internship’s most valuable takeaways are often the relationships you build. So get out there and volunteer, play sand volleyball, chat over coffee and say yes to that happy hour (provided you’re legal!). You’ll get to know the company culture and the people you may be working alongside someday.

Explore every opportunity. You may love the department in which you’ve been placed, or you may think another group is a better fit. Take some time to explore all the opportunities a company has to offer. You’ll benefit from the clarity when you look for a full-time job.

Ask for feedback. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses helps you get better. So ask for feedback early and often. No formal feedback policy? Set up a time early during your internship to talk with your manager about expectations and evaluations. If you do receive feedback, take it and run with it, making noticeable changes and improvements as necessary.

Network. This one seems pretty obvious. Have the chance for a little face time with the company’s leadership? It’s always in your best interest to take it. Interacting with corporate-level types at networking events can provide insight about why they chose to build a career at that company and what path they took to advance their career.

Be flexible. The best learning experiences are often those that pop up and surprise you. Whether it’s an unexpected trip to meet a client or changing projects altogether, don’t be thrown by last-minute opportunities. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll also demonstrate you can adapt, think on your feet and be ready for a challenge. Be eager to take on what may seem to be easy work; no matter how small the task, it will help out the project manager.

Leave your comfort zone. Even if you think a task is beyond you, don’t give up. Try your best to see what you can accomplish. But don’t be afraid to wave the white flag when you need to. A company doesn’t expect you to know everything at the beginning of your internship. It’s about the learning process, and taking advantage of the resources around you to grow and develop. If you are asked to travel to a job site, be enthusiastic. The best learning can happen outside of the office.

Have fun. Work hard, play hard. It’s cliché, but accurate. Companies want you to take your internship seriously, but they also want you to enjoy your experience. After all, it is your break from school. Rely on good time management to balance work with fun and enjoy yourself!

Turning the Internship Into a Job Offer

Treat your internship like a long job interview. Every encounter could be the one in which you make the critical impression. Even if you don’t realize it, people notice your questions and level of enthusiasm. Imagine how much less stress you’ll have in your last years of college if you go back to school with a job offer in your pocket.

On the other hand, a successful internship outcome might also be deciding that this is the wrong company or career for you. Learning what you don’t want to do is also a valuable lesson. Who wouldn’t want to try out a job before you have to accept a full-time position?

Regardless, a successful internship will allow you to take back to school insights into your abilities, excitement about your future, and more than a few great memories.

Authors: Robynn Andracsek, P.E. is a contributing editor to Engineering360. Julie Hoch manages the Intern Program at Burns & McDonnell. She has more than eight years of experience recruiting in the engineering, architecture, construction and environmental consulting industries. Matt Rosentreter is a college recruiter for Burns & McDonnell who works with universities across the country to recruit interns and entry-level talent to join the company’s engineering, architecture, construction and drafting teams. Connect with Matt on LinkedIn to learn more about opportunities available at Burns & McDonnell.