Advice for co-op students

By Stephanie Regan
Special to

Hey, congratulations - you landed a cool co-op position! For the next few months there will be no hairnet and there will be no nametag. If you play your cards right, maybe you can toss them forever. Want to make the most of your co-op term? Check out these five tips:

1. Yes, you're a student - but you aren't in school
Generally a company hires co-op students for two reasons: one, to groom possible future employees, and two, because they need someone to pick up the slack and take the load off full-time staff.

During your placement, you need to shift your thinking from a purely learning environment to a work environment. Even though you are a student, you aren't at school. While your supervisor should take the time to mentor you, your co-workers are not your teachers. They understand that you are a student, but they have also their own deadlines to meet. This means you need to do a reasonably good job without a lot of handholding.

2. Listen to advice and be open to suggestions
Here's a story about what not to do.

This past spring we had a co-op student in our office. I'll call him Jack. As he was in his third year of a business degree, he seemed promising.

I gave Jack a task that I thought should take about two weeks. The next day he said he was finished. Thinking he must be some kind of genius, I asked to see what he had done. I also needed those numbers pretty badly, because my director was breathing down my neck for some stats to show to his boss.

Jack presented me with a couple of ratty and crumpled sheets of paper covered in strange looking pencil scribbles. I asked him, gently, to explain what I was looking at.

He explained his work in a tone that implied I must be incredibly stupid. Doing my best to ignore his attitude, I asked him to come up with something a little more polished. As I started to explain the way he should approach the work, he said, "Yeah, I get it," and got up and walked out before I could finish.

The next day, he gave me another version, but I still couldn't use it. After three attempts, I gave up and did the work myself.

I didn't ask Jack to do anything else and I didn't fill in the feedback sheet sent around by his school at the end of his term. Most of my colleagues didn't either. We didn't offer him one of our well-paid positions as a summer student, and I don't expect to see him working with us once he graduates.

3. Pay attention to office basics
This may be really obvious, but not everyone gets it: don't get too comfortable at work. Watch your language. Dress like you're going to work, even on casual Fridays. Have a good attitude. Come in on time. If you're allowed to surf the net, don't use the company network to visit inappropriate sites. Tempted to tell an off-colour joke? Forget it. You never know who you might be talking to and where they come from.

4. Learn e-mail basics
Sometimes an e-mail may be your first impression. Be aware, some of your work-related e-mails may also be filed for later use, and could even become records.

Even if you work in a casual environment, use good e-mail etiquette:

  • Start your e-mail by addressing the person directly, using the person's name.
  • Use a subject line.
  • If you have never met or e-mailed the recipient before, use Ms. or Mr.
  • Use plain, black font - don't get cute with funky scripts, not even in your signature.
  • Use a spellchecker before you hit send.

5. Don't underestimate the impact this job could have on your career
Industries are small, and you are now building your reputation. You can be remembered for two things: one, if you do a really exceptional job, or two, if you do a really bad job. Do a good job and we'll remember you for a while. Do a really bad job and we will remember you forever - just like we'll remember Jack.


Stephanie Regan is a writer, editor and Web master for a federal government department.

Modified on April 23, 2009