what to look for when you’re interviewing students

A reader writes:

While I’ve had plenty of practice interviewing experienced hires, I’m feeling stumped preparing to interview college students. We are coming up on campus recruiting season for interns and new hires, and I’m having trouble formulating my general interview script. Most of my go-to questions focus on past projects and experiences in different work environments. How do I translate this to students, especially the internship candidates who may not have any prior industry experience? What do I look for – GPA? Class projects? Leadership activities?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. Tasha*

    Allison’s statement: “Look for three main things: smarts, drive, and some sort of track record of achievement” echos something Warren Buffet supposedly said: Look for people who are smart, hard working, and have integrity. Because if they have the first two but not the third, watch out!

  2. Jen*

    I work on a college campus so I have had a lot of student workers. Some of the questions I ask:

    -Of the classes you’ve taken so far in your major, what has been your favorite one and why?
    -Can you talk about a project or a paper you’ve done so far this semester that was your favorite?
    -When you work on a group project for a class, how do you usually begin the work process? What role do you usually fill in the group?
    -Tell me about an assignment that you’ve had that was really problematic – how did you get through it?

    I can usually get a good indication of what sorts of things they’re really interested in doing. I do Public Relations so we get a lot of student workers who want to do public relations and I like hearing from the kids who enjoy the writing courses or the students who tend to take more of a leadership role in a group assignment. The ability to work independently is necessary so I try to ask questions that might illustrate their ability to do that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I like the last one a lot, but I might take a fresh look at the first two — I think those are likely to get you pretty mushy answers that don’t get you into what you’re really seeking.

      1. fposte*

        I think it depends on the job and my ability to do followups. I probably would only do the second, but I have jobs where this kind of question would make sense because I get to see somebody enthuse in some detail about what their work can achieve based on the only work they may be able to do that with. That’s definitely a quality that I’m looking for–it means somebody’s been able to find work rewarding and to articulate why.

        1. fposte*

          Now that I think about it, I do pretty much ask this–I ask it more broadly, so it’s not specifically school, but I get a lot of school-based answers, and it’s been a useful question.

        2. Jen*

          Yeah, for PR it helps me limit the kind of PR they want to do. I need someone who is going to be willing to do a lot of writing. But if they can do design work too, that’s great. So if a student says “Well, I just took an event planning class and it has been amazing. We planned an awards dinner and I really liked being able to pick out a menu and design invitations.” or “I just took social media and I love it. We did a whole social media campaign and we learned how to report our results.” – well, I don’t need that. Some departments do. I don’t. I had a student who gave me those kinds of answers and I referred her over to Campus Activities for a job and she was hired there where she was able to plan large scale student events and do the social media promotion for them. Someone who took media writing and research and loved it is going to be much happier in my department because that’s what I’ll need them to do.

          1. alana*

            Yeah, one thing I have had to learn as someone who hires and supervises interns is to overcome my bias toward choosing the student who seems the most like a high achiever/rising star, and to pick someone who’s demonstrated an interest in and aptitude for what the internship actually requires. (I’m in media, so it’s similar to your example — there are some great internships out there for someone who wants a daily writing assignment that publishes the next day, but mine isn’t one of them; I need someone who’d be happier to get maybe one or two bylines while doing a lot of research for senior reporters and writers.)

            1. alana*

              I think this is probably truer for fields where there is an obvious college major track leading you there, so the classes are more like professional training. I can see that if you’re a big firm looking for all kinds of liberal arts majors, the questions would be a lot less helpful.

      2. epi*

        I’m surprised to hear that.

        I don’t come from a disadvantaged background in any way– both my parents and most of the adults in my life growing up had graduate degrees or worked in academia. But looking back, I still undersold myself often as a student and early-career worker. I depended on rules, like taking retail experience off my resume as soon as I could, or not highlighting class projects unless I had nothing else. They not only made my resume look thinner, they made me awkward throughout the hiring process because I was speaking and writing around good examples of my experience, thinking they didn’t “count”. It actually took a few years of working before I developed a more nuanced understanding of what information would be useful or interesting to a hiring manager. I assumed this experience was common because someone who hasn’t worked much can’t be a good judge of what experiences are relevant to working.

        Jen’s questions would definitely have drawn me out. I’m not sure I would even have known talking about class work was encouraged, no matter what it was or how above and beyond I had gone to complete it, without being asked directly.

        1. LovecraftInDC*

          I kept my Starbucks experience on my resume for an incredibly long time, because I had quickly worked up to supervisor (and got a supervisor position as soon as I turned 18, which was the minimum age).
          One, it provided me a talking point (almost everybody brought it up and we would joke about how I could always make the office lattes), two, I could point to how quickly I was able to learn and take on positions of authority, and three, it let me demonstrate some management experience long before I was eligible to get any in my professional career.

        2. Former Scientist*

          When I was hiring students, the first question I looked for was work experience outside of school. I worked at a prestigious Big Pharma company, and we had a summer internship program that drew thousands of applicants every year. I learned quickly that the student with the best “academic” resume were often the worst hires. The kids who had decent grades but had worked in Starbucks, McDonalds, etc, all understood the working world, and showed up on time, motivated, and were more successful in the internship. I understand that the academic superstars probably just needed to be taught, but in a 3 month internship, spending 2 months teaching them to be punctual, and not be on your phone all day just wasn’t worth my time. The focus on grades over everything else is really misguided I think.

  3. Orange You Glad*

    I almost exclusively interview students (I actually have the opposite problem from this LW, when I’m called into the occasional interview for a full-time experienced hire, I’m unsure what I should be talking about).

    I try to focus on their experiences at school such as volunteer organizations and clubs. Was this person the president/treasurer, etc of their campus chess club? They can probably share some experience of managing their other members. Were they on their campus activities board? They might have some experience with event planning.

    I also tend to ask the candidate to provide examples of their skills in other ways – such as time management through organizing their study schedule or a difficult situation they may have had at work (even if that job is just waiting tables).

    At the very least, I’m looking to see the person has done more than just go to class. Most people can study hard and do well on tests, but not everyone can apply that knowledge outside the classroom – even on a small scale like at their part time campus job or club.

    Finally, our company does assessments of all candidates. I don’t like leaning on these assessments, but they can be helpful seeing the big picture of how this person would fit into the role.

    1. KarenT*

      Yes, completely agree regarding looking for more than students that have gone to class. Holding a part time job, internships, or a leadership position in a student organization are big ones for me.
      I also look pretty heavily for a track record of initiative and drive, as well as maturity.

  4. Nesprin*

    I’ve had dozens of interns in research positions. I’m looking for students with a GPA >3.0/4.0 because students who are > than students who just want the research for med school. I’m always looking for students who will contribute and be part of the team- so any evidence of sports/game night/orchestra are typically good signs. Past internship work almost never predicts who is going to succeed- instead its the students with patience who are willing to spent the 6 months it’ll take them to be functional in the lab environment.

    Here’s my standard questions:
    What do you know about us? Why do you want to work with us? What do you want to get out of working for us? Where do you want to be after finishing your internship? (it usually takes all 4 of these questions to get at the answer)
    Tell me about a class project you did really well in- why did it go so well? Tell me about a project that didn’t go so great- what happened?
    What do you really like doing and what do you hate doing?
    Any questions/comments/jokes for me? (I had a student tell me a joke once at that statement- I hired her on the spot and was delighted to work with her)

    1. Nesprin*

      the angle brackets ate some of my comment. Students under 3.0 tend to be struggling. and I always prefer research interested students over medical school bound students.

  5. lawyer*

    I interview students a lot. My go-to question is “what’s your greatest failure?” It does tend to throw people, but it’s helpful in terms of producing an answer that I can dig into further to figure out how they think about failure and success, whether they’re able to learn from and analyze challenging experiences, capacity for perseverance, etc. New lawyers screw up a LOT in the first few years, so one of the most important traits they can have is the ability to cope with setbacks. It also creates an opportunity for a student that has some bad stuff on the resume (e.g., a semester of bad grades) to explain and contextualize that.

    The other question I usually ask is “what’s the most important thing about you that isn’t on your resume?” That has been an extremely useful question for us, because a lot of times I find that students with nontraditional backgrounds have been encouraged to hide that on the resume. Information I’ve learned from asking this has included that the student held a 30 hour/week job all the way through high school and college; that the student was homeless for a portion of high school; and that the student was emancipated as a minor because his family threw him out because he was gay. Since a lot of our candidates come from similar backgrounds and have resumes covered in fancy internships, it can be helpful for us to know why a student’s resume doesn’t include that (career services often tells students to leave off fast food jobs and stuff like that, which can make a resume look overly thin when it really shouldn’t). We’re also actively trying to increase diversity in our workforce, especially along socioeconomic lines, and finding out about stuff like that helps us. And it can really speak to a student’s ability to balance competing demands, do an unglamorous job, handle challenging people, etc.

    1. Tarra*

      I love this question in your second para. I’ve benefited from a similar question myself in the past.

    2. Alina*

      “a lot of our candidates come from similar backgrounds and have resumes covered in fancy internships”

      How would you answer that questions if you’re one of these candidates?

      1. Yorick*

        They would answer with any information that they left out of the resume, which might still make them stand out.

        1. lawyer*

          Exactly. There’s almost always something important the resume doesn’t convey. That doesn’t even have to be factual information about the candidate’s background – it can be something about your values or goals that you think is important, or something that brings together seemingly disparate facts on your resume.

    3. Aveline*

      Thank you so much for including the note about socioeconomic diversity. We have to be wary that following scripts too rigidly and not delving as you suggest weeds out far too many disadvantaged students.

      I’m sure you are aware of the studies about immigrants, Native Americans, African-Americans, and students from rural backgrounds and impoverished background wrt ability to do internships and extra-curriculars.

      I think it’s very easy to think that the internship + Club President model is available equally to all students. It’s not.

      1. lawyer*

        Honestly, every student I’ve met who was from a lower-income background has undersold her accomplishments. I interviewed a student a few months ago and only because I asked that question did I learn that she had been homeschooled, enrolled herself in community college at 16 without family support because they didn’t believe in higher education for women, and did so well in CC that she was able, with encouragement and help from her professors, to transfer to her state’s flagship university with a full scholarship. Career services had told her to omit the AA so if I hadn’t asked that question I would likely have never heard that story – which demonstrates an enormous amount of independence and perseverance.

        1. Aveline*

          I am so glad you did so.

          And I wholeheartedly agree that students from lower-incomes undersell them selves.

          1. lawyer*

            I think lower-income students are often taught – explicitly or implicitly – that the things that demonstrate their strengths are embarrassments that they should hide.

            1. Temperance*

              For what it’s worth, those things often *are* not necessarily favored in most workplaces, and you are given a “you don’t belong here” vibe for sharing. As an adult with some years of experience, I am now fairly open about growing up with a mentally ill parent in a poor family/not having much of a relationship with my family, and pretty much learning how to adult on my own. As a college student, I just wanted to be like every middle class kid and get those opportunities.

    4. Dr. Doll*

      These are wonderful questions for hiring. Thanks for sharing, writing them on a card to pin to the wall! –Also, great for classroom use too.

  6. J3*

    Finding yourself in the position of interviewing many candidates with similar qualifications whom you’re actively struggling to differentiate between seems like a particularly great opportunity to increase employee diversity wherever it might specifically be lacking for your organization.

  7. Bostonian*

    One thing to keep in mind about interviewing students is they’re more likely to give you answers that they think you want to hear rather than be honest. True, in all interviews, people are going to project the best version of themselves, BUT with students, they’re not going to make the connection that giving a dishonest answer about their interests is going to result in a miserable internship experience due to poor fit. So be really careful about how you word questions that you’re not leading them to think there is one “right” answer.

    One of the things that was really important to me when hiring a student intern was their ability to be self-motivated and work independently. So in addition for questions looking for specific examples of those, I asked about a time when they realized they didn’t have the information/skills they needed to do a task and what they did about it. I got a lot of really interesting, thoughtful answers from that.

    Most of the students applying also had at least *some* extracurricular/part-time job/internship experience, so I asked them what their favorite one was and why. If they said, “I really liked X because of all the different people I got to meet”, then I took that as a clue that they may not be happy in the independent, isolated role I was hiring for, then and ask another follow-up question or 2 to suss that out.

  8. nnn*

    Depending on the nature of the job and the qualities you want to screen for, it might be useful to pose them scenarios that are comparable to the kind of work they’ll be doing, and ask them how they’d handle it. This gives you an idea of how they approach work problems, how their reasoning works, which aspects of workplace norms they’ve already internalized, etc.

    Just make it clear when interviewing students that your intention is to see how they think through it, not to test whether they know the correct answer!

  9. nnn*

    Another thought: if you’re asking “tell me about a time” questions, you, as the interviewer, should be prepared with a follow-up to glean the information you’re looking for in case they don’t have a time where that specific thing happened.

    1. fposte*

      I think in general when interviewing students it’s good to be prepared to prompt more than you might with a more experienced candidate. That doesn’t mean you have to leap it at every silence, but it’s okay, IMHO, to give them ideas to work with if they need to extrapolate.

    2. KR*

      Yes! I’ve been asked questions like that and they can be hard when you have never experienced a situation like that because you don’t have professional work experience!

  10. Ralph Wiggum*

    I used to interview a lot for software developer and related positions.

    We dropped most of the questions about past experience when interviewing students for internships. Most just didn’t have enough relevant experience, and it wasn’t an effective discriminator on the quality of the applicant. I find that even college projects aren’t that interesting (in our field), since work projects are so much broader in scope then school assignments and frankly require different skills.

    Overall preparedness and passion/knowledge of our company… just isn’t that important to us. Sure, if the applicant is completely unprepared, that’s a negative, so we’ll want to filter out the worst offenders. But we’re specifically talking about individuals without a strong understanding of workplace and hiring norms, so above a certain threshold, I don’t see preparedness as particularly correlated to success in the role.

    What we do emphasize more with students: In-interview demonstration of hard skills*. Specifically, talking through technical terms they should have learned in class and running an in-interview programming exercise. This tells us a lot about their raw ability, how well they’ve retained classroom instruction, and their self-drive.

    * 1. We test hard skills for all applicants. It’s just a larger percentage of the interview with students. 2. We dig into soft skills based on responses to any questions, even with students. It’s just that discussion of past projects provides more opportunities to discuss soft skills, and students have fewer interesting past projects.

    1. Ralph Wiggum*

      Somebody above mentioned leadership positions, which I missed here.

      Specifically, we highly value a record of creating something new. It doesn’t have to be related to computers. Starting a successful club is about the best indicator of success. It means the applicant took initiative, worked through the necessary bureaucracy, recruited members, etc. They’ve demonstrated the ability to succeed in something that didn’t have a path laid out in advance.

      1. selena81*

        i like your first answer and dislike your second answer: because to me the first is about things *anybody* can do (anybody interested in IT i mean: it is perfectly reasonable to try to seek out students who actively _like_ programming), while the second is walking way too close to ‘have rich parents’

  11. It's me*

    I read somewhere once to ask interviewees about a project that went wrong and how they handled it and then follow up with if they could change how they handled it what would they do. The point of asking this is to see if they’ve thought about the mistake and reflected on what they could have done better or do in the future to improve or change the outcome. This is certainly something you could ask students as well

  12. The Cleaner*

    I work with college students and a few things that come to mind are:

    1. if they have studied abroad, ask about the challenges and opportunities presented by living in a culture different from their own.
    2. if their resume has a lot of retail and waiting tables, these students have likely had to prioritize immediate, consistent income over more prestigious unpaid internships or experiences while in college, and it would be great for an interviewer to ask how these jobs have shaped their views on things like time management, customer service, and employee relations even if the actual work of waiting tables doesn’t directly apply to the position.
    3. asking about volunteerism and involvement with leadership opportunities in student clubs, student government, and Greek organizations can be a very good way to learn about the student’s strengths and skills — but also be mindful that level of participation can often be out of reach for a student who needs to be putting a lot of hours into a paid job in order to finance their education, or has other life commitments like caring for a parent or helping support younger siblings.
    4. ask about academic work, even if not directly related to the position. How would their faculty adviser describe the student? Have they worked with any faculty members on research projects — what was their role, what were their learning outcomes? Did they have a capstone project or senior thesis — how did they approach this challenge, how did they make decisions, how did they handle unexpected setbacks?
    5. ask about their overall college experience — what advice would they give to themselves as freshmen? Looking back, are there things they would have done differently, or things they wish they had known sooner? What stands out as their top one or two experiences? This should help an interview see if they are able to be reflective, if they are thoughtful about their own decisions and actions, and how they communicate about situations that may have negative elements.

    1. Aveline*

      That you for point 2. Far too often, we frame questions from a mainline, middle-class POV. Far too many students just simply don’t have time to build up the types of resume points that we look for as shortcuts to “fit” and “ability.” If you are busy trying to keep your head above water financially or even worse – are constantly bobbing below the waterline – you don’t have time to do everything that the kids of financially stable parents do.

      1. selena81*

        Word is that these ‘soft skills’ came into fashion to block out jews and afro-americans (and later asian-americans and poverty-stricken whites): they’d have the diploma but lack the network needed to acquire high-level internships and the money for long backpacking tours in foreign nations.

        So everyone please be very very mindful of how you choose to measure stuff like ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘independence’ and ‘leadership potential’: it is so easy to think that disadvantaged people are simply ‘lazy’

  13. Alina*

    Semi-related question:

    A family friend just sent me her resume as she is looking for jobs. She just finished her masters, and went straight from undergrad to masters. She hasn’t interned or worked anywhere during her masters (as far as I know and as far as her resume shows), so its basically education, skills, projects. Any advice on how to help her?

    If she had a work study job like working at the circulation desk in a library would that help? Undergrad stuff?

    1. Close Bracket*

      Did she do a thesis project? I described my graduate projects just as I would describe my work projects (bc that’s what they are).

      1. Alina*

        I’ll have to ask about the thesis! I found out that she actually did not have a work study job, so a thesis-type project would be good.

  14. Aveline*

    Absolutely also ask about work experience. A lot of students from underprivileged backgrounds don’t have the time or ability to do extra-curriculars. They are too busy working just so they can stay in school and hopefully not starve.

    Be very, very aware of whether or not your questions will screen out anyone who is poor, particularly poor and minority.

    So many questions that are part of a standard script fail to account for the fact that not everyone has the ability to be a club president because they are too busy surviving. You don’t have time for internships, club offices, or networking if you are just trying to stay warm and fed. And scholarships DO NOT cover enough for many students to fully engage in the educational processes.

    If you ask someone about their hobbies and interests or extracurricular and they don’t have them, do not stop there. Ask what they do when they aren’t in class. Ask if they have a job. Ask if they have family-care responsibilities.

    Do not assume that people who are first generation college students will know to volunteer this information. They won’t.

    I highly recommend reading Anthony Abraham Jack on this subject saw well as the NPR archives which have addressed black students at Ivies and top tier schools (first week of March) as well as rural students at state and urban schools (mid-December). Both populations face different challenges and both have a much, much more difficult time than suburban/urban middle class students in getting internships. Both groups are far less likely than average to do the types of extra-curriculars that get them noticed.

    Also, ask what’s been the biggest hurdle for them in getting started in their career. Is it something that was within their control or are they facing both personal and systemic hurdles that in no way reflect their ability to succeed at the position you have to offer?

    Please, please, please examine what types of biases you will reinforce by how you ask questions and how you follow up to those questions.

    I once mentored a young woman who had zero extra-curriculars and zero internships. But you know what? Her family had fled to the US because their brother was killed by Sendero Luminoso for being a suspected government spy (he wasn’t). They had spent most of her childhood trying to survive. The fact that she was in college and getting straight As was a miracle given her family history. Asking standard script questions and not going further would have never gotten to that and would have shut her out (and did shut her out from many, many jobs). Fortunately, she was interviewed once by a man whose family had fled from Sierra Leone. He recognized that she had obstacles others did not and gave her a chance. She’s now a corporate Vice President.

    1. Aveline*

      Also, if the student is an immigrant, first-generation, Native American, LGBTQ+, etc. they may not have been able to do any of these things either.

      So if the resume is sparse in the internship/club officer/etc. metric, try to determine if there’s a reason for that.

    2. fposte*

      These are really good, Aveline; thanks. I’ve found experience with retail/restaurant/bar work (when they’re of age) to correlate well with good work performance, too.

      1. Aveline*

        I’ve found kids who grew up on farms or in family businessses (such as a family owned restaurant) where everyone has to pitch in from the get go have work ethics that are off the charts. Sometimes it is tough to get them to take a breather.

        I have also found that you can fix lack of experience or skill sets. You can’t fix work ethic as easily and sometimes not at all.

      2. Call of Dewey*

        I agree- I love hiring students and staff members with prior retail and food service experience. They tend to have great work ethics and a willingness to pitch in and get stuff done even if unpleasant or not in their job description.

        1. Rainy days*

          YES. I actually put food service work as a “preferred qualification” on the most recent paid internship I posted because I’ve had such good experience with student workers who’ve done restaurant work.

    3. KR*

      You said it so much better than I did (didn’t see your comment before I commented oops). I didn’t do any extracurriculars because if I wanted to stay in college I had to work two jobs averaging 45-50 hr work weeks on top of full time school (which was a 45 min drive from my house). Every spare moment was doing homework or working. I did two all nighters a week to get my work done for months. Someone looking for internships and extracurriculars and screening for that would look me over when I like to think I have a particularly good work ethic and drive to succeed.

      1. Aveline*

        Only because I’ve been reading/listening to NPR/etc. lately on this topic as I’m part of a group of allied service agencies that serve kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. The model used to be “just get them in college.” We’ve come to realize that’s just the start of the process.

        It’s so hard to get this right because we use so many class-determined markers as proxies for ability or experience or work ethic. It take a lot of conscious work and even then we mostly fall short.

        But at least we are all starting to have this conversation!

    4. Ara*

      Another thing to add to that point is that some groups such as disabled folks actually very rarely have a lot of work experience if they have any at all or have large gaps.

  15. Katie*

    I assist with interviews for our museum’s internship program. Generally, we know ahead of time that these students won’t have a ton hands-on experience which allows us to ask broad questions like ‘How do you research unfamiliar topics?’ or ‘Tell us about a time when you had to think creatively to solve a problem?’ We also ask what made them interested in our field and about their future career goals. This allows them to tap into areas of experience that might not be strictly in a professional setting and helps us to assess what kind of fit they’d be in our organization and whether we can provide them the training they really want/need.

  16. KR*

    Just a note – please do not hold it against students if they don’t have a lot of extracurricular activities! If you notice the only thing they have is some sort of unrelated customer service or other entry level work that is probably because when they weren’t in class they were working their ass off to pay for school & get their homework done instead of chairing their college Glee club or whatever.

  17. Non-profiteer*

    I work in politics/policy, and I’ve had success in asking intern candidates 1) what is an issue you are particularly passionate about that you would hope to work on? and 2) if I assigned you to write a factsheet on that issue, how would you go about gathering info and putting together the factsheet?

    Even if they’ve never had work experience, their school experience should give them some way to start answering question 2, and you can judge their instincts. Q1 gauges whether they’ve researched the organization, have passions (or can talk like they do), and can string together a couple coherent sentences about a political issue.

    I think these could work in a lot of industries, hope this is helpful!

    1. LaDeeDa*

      “if I assigned you to write a factsheet on that issue, how would you go about gathering info and putting together the factsheet?”

      I love asking people “if you don’t know something- what do you do? ”

      I don’t want people who ask first— I need people to be proactive, look first to see if there is information/direction on internal sites, then Google it. I have taught myself so many things by looking stuff up, taking a free class, watching a youtube video. I need people who will go find answers…

      1. alana*

        I ask a version of this question for all of the roles I interview for and it is SO illuminating. (Someone once said “This is embarrassing, but if all else fails, I go to Wikipedia and then I click on all the footnotes and read their sources” … which isn’t embarrassing at all, it was one of the best answers I’ve heard.)

  18. GreenDoor*

    I found that recent grads or still-students are going to be….in student mode. Meaning teacher asked a question and is looking at me so I better come up with something quick so I don’t look dumb in front of the whole class. And they approach an interview in the same way – coming up with a quick answer they hope is the “right” one. So,
    Frame your questions as “let’s have a converation about this”:
    “What are the steps you’d take to…” “Talk to me about….”

    Instead of framing questions based on experience they don’t have, frame them based on theory, like a story problem:
    “If you were working on task X, and problem Y occurred, what would you do to fix the problem?”
    “If a customer came in and was making a scene, tell me three things you might say or do to diffuse the situation?

    And don’t we all have opinions on things? As them theirs – to assess whether they have the right attitude you need.
    “Would you rather do group projects or individual projects? Tell me why”
    “Our clients struggle with X because of Y. What changes would you like to see to solve that problem?”

  19. LaDeeDa*

    Remember the interns who petitioned to get dress codes changed? I always think about that when I am talking to interns! LOL! I ask a lot of questions about how they adapt to their environment, they often get really bad or dated advice from their school or parents.
    What does corporate culture mean to you?
    How do you adapt to a culture that you might not have experience with?
    Can you tell me about a time when you received a grade/feedback/criticism you didn’t agree with?

    These types of questions tell me how self-aware they are, and will give me an indication of how they handle things that they might know in theory but have never actually experienced.

  20. alana*

    If you don’t work directly with these interns and new hires, talk to the managers who do, and figure out what really makes a successful intern or entry-level worker for the company. It might be different than what you look for in higher-level hires. Is the most successful hire someone with a ton of energy and ideas? Someone flexible who can handle taking a lot of conflicting instructions from different people under time pressure? Someone who loves digging into details, or someone who works best with a sense of the big picture? Given that it’s hard to get both in an entry-level person, would you rather have someone with some training in the industry and an understanding of the specifics, or someone with good skills applicable to a lot of different areas?

    For example, I work in journalism. I used to hire interns the same way I would a new reporter (reading their published writing, looking at overall media experience). But what our interns really need is the ability to do good research and organize it logically, and to already be following Congress and campaign trail news. I’ve changed how I advertise the position, because I’d rather have a poli sci student with some interest in learning about working in media who’s super geeked to track poll results all summer than a great junior reporter who can cover the heck out of a public meeting but has never really paid attention to Congress.

  21. Elizabeth Proctor*

    Please do not only focus on leadership in extracurricular activities. Students who have to work 20 hours a week may not have time for those things, but they’ve likely learned a ton about balancing priorities, dealing with managers and coworkers, etc. Even if their work experience isn’t in your industry, they may have gained a lot of relevant skills to being an employee. And, as a lot of the letters here attest, people with those skills are easier to manage than someone who knows a ton about your product but doesn’t know how to get along or take direction.

    1. alana*

      It’s also interesting to me how strongly we assume college leadership = drive and ambition = will be a successful employee, and yet we all know that in the working world, being a manager isn’t the only indicator of success, and leadership isn’t something that everyone can do or wants to do.

      My best friend’s campus involvement was limited to being an occasional member of a couple of clubs. She was the dreaded student I am reading about elsewhere in this thread who “just went to class.” She worked several different retail jobs and as a canvasser. I had the top leadership position in my major (it was even a paid gig) and worked at it 50 hours per week.

      One of us was a dream entry-level employee; one of us was like a compilation of all the “my clueless intern didn’t pick up on work norms!” posts come to life. I was the latter. She was the former.

      1. Ralph Wiggum*

        Hmmm… It depends a lot on the club experience.

        I agree that club membership (and leadership) on its own does not correlate strongly with success — they could be coasting along without any real innovation — and I basically ignore a lot of club membership on a resume, except as a talking point. But driving a club forward (expanding, taking on a broader charter, initiating new events, etc) tells me a lot. They’ve figured out how to do something without clear direction, which is a highly valuable skill in the white-color workforce.

        Granted, I’d guess only 4-5% of the candidates I’ve interviewed actually stand out on this metric — it’s pretty rare. This is only one metric to use in an evaluation, sure, but demonstrated successful initiative (in college clubs, retail work, wherever) puts them at the front of the line for me.

    2. Oxford Comma*

      Some of the best student workers we’ve ever had were not the overachieving class president types, but the students who had worked in food service or as bartenders. They were good with managing priorities, knew the essentials of customer service, had actually been given a fair amount of responsibility in the past and did really well for us.

      In my experience, most student applicants don’t necessarily understand how those types of jobs translated into other job settings, but if you ask them open-ended questions and let them talk, you will have a better sense of who will work out and who won’t.

    3. Emilitron*

      Agreed, even at the college level running for secretary of a group is likely to be (depending on the group dynamic) either (a) a popularity contest for a soft job title with few specific duties or opportunities for creative improvement, or (b) a case of “we’re not leaving this room until somebody volunteers for this job, pleeeease!”. And simply being in a leadership role guarantees nothing about actual accomplishments.

      Which is to say, it’s a great thing to ask about because someone’s approach to a role will tell you a lot about them (did they really take an action, or is this officer title just resume-filler?) but it’s not a great thing to screen for (i.e. don’t get in a place where you’re saying “well this person has taken the classes we’d want to see and they seem pretty competent, but I don’t see any leadership experience so I guess we’ll pass” just because they didn’t do that type of activity.

    4. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      Also, don’t necessarily assume students have work obligations in school due to their social class. My dad grew up working class and had to work his way through college. As a result, I was not allowed to work during the school year so I could focus on my studies…and during the summer, I was required to do paid employment instead of unpaid internships because “you don’t work for free!” So when I graduated, I had only summer job experience and some extracurriculars, which didn’t at all translate to a career-track full-time job, because camp counselor and honor society board members are “not real jobs.”

      I know a *lot* of kids who are one generation removed from being poor whose parents gave them equally terrible advice.

  22. Close Bracket*

    Don’t ask PhD students (or Master’s students who had to do a thesis project) about their GPA. As about their research. If they did a completely independent project, they were essentially a project manager, and you can ask them those sorts of questions. If they were part of a large team, you can ask them questions that you would ask an individual contributor. They might have supervised undergrads on a project. If that’s the case, you can ask them management type questions. You can ask them about their interactions with their adviser to get a sense of how they interact with their own management. Even an undergrad who did an honor’s thesis or did undergraduate research, if they spent a couple years on it, focus more on that than on their grades.

  23. KDM*

    (First time commenter!)

    I also want to add in that I’m leery of over-focusing on extracurriculars for college students. Good points have been made above re: socioeconomic background (and intersections regarding race), but I also want to point out that disabled students (like I was!) may appear to be students who “just go to class” because all of their efforts and energy are focused on succeeding in classes. (In which case, they may also be unlikely to have work outside the university as well.)

    But being a disabled student can, in and of itself, give someone a lot of experience in terms of time management, coming up with creative solutions, and problem solving. I’d agree with those saying it’s worth asking some of those more prompting questions, even/especially of students without a long list of extracurriculars.

  24. The Imperfect Hellebore*

    My basic advice would be: Ask questions that are designed to get them talking about their achievements and experience, but don’t be too rigid. For example, it might better to ask something like “Can you tell me about an interesting project you were involved in? What sort of role did you play?” rather than “Can you tell me about a time you did really well in a project?” The first question is more likely to lead to an honest and enthusiastic response, in my experience, whereas the second is more likely to produce a practised answer about how the candidate demonstrated Super Teamwork and Super Individual Initiative all in the same project!

  25. AnonEmu*

    Also if they don’t have much of a track record in your academic field but express strong interest, but their current experience is outside the field – ask yourself why that might be before dinging them for it. Are positions in your field available to students largely unpaid internships? For a lot of students it isn’t feasible to have them work for free and keep up with studies (and maybe another paying job on top of that), and they shouldn’t be penalized for that, but it still happens.

    I worked largely jobs unrelated to my academic goals in college because those were what was paying – my field had a big problem with unpaid internships because the local area was glutted with pre-vet students willing to work for free to improve their chances of getting into vet school, so I only had one paid job related to my field before I entered grad school.

  26. BTDT*

    I’m in grad school and yeah the vast majority of my fellow students jumped to grad school straight out of undergrad, so they still don’t have much (or any) work experience. BUT they could still totally handle a lot of the typical behavioral questions interviewers ask. Maybe their response won’t be about a work place situation, but the vast majority of students have had team conflict on group assignments, had to prioritize conflicting assignments, taken initiative in some way, failed at something and had to overcome it, dealt with a professor (instead of a boss) they disagreed with, etc. If they truly had no answer to a question you prompt them with “how WOULD you respond in such-and-such situation?” I also agree that testing hard skills is useful, assuming the skills tested are actually needed in the internship.

  27. Beth Jacobs*

    If the job allows for it, see if you can come up with a short interview exercise to test their skills. It can be something as simple as “Draft a reply to this email” or “Proofread this document”. Interactions with customers can be role played. I think this is appropriate for more senior roles as well, though of course there are jobs that don’t really lend themselves to that sort of testing.

  28. Anne of Green Gables*

    I work at a community college and hire student workers. A lot of my applicants are just out of high school and if they have work experience, it’s either fast food or the local amusement park. Two questions I have asked that I like:

    -Tell us about something you have learned from your time being a student.
    We emphasize that this can be a skill and does not have to be an academic topic, though we get both answers. One of the things that can come out here is self awareness. If a student says time management and can articulate how they struggled at first because college is not like high school, but they’ve found ways to make changes, that is a good indicator to me.

    -Tell us about something you are proud of.
    Similar to other points above, this can get students talking about things that might not be on their resume. It might be that they are a first generation college student or might be that their house is spotless, but it gets students talking about themselves in a positive way.

  29. smallblackrabbit*

    I’ve hired multiple college students as interns and some of these questions give good insight:

    –What is your dream job after graduation?
    This is great for starting a good conversation, because you can follow it up with how their classes are getting them there and what skills they think they need

    –How do you stay organized?
    I don’t really care how they do it, I just care they have a method that works for them.

    –What do you do when work is slow?
    This is one of my favorite interview questions in general. Answers I like to hear: prep for tomorrow, read industry articles, see if someone else needs help.

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