How to Pick Rock Star Summer Interns

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

The weather’s getting warmer, and colleges will soon let out for the summer. Like an annual draft, it’s the time of year to try to pick the best among the new crop of interns.

Internships can provide much-needed manpower and new energy for companies that have suffered through staff reductions, and can also serve as auditions for future star employees. But select the wrong person and you could be in for a long summer.

“Interns can be the very best thing to happen to the department — or the worst,” says Connie Thanasoulis, a career coach and co-founder of SixFigureStart. “So you have to give it a lot of thought before entering into this arrangement.”

With the economy improving, you’ll have to compete harder to get the best candidates. “Things have changed dramatically since the recession, and managers should be aware that they will have a role in ‘selling’ their internship beyond the traditional recruiting and candidate-screening process,” says Laura Ann Preston-Dayne, director of leadership development and talent management at Kelly Services.

Real Business asked Thanasoulis and Preston-Dayne to give tips on how to select the best interns for your needs.

1. Don’t Wing It. The first issue comes when the manager hasn’t done a good job detailing the processes, projects, or activities that the interns will work on at their summer job. “This lack of planning up front makes it difficult to select the intern that has the best mix of skills and experiences to contribute to and learn from the work,” says Preston-Dayne.

2. Install a Process. Make sure your interviewers know which questions to ask candidates. Then, figure out a timetable for looking at applications, speaking with candidates, debriefing with your team, and when offers will be extended. “The very best candidates will have multiple offers and you don’t want to lose the good ones,” says Thanasoulis.

3. Eye for Ambition. Look for interns who are smart, energetic, and organized. “Prioritize students in your process who make a clear connection between the opportunity you are offering them and what they are aspiring to do in the future,” says Preston-Dayne.

It will also help your department big-time if your interns are self-starters. “Look for leadership skills: President, VP, or treasurer of a school club, or tutoring,” says Thanasoulis.  “Extracurricular activities are a good sign that the student gets involved.”

Grades? Sure, they’re important, but remember to weigh other factors, too. “I would rather have an intern with a 3.0 GPA who has held a part-time job to help pay for school than a 4.0 student with no professional experience,” says Preston-Dayne.

4. The Write Stuff. In-person interviews are ideal but not always possible when screening intern candidates. If that’s the case, make sure to look for red flags in an application — such as typos, poor grammar, and listing broad job duties instead of specific accomplishments.

A good way to get a feel for candidates’ interest level is to have them write a one-page statement about why they want to work for your business. “Do they mention more than the obvious when they write about why they want to work at your company?” says Thanasoulis. When candidates do a little research on your company, it “shows they care and that they’re mature.”

5. Manage Your Expectations. Remember that no matter how talented the interns are, they will have little to no office experience. Don’t expect them to do a lot of heavy lifting, or worse — fully do your job. “Managers who are expecting a polished junior professional are bound to be surprised once the internship begins regardless of the caliber of the student,” says Preston-Dayne.

Gradually build your interns’ workload and responsibilities — the best ones will be capable of doing a lot once they get a hang of the office environment. Bottom line: Have a plan, pick wisely, and be a good mentor. That will ensure that the internship experience will be rewarding, both for you and the student.

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comments (1)

  1. Elizabeth Hughes

    Assigning a mentor for the intern is a good idea so that the intern stays on track and assigned projects get done.


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