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The Quick Guide to ‘Best Intern Ever: How to Ace Your Capitol Hill Internship’

Interns are busy. Most everyone in D.C. is busy. But as longtime Hill Navigator readers may have noticed, this week we launched the first Roll Call e-book:
Best Intern Ever: How to Ace Your Capitol Hill Internship

It’s a compilation of Hill Navigator’s best advice geared toward acing your internship and turning it into a full-time job.  

It’s free. You can download it as an epub  or as a PDF . Or read the entire book online .  

And for those who want the briefest of briefs, here are the six rules of success. Six rules! Surely that can be easy enough to remember. Internships are finite. There are always more bright-eyed, wannabe staffers ready to take your place, so it’s up to you to make the most of it while you can.  

Good luck!  

 1. Stay professional.
Every year, Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill writes up anecdotes of intern tomfoolery. While there may be egregious exceptions, more often these gaffes are due to inexperience and a lack of basic understanding of what it means to work in a professional setting.  

Things to remember:

  • Treat every office visitor as a VIP, even if they are just your average Joe from Cincinnati.
  • Treat everything connected to the office — email, phone, personal space, midday breaks — as sacrosanct.
  • Don’t put anything in email you don’t want to see printed in Roll Call.
  • Learn the office dress code (see No. 3) and err on the conservative side of following it.
  • Brush up on your manners. Yes, it’s arcane, but it works wonders. Hold the door for the person behind you, say ‘thank you,” kindly ask if you can put a person on hold before slamming the phone down. Such things can go a long way toward showing you’re a capable team member, hopefully one the office wants to keep around.

2. Check your opinions at the door. You may be majoring in political science, or have read everything Thomas Friedman ever wrote, but your personal opinions are usually best left unsaid. Sure, you can echo your enthusiasm for a cause your boss is championing, or include your admiration in your thank-you notes to the hard-working legislative staff, but you’re there to help advance your boss’ current agenda, not help him or her craft a new one.  

If you’re curious about a particular topic— say Affordable Care Act regulations are a particular passion of yours — get to know the legislative assistant covering the issue and ask for reading recommendations or even a few minutes of their time for coffee. View your internship as a time to take in information, not spew out opinions.  

And when you do air your opinions— even if they are just about how fantastic that office Keurig is — be smart about your surroundings. Those Metro cars are tiny, voices travel. If you insist on talking about work in a public place, refrain from mentioning the boss’ name or any other identifying details, lest you want to read about them in Roll Call.  

3. Learn, memorize, internalize and follow the office dress code. Ignore the smirks on staffers’ faces, Hill Navigator knows that this isn’t the no-brainer that experienced hands assume it is. Dress codes are not always as obvious or natural as it would seem, especially because many interns are in college and do not have extensive work-appropriate wardrobes. The yoga pants and sweatshirt combo might be fine for Econ 301, but Capitol Hill has a “sun’s out-suit’s out” mentality.  

The dress code matters.  

Speaker John A. Boehner’s announced policy for the 113th Congress states that staffers must be in “appropriate business attire” on the House floor, so this ups the ante on how staffers dress on a daily basis. Most offices have dress codes and will happily answer your questions about what to wear. Some stellar offices even have intern handbooks that address this directly. But just in case you aren’t sure or are reluctant to ask, here are some general guidelines that can help get you off to a good start.

  • Wear a suit the first day of work. Even if it’s recess. Or Friday. Or hot outside. Your first day sets the tone of your internship, and a suit shows you’re taking it seriously.
  • Wear a suit (or jacket and tie, or blazer/slacks/skirt for ladies) every day Congress is in session.
  • Dress up every day the boss is in town. Most offices have a relaxed dress code when Congress is out of session, but if the boss is there, take the extra time to dress in business clothing.
  • Follow the office’s lead. Don’t be the first one to wear jeans or break out into casual Friday polo shirts unless you see your co-workers doing the same thing. And by co-workers, I don’t mean other interns. Take the cues from the higher-ups in the office.
  • Cover up. Keep the short skirts and deep v-neck shirts at home. If you aren’t sure whether it’s office appropriate, it probably isn’t.
  • Stay away from jeans, sneakers, T-shirts and yoga pants. No matter how casual Fridays get, you’re better off in khakis or dress pants than something more comfortable. Wait for the weekends to wear whatever you want. Or wait until your internship is over.

4. Ask this question: What is the office’s social media policy? Social media: so fun, so ubiquitous and yet, it can be so detrimental to careers everywhere. Right after asking about the dress code, request a copy of the office social media policy. And then — like the dress code — err on the conservative side of following it.  

“One of the great fears of senior managers in Congress is waking up one day and finding a junior staffer or intern has thrust the office into a crisis because of some silly posting on social media,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to helping Congress.  

Even privacy settings can’t always protect you if you’re posting items while you are at work, or including details — however inane — about your job. Remember that many members of Congress face re-election every two years, races that often cost millions of dollars, and opposition researchers are always looking for material, especially in an election year.  

5. Have meaningful — and realistic — expectations. Setting achievable goals is one of the best ways to have a positive internship experience, but expecting that you will write legislation, staff the senator or field press calls is setting yourself up for disappointment.  

“Interns should understand they’re being tested early on,” Fitch said. “[They] won’t get any valuable work or experience if they don’t do the little stuff right. The smart ones excel at the grunt work and graduate up from ‘boring’ to ‘mildly interesting.’”  

Hill Navigator would argue that even the mundane task of making coffee in a congressional office can be interesting; many offices have chatty back rooms. If you find yourself in one of those, you can pick up everything from legislative procedure to after-hours gossip while you’re acing your tasks at the copy machine.  

And if your expectations include a paying job at the end of the term, you have all the more reason to excel at the small stuff, as many staff assistants pick up the grunt work once the interns have departed.  

6. Have humility, in large doses. This particular piece of advice is courtesy of many current and former Hill staffers: Do good work, but don’t tell us all about it. You don’t need to hang that marked-up constituent letter at your cube, or brag about how you’re the only one who can navigate Cannon’s fifth floor.  

Every Hill office knows which interns are competent. In the frenetic, fast-paced world of Capitol Hill, people who get things done are easy to spot. You may not see it, but it might as well be tattooed on your forehead. Just make sure you’ve got some appropriate business clothes to match your go-get-’em attitude.