6 Tips for Recruiting Interns Who Will Strengthen Your Company

September 28, 2015

While the stereotypical intern may conjure up images of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson clowning around on the Google campus in the comedy The Internship, in reality a successful intern program can be a critical building block towards an organization’s success.

If hired correctly, interns can help strengthen work culture, staff, and save time on new hires, says Ross Blankenship, who learned firsthand how to hire interns after founding two startups right after college. He went on to write Intern 3.0. The Ultimate Guide to Recruit Hire and Manage Interns for Start Ups.

“Companies ought to put more effort into considering how they are bringing interns into their business and how they are using them,” he says. To begin with, Blankenship’s a big advocate for going much deeper than the typical resumé perusal and standard interview questions. Here are some of his best tips for hiring and recruiting successful interns:

1. Outline a clear internship process at the outset.

Companies need to layout out their internship program, and delineate the process and opportunities to candidates from the start, says Blankenship. Interns should be given details about where the program is headed and what opportunities for development they might have down the road.

“With some companies, I think there’s too much of ‘Yeah, we’ll bounce you around from here to there as needed,’ without a lot of structure.” An intern should be told at the outset, he says: “You start here, and here’s where it could lead to if you’re successful.”

2. Get rid of standard interview questions and resumes.

When interviewing candidates, “we still rely too much on what’s on their resume, and what interns say about themselves during interviews,” says Blankenship. He learned early on that if you just judge or evaluate an intern on how nice they are or how they respond, it’s likely that you won’t get a real assessment.

He advises those interviewing interns to throw away standard interview questions and replace them with what he calls “show me” questions, where everything is about having the intern show them something they’ve done and explain why.

“Let’s say that a web development intern is coming from Carnegie Mellon and he or she is a computer science person,” he says, “Give them a bug to try to find in your code and then ask them to explain how they found that bug.”

3. Test students' skills at college campus recruiting events.

Rather than interviewing candidates on campus at a recruiting event, Blankenship advocates bringing laptops loaded with testing programs that will challenge college students to show you what they can do.

For programmers, Blankenship uses the website HackerRank, where potential interns can demonstrate what they can do in real time. HackerRank is a website built around creating an environment for programmers to challenge themselves.

Another site he uses for developers to test their skills is CodeMentor.io. “Seeing how they learn and what they create can be an effective tool for the recruiter,” says Blankenship. “So have a computer that they actually might work on right in front of you.”

4. Get them frustrated and see what happens.

They say the best way to know if a loved one’s right for you is to put a computer in front of them with bad wireless and see how they react. Blankenship uses that analogy to better understand what it might be like to work with a prospective intern.

Give them a frustrating puzzle or challenge to solve, he offers. “If they’re impatient, watch how they perform under pressure. If they get frustrated, can they explain their frustration? This is an ideal situation for evaluation," he says.

“I’ve seen, from personal experience working with start-ups, that the candidates who were given a puzzle, despite not having any work experience, and could explain how they got to that final end solution were better long-term candidates.”

5. Consider their willingness to learn.

While Blankenship doesn’t invest too much in where a candidate went to school, he does think it’s important to consider someone’s willingness to learn new information. “Is the person willing to take a course on Lynda.com or OneMonth in order to learn something new that might help them before they start to work for you?”

“These are really cool learning platforms,” he says, “and if a potential intern’s willing to invest in your company by devoting time to learning something prior to starting their internship, that’s a nice sign.”

6. Give them real work to do.

“The traditional internship is defined in the ‘60s and ‘70s by this idea that they’re bringing coffee to people and they’re ancillary,” says Blankenship.

He advises companies to treat interns the same way you would regular employees, because that’s going to give you a better, more accurate picture of how they’ll do at your company if hired.

“I think the interns of 2015 and beyond are ones that take on core projects, and give the company realistic views of what they’re going to do as full-time employees.”

“The most successful intern programs give people work that actually could impact the company,” he says. “Part of my core advocacy is that the interns themselves are considered to be a part of something bigger.”

If they’re not invested, it’s likely your fault, not theirs.

In the end, if an intern isn’t invested in your company, that’s likely your fault and not the intern’s, says Blankenship. “If you haven’t given them anything meaningful to do or real projects that challenge them, then they won’t ever feel like they’re vested in the success of your company.” And they won’t stick around.

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*Image from The Internship

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