It’s no secret that internships can be tremendously helpful to college students or recent graduates. Benefits of an internship include real-world experience, professional connections, college credit (if a school or class recognizes it), and cash (assuming it’s a paid internship). Given all of these positives, it shouldn’t be surprising that landing a coveted internship (or really any internship) continues to get more competitive each year. I was fortunate enough to land a paid internship when I was in college. I’m even more fortunate now to be in a position where I am able to hire interns to help my business. Because of my experience, I’ve been asked before “what do you look for when hiring an intern?” While I will make no claims to represent all managers, any would-be intern could benefit greatly by paying attention to the following ten things. These are questions and items that always stand out to me. They can be the difference between an internship offer and a polite decline.
1.) Resume Quality and Length – I start with the resume because it’s the first impression, and the simplest way to eliminate a candidate. I won’t go into too much detail as there are plenty of places to learn about putting together an excellent resume. However, I will point out two huge red flags I see often in intern resumes: -The resume has imperfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If I see a spelling or other obvious error on a resume, then it’s going right into the “no” pile. It sends a message that the candidate doesn’t care about detail, and will likely be a bad fit. -The resume is TOO long. For an internship, a bulk of the resumes I receive will be from college students who have little work experience outside of a high school job, or other internship. That’s fine! I don’t need to see every babysitting job and participation award the applicant received on the resume. If I see a sophomore in college with a 3 page resume, my eyes almost immediately start rolling. I’ve hired professionals 20 years removed from college who kept their resumes to one page. That makes the sophomore’s 3-pager comes off as pretty bloated. I love a succinct resume!
2.) Communication Skills and Following Directions – No matter what the internship is, communication will most likely be part of the job. I look for a candidate who can express their ideas clearly and be direct in all their responses from setting up the interview to the interview itself. Beyond that, being able to follow directions is essential. If I ask for a writing sample, attach a writing sample! If I ask for a reference, provide a reference! The fastest way into the discard pile is to ignore directions. This is all part of being able to listen, comprehend, and communicate. It’s a great way to eliminate candidates who won’t be a good fit otherwise.
3.) The Handshake – This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but in business it’s something that can definitely stand out (for better or for worse). I’ve had internship candidates who put my hand in a vice grip so painful that I dreaded shaking their hand again at the close of the interview. On the flip side, I’ve had candidates approach me with a handshake so weak I was afraid I’d break their wrist. Find the happy medium! It may be nitpicky, but when I’m going over a dozen potential candidates in a competitive applicant pool the “awful handshake” candidate will undoubtedly lose a couple points.
4.) “Immature and Inexperienced” or “Professional but Inexperienced” – I understand that many applicants to internships may not have a lot of experience (that’s one reason why they want the internship!). Of course, there’s a difference between being “immature AND inexperienced” and being “professional BUT inexperienced”. In the former, a lack of professionalism highlights the inexperience and makes me hesitant to give the candidate the shot. In the ladder, the professionalism makes me eager to take the candidate on as an intern and help them launch or advance their career.
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I won’t define all the ways you can come across as professional, but I will provide an example of what not to do. I once had a candidate come in to an interview 5 minutes late, in ripped jeans, unkempt hair, and seemingly nursing a hangover. All I saw was an inexperienced college kid who wouldn’t be good for my company. It was a short interview.
5.) Has the applicant taken an interest in my company? – This one is straightforward. I look for a candidate who has taken the time to research and take an interest my company. If I ask “did you check out our web site” and the answer is “no” then I’m immediately disappointed. I know I’m not running the most exciting business in the world, but a majority of businesses fall under that category. If a candidate doesn’t take the time to show interest before the internship, then how can I be sure they’ll show interest during the internship?
6.) Does the applicant want to do more than just grab coffee and answer phones? – This goes hand and hand with #5. I look for an eager candidate who not only wants to help my company succeed, but also is eager to learn and grow professionally. A candidate who comes prepared with good questions about my company, or who provides insightful and creative answers to my questions is likely interested in maximizing the value of the internship. I know there’s that old stigma of interns being sent off to do mundane tasks and be little more than servants. Some companies may be okay with that, but the best companies won’t be. They’ll want an intern who wants to get involved.
7.) Is there anything the applicant is currently learning, has learned, or has done that will be helpful to the internship? — I’ve touched on the lack of experience many applicants may have. Again, that’s certainly understandable. However, I look for candidates who are able to seize upon what experience they DO have and apply that to the potential internship. This is one more thing that could tie in to #5 – a candidate that does the research and comes prepared with experience or examples of coursework relevant to the internship will have a significant advantage over others.
8.) Red Flags: Avoiding “The Flake” – I’ve had mostly good experiences hiring interns, but every now and again you end up with a “Flake.” A “flake” is an intern who doesn’t show up on time, doesn’t engage with the work, makes excuses, and essentially wants the internship to just be a resume pad without putting anything into it. When I look for an intern, I make sure to avoid red flags that could suggest “flake.” These include things like, not showing up to the interview on time, not responding back to interview schedule correspondence in a timely manner (or at all), and so on. Any one of these things has me thinking “no way!”
9.) Confidence – Confidence is a key element in any interview. A candidate, who is engaged in the conversation, looks me in the eye when meeting me and answering questions, has a good handshake, and speaks clearly and confidently is a candidate that will stand out. The worst interviews are those where the candidate seems to be looking away, is unsure in their answers, and generally come across as lacking confidence.
10.) The Follow Up – The last thing I look for cannot be understated. It’s such a nice touch that I see so few internship candidates actually do. Follow up after the interview! Send me an email, give me a call, or even send me a note if you really want to go above and beyond. It doesn’t need to be a long message. In fact, it could be a short thank you, or even just a quick follow up question about the internship. No matter what it is – the follow-up is something I really value. It tells me that the candidate is really interested in the internship and can definitely give them the edge.
Scott Hawksworth is the CEO of Best Online Universities LLC , a higher education company that develops web sites to help students learn about careers and educational opportunities in a wide variety of disciplines.