7 Questions to Ask When Interviewing Interns

March 1, 2018

With summer internship programs starting to wrap up in the coming weeks, it’s hard to believe that fall 2018 is just a couple months away. That means it’s time to start thinking about the interns you want to add to your company this fall and, yes, even what qualities you want most from next summer’s interns.  

With the most tenacious students investigating opportunities at companies like Google, BCG, and Deloitte, recruiters are in a unique position to scope out the next generation of talent.

Why internship programs are worth the investment

Internship programs have obvious value for students, but it’s important for recruiters to keep in mind that they are equally valuable for employers. Here’s why:

  • Interns are looking for more than just a short summer or fall gig — they’re looking for full-time opportunities that they can pursue after graduation. And, they’re using their summer experiences to learn more about your organization.

  • Internship programs give organizations the ability to ‘groom’ students into high-performing, entry-level hires. The interns who return to organizations as full-time employees will have already spent months learning the ropes of a company and team.

  • Interns, regardless of their experience levels, will bring fresh perspectives and energy to your team — especially graduate students, who will have insights from other roles and industries.

  • Lastly, 1-year and 5-year retention rates tend to be higher for employees who started within organizations as interns, according to an NACE Experiential Education Survey.

To find great interns — those who will bring the most value to your organization — you need to ask the right screening and interviewing questions. Below are seven questions that will illuminate the best qualities in your prospective hires:

1. What are you most passionate about learning — personally or professionally — and why?

The workforce is evolving at a rapid pace, with new roles and opportunities evolving each year. Not to mention, the average tenure at an organization, especially among young workers, is getting shorter.

Organizations need to invest in building a talent base of people who are genuinely interested in sticking around to grow their careers. The challenge, however, is that entry-level professionals have a very limited view of how their careers are going to evolve.

Recruiters need to be forward-looking on their behalf.

When asking this question, look for responses that shed light on your prospective intern’s passions. See if there is a fit between what the student cares about — even if it’s an area outside his or her major — and areas in which you expect your company to grow. Try to visualize a very clear growth trajectory for this person at your company.

2. Can you walk me through the impact of a project that you worked on in a previous role?

An intern could one day become a manager or director within your organization. One way to identify leadership qualities early on is to see whether the person you’re interviewing has passion for it.

Instead of focusing on what the prospective intern has done, try to assess his or her level of enthusiasm when talking about past contributions. Pay attention to the parts of the narrative that explain (1) how the student identified the ‘problem’ to be tackled, (2) how the student developed the solution, (3) how the student collaborated with team members, and (4) how the student prioritizes outcomes and results.

The answer to this question will help you pinpoint interns who take initiative, collaborate with team members, and are driven by results.

3. In what ways would you like to create value as an intern?

An intern project may end up becoming a new product, feature, service, or marketing plan for your company. It’s important for all employees, no matter how junior, to feel comfortable expressing their ideas.

The answer to this question will tell you whether the student has done their homework on your organization. Look for answers that demonstrate depth of awareness and passion about your company’s core product lines, showing that the student has taken the time to read up on your company.

In addition to learning about the intern, you’ll also set a great management precedent — that new hires should feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. You’ll help your prospective interns feel excited about working at your company.

4. Why did you pick your major?

Your interns, over the course of their careers, will likely change directions and jobs multiple times – pursuing paths that are quite different from what they studied in school. In many professions, an intern’s major won’t be directly applicable. What’s more important is this candidate’s ability to learn on the job.

Still, the reasons why your intern picked his or her major can tell a compelling story. Perhaps this person is an exceptionally talented writer, which is why she majored in English. Maybe she wanted to tackle her biggest weakness, which is why she majored in statistics.

Don’t fixate on the major itself. Instead, try to learn the story and encourage thoughtful, passionate answers than are more meaningful than simply – ‘my parents told me to.’

The answer to this question will demonstrate how this person evaluates tough decisions – a skill that will be applicable to any professional role.

5. How would your best friend describe you?

Even more important than the work that the intern will produce is the energy that he or she will bring to your organization. You’ll want someone on board who will bring positive energy to your team.

Ask this question to learn what your intern is like in a social environment. Will he or she make the office culture and team events more fun?

Give the applicant an opportunity to share a story – let her know that she’ll be encouraged to bring her whole identity to the office.

6. What’s an accomplishment you’re most proud of?

When speaking with a potential intern, allow them to share something they’ve accomplished either at school or in their extracurriculars. By keeping the question open-ended, you’ll help them feel empowered because they can choose what they want to discuss with you. Maybe it’ll be work related or maybe based on something completely different. Either way, this question is sure to garner a good response you can use to judge whether or not the candidate will be a fit for your team.

This type of question is especially strong, says Jordan Burton, the founder of Burton Advisors LLC, because it requires the person to paint a picture of a specific experience versus a simple yes or no question, which won’t give you much valuable information during an interview.

7. What was your biggest mistake?

Here’s another open-ended question that can elicit strong answers from a strong candidate. This will challenge your internship candidates to think over a difficult period either from school, other internships, or in their extracurriculars, which can illustrate how they would handle adversity.

This is another powerful question to ask during an interview because probably won’t get you a canned response. Instead, the candidate will be put on the spot and need to think hard about their response, which will get you a true sense of how the candidate would perform in a pinch.

Bonus tip: have your interviewees ask questions

Give your interviewees to speak what’s on their mind — and evaluate them based on the questions they’re asking you. Do they genuinely want to learn more about your company? Are they looking for ways to add value on day one? Look for signs that this person could be your next VP.

For more tips on hiring great talent for your company, check out the following articles:

1. What Is Talent Acquisition?

2. How Blizzard Increased Its Number of Female Interns by 166% in One Year 

*Image from Dropbox

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.