Kristen Farrell

Over the decades, the concept of an internship has evolved significantly. What once was a part-time summer job for college-level students has become a variety of learning opportunities offered year-round for traditional and non-traditional candidates.

Before your company starts the recruitment process, it’s important to understand how internships have changed, the types of candidates in today’s job market, and the best interview questions to ask in order to hire the best intern.

Questions to Ask an Intern Candidate

Internships have evolved over time (read on for the history and current state of internships in the United States). Have the questions you should ask internship candidates changed as well? The answer is yes and no.

There will always be questions you can’t ask to ensure your company is not discriminating. This article gives guidance on questions that are off limits. Also, there will always be questions you should ask. The famed “Tell me about yourself” question can be a great conversation starter that will walk you through the candidate’s resume and guide you to relevant experience and skill-based questions.

Experienced-based questions can often be more revealing than skill-based questions. They can reveal a variety of transferable skills, which are important to keep in mind if a long-term goal of your internship program is to fill full-time positions. If one goal of your internship program is to become a mentor, allow candidates to treat your conversation partly as an informational interview. Encouraging candidates to ask you questions will give them insight into how their careers could progress.

The Questions

Here are 30 general questions to ask prospective interns in order to get a sense of their work ethic, values, strengths, weaknesses, and more.

1. What is your greatest strength?

2. What is your greatest weakness?

3. Tell me about yourself.

4. Why should we hire you

5. Why are you leaving or have left your job?

6. Why do you want this internship?

7. How do you handle stress and pressure?

8. Describe a difficult work situation/project and how you overcame it. 

9. What are your goals for the future?

10. Why do you want to work for this company?

11. Are you the best person for this job? Why? 

12. Describe your work style.

13. Do you prefer to work alone or on a team?

14. How much do you expect to get paid?

15. How do you measure success?

16. If the people who know you were asked why you should be hired, what would they say?

17. What are you passionate about?

18. What can you contribute to this company? 

19. What have you learned from your mistakes?

20. What do you know about this company?

21. Tell me about a time you set difficult goals?

22. Tell me about the relationships you've had with the people you've worked with.

23. What have you done professionally that is not an experience you'd want to repeat?

24. Is it better to be perfect and late or good and on time?

25. What single project or task would you consider your most significant career accomplishment to date?

26. What's your definition of hard work?

27. Who is the smartest person you know personally? Why?

28. What is something you'd be happy doing every single day for the rest of your career?

29. What’s the biggest decision you’ve had to make in the past year? Why was it so big?

30. Do you have any questions for me?

The last question is especially important because the answer to this question also reveals what's important to the candidate and how quickly they can think on their feet. "Are they wondering about company culture or compensation?" asks The Balance. "Are they curious about growth potential, or learning opportunities? There are no right or wrong answers, but personality and communication style are important factors when considering hiring someone to join your team, and you can get a sense of these factors with their answer."

A lot of the other questions on the list make it easy to learn more about the candidate, too. While it's important to hire for skill (or, for an internship, a willingness to learn skills), it's also important to hire someone who's likely to be happy in the job for which you're hiring. 

Likewise, it's important to see how a candidate approaches decision making, to see what their values are, to see what they aspire to be by forcing them to articulate why someone else is smart, to test them for self-awareness and to learn what hard work and success really mean to them. These will all help you decide whether or not a candidate would fit into the company culture, especially if you're looking to possibly hire them full time after their internship concludes.

A Brief History of Internships

The idea of an internship dates back to the 11th Century. Thankfully, InternMatch (since acquired by WayUp) developed this infographic that summarizes how colleges and universities transformed trade apprenticeships into the norm for students of all disciplines who are looking for “real world” experience. The infographic shows the number of college students who completed an internship before graduation increased from three percent in 1980 to 80 percent in 1999. That’s a 96 percent increase. Today, it’s more likely a college student has completed multiple internships than just one or none at all.

Internship Models

Summer has always been an ideal season for internships because most college students are on a 12-week break from school. Managers develop a program based on company values and goals and align it with curriculums so students gain valuable experience and skills during their time outside of the classroom. Although, year-round internships are just as popular since more and more employers require at least one year of experience for entry-level jobs. The key difference between summer internships and year-round internships is the time an intern is scheduled to work each week.

Virtual Internships

As much as it feels like work-from-home and remote jobs are relatively new workforce policies, virtual internships have already been around for a number of years. In 2012, The New York Times published a story about these learning opportunities that require just an Internet connection, a computer and a video conference tool, such as Skype, for checking in with the internship manager. The newspaper reported the benefits are “less expensive and in many ways more productive” experiences for both companies and students, and “flexible hours” that allow interns to manage a full semester of classes and part-time jobs that pay. It also shines a light on missed opportunities, like “insight into professional expectations, corporate culture, and office etiquette.” As for 2018, WayUp says one-third of employers are hiring virtual interns and close to three-quarters of students are “open to the idea of holding a virtual internship”.

Gap Years

The gap year phenomenon is another factor that is driving change the internship landscape. Organizations like the Gap Year Association and USA Gap Year Fairs encourage high school graduates to take a year off before enrolling in a higher education, and explore careers and learn skills through traveling and volunteering. In a way, gap year programs are internships and co-ops for high school graduates.

Fabor Labor Standards Act

Lastly on the different types of internships, it’s important to know if your definition of an internship program coincides with the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Take the “primary beneficiary test” to determine if the extent of your company’s internship program is considered an employee relationship, as the FLSA requires for-profit companies to compensate employees.

Interns of 2018

A few years ago, Hollywood director Nancy Meyers introduced the world to Ben Whittaker, a retired widower who decided to reenter the workforce by applying for an online fashion start-up’s internship program. In an interview with Bustle, Meyers shared the story about a young entrepreneur (Anne Hathaway) managing a 70-year-old intern (Robert De Niro) came from her desire to have a person like Ben in her life.

Changing Careers and Re-entry into the Workforce

The Intern is a piece of fiction, but the scenario is realistic. A 2017 survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam found that 93 percent of Baby Boomers are “comfortable having a younger boss” and “nearly nine in 10” Millennials are okay with managing a person who is older. In 2016, Millennials surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest living generation. So although the world may not see many 70-year-olds like Whittaker returning to the workforce as an intern, you or someone you know may find yourself in a relatable work relationship one day.

Carol Fishman Cohen is the chief executive officer of iRelaunch, a company that helps professionals re-enter the workforce after a career break. In an article for Medium, Fishman wrote, “Internships these days are not just for college kids on summer break; they’ve become an effective vehicle for professionals returning from a career break to engage with employers. Reentry internships can be used by the whole range of non-traditional professionals: not only those relaunching after breaks for childcare or elder care, but also returning retirees, vets, military spouses, and expats.”

Elizabeth Lowman authored an article for The Muse and wrote about her experience as a 30-year-old intern. After relocating and struggling to find a new job in a poor economy, Lowman applied for a part-time, temporary position as an unpaid editorial intern. Having once dreamed of working for a magazine, Lowman shared, “I realized that this was a rare opportunity that could help me achieve several goals at once: I could get a taste for a job I’d idolized for so long, keep my mind sharp and my body busy, and still have time to search and go on interviews for a full-time job. I even played with the idea that once the magazine saw my true potential, they’d snatch me up as a permanent employee.”

In my previous life in human resources, I recruited for an MBA internship that attracted candidates from Ivy League schools like Harvard Business School and Yale University. One year I interviewed a former professional NFL player who was enrolled in Harvard’s NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurship Program, which is an education track designed to help transition NFL players into their second career. The candidate, who is a Super Bowl Champion, told me that 75 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or get divorced after their professional career ends, and he didn’t want to be part of that statistic. I can honestly say I had never considered this unique challenge of a professional football player before that moment.

The point here is the workforce is changing and so are internship candidates. Remember to have an open mind when reading resumes and listening to candidates answer your interview questions.

Exit Interviews

Even though your focus right now is to hire interns, it’s important to perform exit interviews when your internship program ends — it's just part of the interview process. Another thing that will never change is the two-way nature of an employer-employee relationship.

Ask interns if the program met their expectations and how it could be improved. Did they think it was a good fit for them? Did they feel like they contributed to the company mission? Was their job like the job description that the interviewers originally posted on the company website? What are some examples of the strengths and weaknesses of the company? Was it a good internship for people in their career path? What are some examples of the qualities they enjoyed and some examples of the qualities they didn't enjoy? What could the interviewers have warned them about?

Also, ask how they would describe your company’s environment and culture. If your internship program does not provide value and/or is unsatisfying, it won’t produce quality candidates to fill your company’s full-time roles, nor positive online job board reviews, nor word of mouth referrals for future interns. Ask for genuine answers.

The Internship Interview Process

Any interviewer may want to review these examples of common interview questions if they're interviewing a job candidate to see if they're a good fit for the company. The interview process, even for internships, could be long and grueling for a hire manager. But finding a good fit with the necessary strengths and understanding of the company mission — who may just turn their internship into a long-term career — could be ideal for an interviewer, especially if a major company goal is to retain new, young talent in any area.

For more interview tips, check out The Ultimate Interview Guide.

Kristen Farrell is a professional communicator who previously worked in human resources. She shares career lessons and everyday experiences on her blog: When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running, crafting, or spending time with her husband, Jonathan and cat, Trotsky.