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Reflecting about your experience

Reflections and learning from an internship experience

In experiential learning and internships, the real learning comes after the work term when you have an opportunity to think about what you saw and experienced.  Reflecting back about the experience is a key to learning and it is definitely not a new idea. In fact, a famous lesson from Confucius around 450 B.C. illuminates the importance of active engagement and real time experiences in learning:


It is through reflecting about the actions at work and the concrete experiences that will lead you to recognizing that the experience has forged a new way of thinking about the classroom theory. An abstract concept worked through in a real situation, as an immediate need, will change the participants.

Below is a diagram of how one contemporary experiential learning theorist, David Kolb, explains how interns learn from experience. Kolb's experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four stage learning cycle in which the learner 'touches all the bases':
[Source: Simply]

  1. Concrete Experience 
    A new experience or situation, or a reinterpretation of existing experience,
    is encountered.
  2. Reflective Observation of the new experience. Of particular importance are any inconsistencies between experience and understanding.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization 
    Reflection gives rise to a new idea, or to a modification of an existing abstract concept.
  4. Active Experimentation 
    The learner applies new ideas to the world around them to see what results.

Importance of a mentor or faculty guide to the reflection

Your reflection process is best led by a workplace guide such as a supervisor, mentor, or a faculty member after the experience.  This post-experience reflection with a guide gives you another voice that can ask questions and draw comparisons to abstract ideas that are now more completely understood.  Lessons learned can become internalized and put to use in future work opportunities.

In addition, almost everyone has experienced a less than 100% positive work experience at one time or another in their work lives.  As an intern, at the beginning of your career experiences and career path, you will almost always learn something that will inform you at any future work setting.  A guide to your reflection activities will point out both the positives of what you learned as well as the learning that you can take from the absence of an obvious achievement.  Both sides can be extremely powerful and transformational as you approach next steps in career development.

Below are just a few reflection questions to stimulate your thinking and learning about the internship work experience.

  • What do you think was your most significant accomplishment while you were working?
  • Are there any new skills that you developed while you were at the worksite and what are they?
  • Describe what you believe the ideal supervisor will be like at work now that you have work experience in your field of study?

Be able to talk about your experience

Communication is one of the most important professional skills you can develop. The process of seeking an internship, the work experience itself, and reflecting afterward, will all contribute to the growth of your communication skills.  As you reflect on your internship, practice speakiing succinctly and precisely about your experience. Use key words. Most listeners will pay attention to shorter answers. You should be able to describe an internship experience in two minutes.  Use action-oriented and positive words. 

Guide to talking about your internship in two minutes:
Use the following as a guide to practice describing your internship:

  • 30 Seconds – Tell your first and last name, year in school, institution, and major.  Give the name of the employer (organization) and site location.  Share one point of interest about the organization.  For example, XYZ is “a major producer of carpet and other types of flooring in the United States.”
  • 60 Seconds – Give your title and role at the organization; describe your main responsibilities. Talk about technical and professionalism skills you learned and/or developed.  Highlight one main accomplishment you had during the internship.
  • 30 Seconds – Focus on your main learning from the experience and how this might impact you professionally and as you make future career decisions.

Be able to write about your experience

Internships are first professional experiences in the field and each will become a stepping stone to the next work assignment. In order to leverage internship experience to move forward in your career, it is important to be able to write about your experience in a professional way.

You know the importance of the resume in the job search process. Resumes are also used in applying to graduate school, for scholarships, and in nominations to civic boards and other leadership opportunities. Your ability to write about your internship experience on your resume is incredibly important. Accuracy and representing yourself and your work in a positive manner are critical.

Practice, in writing, describing what you did during the internship, including skills and equipment used to manage your work tasks. Look back at your job offer and your job description to find keywords that describe your experience.  Learning objectives that you established for your internship might also highlight skills that you developed, and equipment and software that you used. Future prospective employers also read your resume to see what accomplishments you achieved during the internship, and if your work had an impact on your employer’s efficiency and/or bottom line. The following is one way to brainstorm about your internship experience to develop an accomplishment statement to use on your resume.

The PROBLEM, ACTION, RESULT formula to capture accomplishment statements

Problem:  What was a problem or task that you were assigned at work?

Action:  What action did you take to solve the problem and complete the task?

Result: After your action, what was the end result for your employer organization? Can you quantify this in some way by using a percentage, a number, or other measure? For example, did it increase efficiencies or production? And if so, by how much?

On the resume under your internship description, try to list at least one accomplishment statement for every professional experience.

Leave off the problem, and begin writing using a past tense action verb, followed by a quantified result.

Below are a few examples of accomplishment statements. They usually appear as bulleted items under the internship description.

  • Developed a software application that increased company production by 10% each month.
  • Managed a project team that completed five successful special events during spring 2016.
  • Researched and submitted a grant proposal that brought in 10K to the organization.