How to be The Kick-Ass Mentor Your New Intern Needs

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I love internships in such a nerdy way that I had six different ones in my three and a half years as a student at SUNY Fredonia. My last internship, which was here at Quinlan, helped me land a full-time position with the company about a year ago. Since then, I’ve worked with a couple of interns — and for the first time, I was able to see the intern/supervisor relationship from the other side.

This made me wonder, what makes a great mentor? Can just anyone assume the role? How much time and how many resources do you really need to make it work? I’ve learned a ton from the men and women who had supervised me in the past, but I had never really thought about the implications of their role (since I was too focused on my own responsibilities).

The National Association of Colleges and Employer found that 65 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates from the class of 2015 participated in an internship. That’s a lot of internships! With so many opportunities for students to learn, how can you be a mentor that really makes a difference?

To learn more about how to be the kick-ass supervisor I hope to someday be, I spoke with two of Quinlan’s directors who, collectively, have managed dozens of interns over the years (they kind of know what they’re talking about).

Mentoring tips from the Buffalo marketing agency you know and love:

Buffalo marketing agency

Make sure you’ve covered all your bases.

Because if you don’t have your shit together, how can you expect the same from a student? Before deciding if you are going to take on an intern, take the time to look at your current work environment.

  • Are your own responsibilities organized?
  • Can you spare a chunk of time every day (or a few times a week) to devote entirely to a student?
  • Do your co-workers like the idea of adding some extra weight to the team?
  • Is upper management supportive of you using company time to give back?


And let’s just be clear — you shouldn’t hire an unpaid intern just to take advantage of some free labor. In fact, according to the United States Supreme Court, the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern. That means the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

Take the application process seriously.

Once you’ve decided to hire an intern, you’ll need to establish a solid application process. You’ll be spending (roughly) three months with this individual, it’s okay to be a little picky. So, how can you tell if an intern will be worth your time? Take note of how she portrays herself. A few things to consider:

  • Is she diligent? An enthusiastic student will answer your interview emails right away, following up with dates and times she is available to meet.
  • Can she communicate well? Don’t get me wrong here, this doesn’t mean you should favor extroverts exclusively. She should, though, be able to communicate her thoughts clearly and accurately.
  • Does her work speak for itself? Ask for a few work samples to see her skill level. It’s only natural that her work won’t be perfect, but is it a reasonable starting point?
  • Are others willing to speak on her behalf? Even a first-time interviewee should have co-workers, professors or advisors willing to brag a little bit about her.


“Some people want all-stars, which is nice,” Quinlan’s Account Director Jessica Chapman says, “but personally, I like to look for people who work hard, want to learn and are prepared for the interview. Since this internship may be someone’s first shot at work experience, give them a chance. Look at the individual, not just the resume.”

Get everyone on the same page.

“An interview is a great time to have a conversation about what an intern wants to learn,” Quinlan’s Creative Director Frank Conjerti says. “Then when you accept your intern, you can talk more about their focuses and mold an internship that fills their experience gaps. This will allow you to create your objectives, and also hit any requirements the school has.”

Once you’ve worked together to determine the internship’s general goals, create a specific program that’s ready to be implemented on her first day. This should include a plan for her roles and any project guidelines and specific deadlines (if necessary). You can always change things up as the internship goes on, but having solid plan in place will give everyone peace of mind.

“Make sure their list of fundamental responsibilities and project expectations are clear from the start,” Jessica says. “This way, they can let you know if they want to get into something else.”

buffalo intern

Give her creative leeway, even if it means leaving your comfort zone.

You’re obviously well-versed in your field, otherwise students wouldn’t be coming to you for guidance. While it’s true your years of experience have taught you how to excel at your position, your intern’s own background may guide her to do things a little differently. Let her.

“When you assign them something, give them enough information to understand the task,” Jessica says, “but let them complete it how they want. There isn’t just one way of doing something. Let them do their thing, and then meet about it to make sure they’re on track.”

Of course, this does not mean you give her an assignment and then wait until she’s completed it to intervene.

“Check in with them a couple of times day,” Frank says. “I like to talk to them at least once in the morning, mid-day and as they are leaving. This way, I can be more hands-on and catch any mistakes they may not know they’re making.”

Treat her as a valued team member.

Jumping into a new business environment can be scary, so ease her fear by introducing her to everyone in the office (especially people outside of your department) on her first day. This way, when she needs help from the IT guy, she’ll be confident reaching out to him.

“Involve them in things right from the start,” Frank says. “Invite them into meetings, bring them into conversations and listen to their opinions. Interns offer a new outlook. You can benefit from listening to them.”

And this should go without saying — but give her real work that matters. Anyone can make coffee, but trusting her with actual responsibilities will show her you value her skills the time she’s spending with your company. Be careful, though, not to forget that she doesn’t have the experience the rest of the team has.

“Don’t assume anything!” Jessica says. “Always remember to start with the basics. They most likely have no idea how an agency or a business functions, so make sure to slow down and explain it all to them. The same goes for business jargon or acronyms. If you’re going to use industry slang, explain what it means.”

Be honest with her.

Some interns may excel right from the start, but you may find she struggles with tasks you thought were reasonable for her skill level. That’s okay.

“Sometimes you have to be more specific with your direction,” Jessica says. “Be constructive, and don’t be afraid to address the situation honestly.”

Before things get too out of hand, sit down and meet with her to see what’s going wrong. Is she struggling to complete your tasks? Is she confused about what you want her to do? Does she need help understanding the technology she has to use? Communicating honestly with her will help you give worthwhile criticism.


Give her something to brag about.

She already knows the fundamentals of her field — that’s what college is for, right? A passionate intern will want to get a taste of real life roles, how to respond to day-to-day tasks and responsibilities and how to act in a professional setting.

And it doesn’t hurt to have a little fun, too! Invite her to luncheons, happy hours and industry events. Also, don’t forget to ask her about non-work topics, like how school is going (that is her priority, after all). Being flexible and moving her internship presentation to a different week because you found out she had an exam the same day will mean a lot to her.

“Ideally, our interns are able to walk away with an experience at an awesome, smart place,” Frank says. “By the end of the internship, they’ll hopefully have new connections, as much client work experience as they can and the ability and confidence to land a job.”

Most importantly, don’t forget to stay in touch. Add her on LinkedIn, and check in via email a few times a year to see how she’s doing. Just because the internship ends doesn’t mean you have to quit being her mentor. Hey, you never know — she’s going to enter the field, and you two may be working together some day!

Have something to add?

Do you have any mentoring techniques that work well for you? I’d love to hear them. Tweet me at @quinlancompany or @gracegerass.

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