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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

What to Look for in an Intern

If you haven’t already noticed, it’s that time of year when intern applications flood your inbox. College students have just graduated, or started summer break, and are looking for some work experience (and maybe a paycheck).

Bringing an intern onto your team can be a great way to expand your team’s capacity, plus give you a chance to mentor someone just starting out in her career. But hiring and managing an intern can be time-consuming—and you must balance the time you're putting in with the return.

Done right, you may end up getting a full-time employee out of the internship. If not, you could end up with someone who adds to your to-do list rather than helps check items off. The secret to distinguishing between the two? Knowing what to look for.

1. Attention to Detail

Often, the first thing people consider when evaluating an intern applicant is her prior experience. I’d argue there’s a better place to start—her attention to detail.

Think about it: What is it you need from an intern? You want someone who you can hand a pile of work, and not be concerned that what you’ll get back will be formatted wrong and full of spelling errors. Yes, you’ll teach your intern many of her responsibilities and help her learn the ropes of your industry—but you don’t want to be constantly repeating directions and teaching her how to use spellcheck.

Your best candidate may be the person who doesn’t have any prior experience, but has a small case of OCD. She pays attention to detail and she’s eager to learn.

So, how do you sniff this trait out? Carefully read through the cover letters and resumes. If any have errors, throw them out. But the good ones, that are well-written and articulate? Don’t pass them up just because the candidate doesn’t have a lot of experience—this is just the beginning of her career, after all!

2. Experience

Alright, I admit it—as much as experience isn’t the end-all be-all, it does matter to an extent. But don’t just look at a candidate’s previous internships. Also evaluate her knowledge from the classroom and extra-curriculars. More and more, professors are incorporating real-life experiences into their assignments, and a roster of interesting leadership positions can show that she’s a go-getter who can take projects and run with them.

Also conduct a round of brief phone interviews, where you can ask questions about an applicant’s knowledge of your industry and company. Does she understand the very basics? Check. Does she have any experience in implementing these basics for a school assignment, for an on-campus club, or for a previous part-time job? Check. Both are great signs she deserves a second look.

3. Willingness to Work and Learn

You can bet every one of your applicants wants experience, but not all of them necessarily want to work for it. So it’s important to be aware of those applicants who are really just looking for a resume boost.

Thankfully, an intern’s willingness to work and learn is one of the easiest things to determine in an interview. Does the candidate seem excited about the position and being a part of your team? Does she ask questions? Be honest about what her duties will be, and if she scoffs or seems bored by some of the more menial tasks, beware.

One of the most revealing questions you can ask is, “what are you hoping to gain from this internship?” Those who give you an answer revolving around learning or gaining hands-on experience are golden, but those who focus on getting a full-time job (even though, let’s be honest, that’s an end-goal for everyone), may not turn out to be the best team players.

4. Culture Fit

Finally, no matter the size of your organization, having your intern fit well with your team is important to keeping a great work environment. No, it’s not always easy to evaluate someone’s personality from one interview, but there are a couple of key things you can do to get a read on her fit.

First, do a quick search online—most college students or recent grads will have social media profiles that are readily searchable, and you can browse them to better determine how a given candidate might fit with the current team. (Also, I can’t tell you how many intern applicants I’ve been able to eliminate because they’re doing a keg stand in their profile picture.)

Then, during the interview, ask each applicant about her career aspirations and why this particular position and company stood out. Find out her perception of your industry and type of company. Finally, end the interview by asking her about her hobbies and interests—it’s another great way to see whether she’ll be a good culture fit with the broader team.

It’s always exciting having a new person in the office, and bringing on an intern to help you out and who you will mentor over the summer can be a rewarding experience for you both. Just make sure you set it up right by finding the right person from the get-go.

Have advice on evaluating interns? We’d love to hear it below.

Photo courtesy of University of Salford.