A great intern can be a huge win for your work life. You have another set of hands on board to help with unfinished projects or tackle the much-needed research that just seems to sit there waiting for you to have time for it. You’ll have a few extra hours in the day to get to those bigger things you’ve been wanting to. You’ll have the opportunity to serve as a mentor and coach and develop your own leadership and managerial skills.
And a not-so-great intern? Well, ask anyone who’s had one—that situation can be more trouble than it’s worth.
But, sniffing out the latter category from the former can be tough when most interns don’t come to the table with much work experience or professional skills. What interview questions do you ask if you don’t have past positions to use as a gauge?
Just remember: The goals of interviewing a prospective intern are the same as interviewing a job candidate —you want to learn about the person’s skills and abilities, assess their interest in your company, and determine whether or not they’ll be a good fit with your team. Here are a few questions in each of those categories to get you started.
You Want to Know: Do They Have the Skills and Abilities?
Tell Me About Your Coursework. In What Ways is it Relevant to This Position?
Even the most mundane college class has some professional benefit to it. There are the obvious ways—if you’re looking for a PR intern, then having someone who is majoring in marketing or public relations and has worked on projects that relate to your industry is a clear connection. But other classes have indirect benefits as well—for example, writing papers takes research, organization, time management, and editing skills, and foreign language classes require communicating effectively in a diverse environment. By having candidates identify and articulate those connections, you’ll get a good sense of where their strengths lie.
Tell Me About Your Volunteer or Community Service Experience
Experiences like volunteering in the community, planning on-campus events, or participating in clubs or Greek life can be incredibly valuable in developing professional skills. I once hired an intern who had no paid work experience but a resume chock-full of impressive volunteer work. She planned an annual 5K for cancer research on her campus for three years (hello, leadership and event planning skills), worked at the local elementary school reading to children (clearly, she was responsible), and was the treasurer of her sorority (i.e., had top-notch budget management and organization skills). Asking candidates to describe what they’ve learned and gained from these experiences can be a great way to determine what they’ll bring to a professional setting.
What Skills Do You Want to Gain From This Experience, and What Skills Can You Offer Us?
Sometimes just asking the question directly is best. Candidates may have great skills that aren’t reflected in their coursework or on-campus activity—or, they may know that they need experience in a certain area, and that your internship will provide them with just that. Either way, look for people who have really thought through what they’ll bring to and take from the opportunity.
You Want to Know: Are They Interested in Your Company?
Why Do You Want to Intern Here?
Sometimes students just need an internship, and they’ll take it where they can get it. But the best candidates—the ones who will likely work hard and be excited to learn more about your industry and function—will be applying because they respect your company’s mission or have some connection to the work that is done. Look for people who are really compelled to join your team.
What Do You Know About Our Company? What Questions Do You Still Have?
As with any good job interview, you want an intern candidate who has done his or her research . Ask a few questions that will reveal knowledge of your company (or not). For example, is there a program that she’s most interested in, or does he have a thought on your most recent press release? In addition, letting candidates ask questions about the company and role can reveal their ability to think critically about what they’ve learned.
You Want to Know: Will They Fit In?
What Are Your Expectations?
Asking candidates what their expectations of the internship are is a great way to ascertain whether or not they understand your company and the work they’ll be doing. Making sure both you and the candidate are clear about the work involved, the required hours, and the pay (if any) is the first step to ensuring a successful setup for both of you.
What Do You Know About the Industry?
An intern will become a member of your team and will likely interact with other colleagues, vendors, and clients at some point. So, you want to be sure that anyone you bring on is familiar with basic industry jargon, programs, and procedures—or at the very least, will be excited to learn about them. A candidate who has done informational interviews, regularly reads industry blogs, or has a vested interest in the field will always be better than one who’s just trying to get experience anywhere.
What Are Your Goals After Graduation?
Learning about candidates’ long-term goals can give you insight into the kind of people they are (and want to become). They don’t necessarily have to perfectly align with the role and industry, but the internship will be a better experience for both of you if it’s at least somewhat related. Especially if you’re hoping your intern will eventually turn into a full-time hire, a candidate who, say, aspires to work for a large investment banking firm after graduation might not be a great fit in your mission-driven nonprofit.
As you ask these broad-based questions, try to elaborate on the answers and ask candidates to use specific examples whenever possible. Don’t let the fact that the candidates have little or no job experience throw you—just focus on the needs of your organization, the practical skills each candidate brings, and how he or she will fit into the team, and you’re bound to be successful.
Photo of intern interview courtesy of asiseeit/Getty Images.
Angela has over 10 years of human resources and non-profit administration, and is currently the Director of Human Resources and Career Services at Burlington College in Vermont. A seasoned recruiter, she holds a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification, and was recently named one of Vermont's 40 Under 40 by Vermont Business Magazine. Angela is a sought after consultant and speaker for workshops on resume writing, job searching tips, and interview techniques. You can find her writing at A Working Evolution, TheDailyMuse.com, and Forbes.com. In her spare time, she dreams of running away to Paris to study pastry-making.More from this Author