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Hill Internships 101: What You Need to Know

Congressional Staffers Give Their Advice to the Hill’s Newest Workers

Courtesy Office of Rep. Jo Bonner
Jo Bonner (right) talks with then-Rep. Jack Edwards in the summer of 1981. Bonner, now a House Member from Alabama, was an intern in Edwards’ office that year.

You’ve landed an impressive new internship, moved into a decent apartment, figured out the Metro, braved the heat and smiled a toothy grin for that shiny new gray badge.

But all that doesn’t guarantee a smooth internship. To help keep you from becoming one of the “what not to do” examples for next year’s fresh crop of interns, we’ve gathered advice from Hill staffers, former interns, career counselors and even a Member of Congress.

The best advice was also the biggest.

Sen. Mark Kirk started out as a legislative counsel for the House International Relations Committee and worked as a Hill staffer for years. Above everything else, the Illinois Republican gave this tip:

“Remember the feeling you had when you first saw the Capitol and hope 50 years from now you still feel the same way.”

No. 1: Keep It to Yourself

The top piece of advice shared by those on the Hill? What happens in the office stays in the office, no matter what.

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) got his start on Capitol Hill as an intern for then-Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.). Bonner moved up the ranks, serving as chief of staff for Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.). When Callahan retired, Bonner ran for and won his seat.

Although he acknowledges that much of the advice he received is now “eligible for the Smithsonian Institution,” he still emphasizes the importance of keeping constituent details private.

“You’re going to see things and hear things and recognize names back home of people that you may know, yet you didn’t know they were going through a financial difficulty or they needed the help of a government agency or service,” Bonner said. Although Capitol Hill can be a fun environment, “remember that when you’re here in this office, you have to treat something that comes to us — a letter, fax or phone call — with respect.”

Belle, a Hill staffer who runs the blog Capitol Hill Style and operates under a pseudonym because of Ethics Committee rules, agrees.

The interns who stand out in her mind as the “worst” were those who said things they shouldn’t have, she said.

“Facebook and social media are great, but a lot of the over-sharing I’ve seen interns do is done over social media,” she said. “You really have to err on the side of caution. It’s not to be talked about outside the office.”

No. 2: Take Initiative

If you’ve done your research, you’re probably prepared for the tasks that will soon eat up your summer: answering endless phone calls, sorting mountains of mail and guiding repetitive constituent tours.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of your time on the Hill.

Take initiative and ask for advice, extra work or learning opportunities. Go to hearings and attend as many events as possible.

“I think the No. 1 thing that interns do wrong is that they come into an office and the staff assistant tells them to sort mail and answer the phones and give tours and they never reach beyond that,” Belle said. “They never try to learn what’s going on in the office, they just answer phones and give tours and assume that will be enough.” But it’s not enough, she said.

“You need to take this time to learn how to write memos and do leg research and learn what staffers do,” she said. “You need to learn. Or you’re not going to stand out when you come back looking for a reference to a job.”

Mike Smith, president of the Washington Center for Internship and Academic Seminars, a nonprofit that places students in D.C. internships, had similar advice.

“By definition, you’re not going to be writing a position paper for a Senator,” he said. “But by showing interest in whatever tasks you’re doing, that will show the folks in the office that you’re willing to do more. The more you show you can handle, the more you’ll be given. That ought to be the goal.”

Angelique Velez, a former intern for the governor of Puerto Rico, used her internship experience to land a job with the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi. Her advice for new interns isn’t too different: “Overdeliver.”

“When someone asks you something, don’t just do it the way they ask you,” she said. “Try to improve it or do something to make your work more presentable for the office itself. It could be something as simple as making a binder – you just have to find a way to make it look nicer.”

No. 3: Dress Professionally

This one seems simple, but Capitol Hill has seen its fair share of intern horror stories. Some female interns come to work in short, low-cut and body-hugging mini dresses, while at least one male intern spent an entire summer with a single tie.

“I think the biggest mistake the girls make is that they assume they can put a cardigan over whatever they’re wearing and that will make it work appropriate,” Belle said. “It doesn’t work that way. If the skirt is too short, the top is too tight or the dress is too revealing, it doesn’t matter if you put a nun’s habit over it. The dress is still wrong.”

Two other pieces of advice for the ladies: Keep your undergarments covered (don’t let underwear show through skirts or bra straps peek out of tops) and buy flat shoes – your feet will thank you.

But male interns aren’t safe from the fashion faux pas, either.

“The staffers on the Hill tend to get very casual on recess days, and while its okay to wear a polo with your dress pants or topsiders if that’s what you prefer, its completely inappropriate for the interns to show up in sandals,” Belle said. “Being an intern is like a three-month job interview. If you’re going to show up in sandals, no matter what your boss is wearing, you’re not making a good impression.”

No. 4: Be Professional

Punctuality and respectfulness are the bare minimum for any internship, but you can go above and beyond with a few of these tips.

Be early. “If the intern is there five minutes before paid staff, that definitely makes an impression,” Belle said.

Avoid office politics. “Who’s being mean, who said something someone else didn’t like – it’s all a time waster,” Smith said. “Interns who are really trying to accomplish something shouldn’t waste their time on that. Steer clear.”

Introduce yourself to everyone. It makes it easier to ask questions or show interest.

“Interns have a tendency to stay at their desks and stay under the radar and that’s not the best thing for educating them for a career on the Hill,” Belle said.

Write thank-you notes. The best intern Belle ever supervised wrote the staff members lengthy, individual thank you notes, thanking each for what they’d taught her.

No. 5: Don’t Have Too Much Fun

It’s easy to fall into the Capitol Hill lifestyle, socializing and drinking several nights a week. It feels just like college, only with more important people around. But while it’s okay to show up to your Friday morning classes with messy hair or a hangover, it’s not all that appropriate for the Hill.

“Getting on an elevator on a Friday during the summer, you can smell the beer and the body odor from the interns. They just reek of booze,” Belle said. “You cannot just wander in after a night of drinking. You have to shower, you have to wear deodorant and you have to wash your hair. These are just basics. This is an office in the United States Capitol, not a frat house.”

That said, if you’re legal to drink, feel free to join your coworkers after hours for some networking – it’s why you came to D.C., after all.

“That’s how you get to know us, that’s how we get to know you,” Belle said.

No. 6: Find a Mentor

All the networking that helped you land your internship? Keep it up.

It helps to have someone on your side who can show you the ropes, give you advice and recommend you to future careers. Velez’s mentor recommended her for her current position, and Belle notes how often she tries to help the best interns find careers. In Bonner’s office, more than half of the staff members started out as interns, so finding a mentor can be a real career booster.

You need “someone who’s willing not only to take an interest in you and your career aspirations but who is willing to dedicate a little time to giving advice and who’s willing to take you out to do informational interviews,” Smith said.

No. 7: Stay Positive

Every interview had one piece of advice in common: interns should hold on to the passion and optimism that brought them to Capitol Hill.

“A lot of the myths of Capitol Hill are easily dispelled — the plush offices with chandeliers and the limousines and the private jets that ferry members of Congress back and forth,” Bonner said. “It doesn’t take long to realize that the offices are so small, they’re cramped, you’re stacked up on top of each other and there are few of the perks Hollywood makes it out to be.”

But “such a small percentage, a minute percentage of young people have a chance to come see their government at work and to go behind the curtain, so to speak,” Bonner said. “If you come to Washington with a curiosity – how does it work, how important the staff is to the functioning of government, the service aspect of government ¬– then it can be a really great education for you, no matter what you’re studying.”

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