Congratulations! Your application impressed the hiring manager, and you’re officially scheduled to interview for the internship of your dreams.
Now it’s prep time. As someone who recently wrapped up hiring the summer 2019 class of interns for the Oakland Museum of CA, I have plenty of tips to offer on this topic.
First, keep in mind that an internship is a two-way street. Yes, there are tasks, and probably a bigger project or two, that your employer wants you to complete over the course of your time working there. You’re expected to be an engaged, productive member of the team. But the company also wants to provide you with an incredible learning opportunity.
That means you’re not expected to be an expert in the space or have a wealth of “professional” experience to speak to in an interview. Mainly, the interviewer wants to get to know you, your experience so far (including professional, educational, and volunteer opportunities), and how you handle (and will handle) different types of work situations.
They also want to understand why you’re interested in this internship. What are you hoping to gain? Is it in line with your career trajectory, or are you just looking for something to do this summer? Hint: They want to hire someone who’s actually passionate about the field!
With all that in mind, here are eight common interview questions you can expect during your conversation:
- Why Are You Interested in This Internship/Company/Industry, and What Skills or Experiences Do You Hope to Gain?
- What’s the Best Team You’ve Ever Been a Part of, and Why?/What’s Your Ideal Team?
- Tell Us About a Situation Where You Took Initiative or Took on a Leadership Role.
- Tell Us About an Assignment or Project From Start to Finish—What Went Well, and What Would You Have Done Differently?
- What’s One Challenge You’ve Faced, and How Did You Overcome It?
- Tell Us About a Time You Had to Learn Something Completely New.
- Can You Tell Us About a Project or Accomplishment You’re Proud of, and Why?
- Do You Have Any Questions for Us?
1. Why Are You Interested in This Internship/Company/Industry, and What Skills or Experiences Do You Hope to Gain?
As you might guess, this question is used to measure if your expectations and career goals align with the internship and what the company can offer you. The interviewer also wants to make sure you’re actually excited for this opportunity and want to work with them.
How to Answer It
Show enthusiasm, do your research to come up with a thoughtful response for what drew you to the company or role, and get specific. The interviewer knows you’re looking for a learning opportunity—tell them what you want to learn from this internship in particular, and make sure it aligns with the organization and what you know about the role so far. You can also use this question as an opportunity to talk about your experience, passions, and values.
For example, if you’re interviewing for a marketing internship, you need to go beyond saying, “I’m really interested in getting marketing experience.” Instead try:
“I’ve always been really interested in mission-driven companies, and your commitment to community engagement really speaks to the values I’m looking for in a company. I’m really excited about this opportunity because I think it will give me exposure to thinking about messaging for many different audiences and through many channels. I was looking at your social media, and am really fascinated by how you craft posts for all of your different initiatives.”
(Read this article on explaining why you want the job for more advice on answering this question.)
2. What’s the Best Team You’ve Ever Been a Part of, and Why?/What’s Your Ideal Team?
The “team” question can come in many shapes and sizes. However it’s delivered, the interviewer wants to understand how you work with others so they can envision how you’ll work within their team. Simply put, does their team culture and your potential boss’s management style make sense for you?
How to Answer It
If you have real examples from past experiences that you can draw on to explain your dream team, great! If not, go into detail on what you believe makes for a stellar group dynamic.
For example, “Good communication is important for a great team” is the start of your answer, not a complete statement. You’ll also want to define what good communication means to you and what it looks like in practice. A better answer would look something like:
“Good communication makes for a great team, and creating best practices around how a team is going to communicate is really important. For example, for my last class project our team met weekly and created shared Google Docs so we could collaborate even when we weren’t with each other, and we all agreed we could call each other whenever we needed something. This synthesis of working styles helped us to stay on track, work efficiently, and ultimately get along with one another.”
If it seems appropriate, you can also address how you like to be managed. Do you like a lot of direction and check-ins, or do you like to discuss your projects and then run with them on your own? If you have no idea how you like to be managed because you’ve never had a boss before, that’s OK! Consider the best teachers or mentors you’ve come across. What about their leadership style did you like? How did they guide you or others, and what about that stuck with you?
Just remember: This isn’t supposed to be a vent session where you bash former teammates (that attitude says more about you than them). If you’re using a negative team experience as an example of what you don’t want, focus more on what you learned from that experience rather than what wasn’t good.
3. Tell Us About a Situation Where You Took Initiative or Took on a Leadership Role.
This question helps the interviewer decide if you’re someone with drive. In other words, are you going to be able to step up when needed?
How to Answer It
A lot of times candidates answer this question with an example of leading a group project, which totally works as an option. But it can also be answered with an example of a time when you noticed something that needed to change and took the initiative to change it, whether or not you had a “leadership” title or role.
For example, maybe in your part-time program coordinator role on campus you realized some of your colleagues were struggling with a certain portion of the program because the instructions weren’t super clear. So you took the initiative to ask the other coordinators what could be more clear, and recreated the instructions so the program could be implemented more seamlessly for current and future team members.
4. Tell Us About an Assignment or Project From Start to Finish—What Went Well, and What Would You Have Done Differently?
The interviewer wants to know how you do things. This question isn’t necessarily about the final product—although make sure to share that as well as the impact of the project. It’s an opportunity to understand your process and how you go about tackling assignments. Are you organized? Efficient? A team player? Do you change course when you know you need to? Do you learn from your mistakes when things go wrong? Do you think strategically about why you do certain things?
How to Answer It
You want to go into detail about how you completed something. Did you do any planning? Did you use any tools? Did you have to do research? Spell out how you got from A to Z clearly and concisely, and why you chose to do what you did. For example, “I planned a talent show” should really be:
“As an RA in my dorms, I planned a student talent show to bring the students together and build community. I started by recruiting a couple volunteers to help, setting a date, and confirming the venue. Then I spoke to all the students about signing up to perform by going door-to-door in the dorms, handing out fliers that I designed and printed, and making announcements at our monthly dorm meetings. I created the show schedule, emailed it to all participants, and then made sure to keep in contact with all of the students so they didn’t drop out. I created shared Google Sheets to stay organized and delegate tasks to other volunteers. To help encourage people to participate and come, I coordinated with food services to have some food and drinks served at the event. On the day of the show, I coordinated a quick run through and then MCed and managed the whole run of show. It ended up being the highest attended dorm event of the year! That said, if I were to do it again, I’d partner with some other school clubs to curate a more diverse and inclusive set of performances.”
5. What’s One Challenge You’ve Faced, and How Did You Overcome It?
This is to check if you’re adaptable, as well as get a sense of your self-awareness level. The way a person deals with challenges, mistakes, and failures can tell an interviewer a lot about the intangible attributes that are going to make them a good intern—and a good culture fit.
How to Answer It
Describe a specific example, but keep it high-level. It doesn’t have to be a huge challenge, either—having to solve some small problem or do something difficult works perfectly fine. You definitely don’t want to harp on the negative, but rather spend most of your time talking about what you learned and maybe what you would have done differently. The goal is to show resilience and an eagerness to grow and improve.
For example, I’m always impressed with candidates who share when they’ve had to have tough, direct conversations, like when a team member isn’t carrying their weight and the issue needs to be addressed head on. One candidate I spoke with shared an example like this, where she decided to speak with the team member directly. She asked to speak with them in private, and took the approach of asking pointed questions to understand why the person wasn’t doing what they said they would. Because the issue was addressed thoughtfully and without outright blaming or shaming the person, she was able to learn that they had too much on their plate and the work needed to be redistributed so their workload felt less overwhelming.
6. Tell Us About a Time You Had to Learn Something Completely New.
Basically, the hiring manager wants someone who’s open and eager to learn, not someone who’s going to be close-minded, do the bare minimum, or not get anything out of their experience. They also want someone who’s willing to develop a new skill or take on a new assignment for the good of the team.
How to Answer It
Identify a time when you had to learn something completely different from your area of expertise or interests, then focus on why you decided to pursue it in the first place and how you actually picked it up.
Your classes or class projects will provide some great examples of this. Like that one time you decided to take that introductory biology class outside of your communications major because the lab sounded cool, but quickly realized you weren’t used to large lectures and everything felt like a foreign language. So to prepare for the labs, you did your own research, hung out in the library reading research journals, and took advantage of your professors’ office hours.
7. Can You Tell Us About a Project or Accomplishment You’re Proud of, and Why?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask, because I want to know what lights the person up. Interviews are nerve-racking, and sometimes it can be hard to gauge how a candidate will actually show up to work. This question is meant to put a smile on your face, and give you the floor to brag a bit!
How to Answer It
Choose something you’re genuinely proud of, not just something that relates to what you think the interviewer wants to hear. It doesn’t even need to be something you did at work. A candidate recently spoke to me about a solo volunteer trip he took to Central America, and his whole demeanor changed when he explained how he felt after the trip (and talked about his plans for another)—which instantly impressed me.
Share the specifics of your accomplishment, but focus on the why, too. What exactly made this a proud moment? Did you overcome a huge challenge? Did you take on something brand new? Did your accomplishment impact the greater good?
8. Do You Have Any Questions for Us?
You should always have questions prepared to ask at the end of the interview—about the internship, your potential manager, the team, or the company as a whole. You literally have an expert at your disposal, so use your time with them wisely by digging into the specifics and getting any lingering concerns addressed. The interviewer wants to know that you’re engaged in the interview process, and asking thoughtful, provoking questions is a great way to show this.
How to Answer It
Prepare two to three questions that not only show you researched the company and know what it does, but also demonstrate that you’re excited about the role and all it has to offer.
Here are a few great questions you can ask, depending on what you’re looking to get out of the conversation and who you’re speaking with:
- “What’s your career path been so far that’s led you here, and what made you stay at this company?”
- “What’s been your most memorable experience here and why?”
- “What’s the coolest project you’ve worked on?”
- “How do you measure success for this internship?”
- “What’s one thing you’re hoping to get from an intern? How can an intern make your life easier?”
- “What do you love most about your job? This company?”
Check out this article on the best questions to ask in an interview for more great ideas.
Pro tip: It’s perfectly okay—and encouraged—to write your questions down ahead of time and pull out your notes when it’s your time to ask. This ensures you don’t forget anything, and if you bring a pen and take notes it shows the interviewer you’re paying attention and taking their responses seriously (just don’t be heads down the whole time).
In an internship interview, you may also encounter some specific questions that speak directly to the role you’re interviewing for—so make sure you have examples and related experience prepared to address any of the “required” skills or specific projects and tasks listed in the job description.
For example, if you’re interviewing for a human resources internship that will give you access to sensitive employee data, be prepared to share an example of when you’ve dealt with confidential information and explain specific experience you’ve had working in databases. For technical questions, even if you haven’t used the company’s specific system, describe similar systems you’ve used and your ability to learn quickly (with actual examples of these skills in action).
Above all, remember that the interviewer wants to get to know you and ensure the internship will be mutually beneficial. So be yourself, take a deep breath, and know that you’re going to do great!
And if you need more interview tips, check out these common interview questions for any job.