How to Recruit and Interview Interns – Part 1

Something that's been on my mind a lot lately is internships. I know it's been on your minds, too, because this piece I did on Wednesday, How to Do Right by Your Interns, about how this class of employee are being increasingly mistreated or taken advantage of, has been cropping up ever since in our "most read" widget thingy.

So, I'm taking this as an opportunity to do a piece I've wanted to do ever since I started on this blog way back in 2011. You're reading it so far. What do you think? Yeah, it's pretty good.

Seriously though, as someone who owes the start of his career to internships – and having been hired to work at two of them over the years, first at The Onion and also this coming summer as a teacher for Second City [] -- and has been on the other end of the hiring table interviewing potential interns, I know from plenty of firsthand experience that internships are important. But so often, employees don't bother to learn their names or don't give them a chance even come close to shining.

There are a lot of schools of thought on how to address this, so I'll be weaving in my own opinions along with those I reached out to on this. But basically, how do you know who to bring in for an interview and what do you cover in the interview is what I'll be looking at here.

"With interns, it can be hard to know if you should talk to someone just by their résumé," says Amy Cwalina of Lightbank. "However, applying for an internship shows that they are already being proactive, so I often try to talk to everyone that applies. They'll have a better chance if they write a killer cover letter, too."

I'm inclined to agree. Also, as someone who runs in the writing/editing field, any typos and careless mistakes that crop up – especially misspelling my last name – are automatic dismissals. I realize that is strict, but you're only as strong as your weakest link in any organization. If an applicant really cares they'll show it in every communication they do with the company. That means being professional, friendly and not making a misstep as much as possible. I'm not looking for a perfect robot, but someone amenable to learning and wise enough to realize they need to make the case of what they can offer the organization – not the experience we can give them. We already know what we can give them: We want to hear how you can dazzle us.

If someone passes my sniff test, then I usually give them a call and schedule an interview. Some people, like Jeff Trotman of Westglenn Software "start with a phone interview before scheduling an in-person interview… don't just assume that if you listed the requirements in the ad that the applicants would meet them or even have the faintest idea of what they meant."

Interns should be reasonably informed about the company and what you guys do. This isn't the time for surprises or sudden shocks. A phone interview can potentially save you a lot of time, but I think you have to go through the motions of an interview – and focus on listening to them while also sharpening your interviewing skills – even if they've dropped a bomb in the midst of conversation that solidifies things one way or another for you. Even if you want to hire them immediately or pass, give them the benefit of your time and be polite. You never know when you might need a favor or a helping hand from someone else, and that intern you didn't hire years ago could be tomorrow's Donald Trump or Lady Gaga. Then you can share a laugh about it instead of letting bad blood.

In the next post, I'll cover the interview process itself -- and remember, none of these are absolute laws. You need to tinker and find what works best for you and your organization. 

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