Walking by a diligently working intern the other day, I was reminded of the interns I’d worked with and about my own experience as an intern. There was a four- or five-year period when I was Communications Manager for Downtown Boulder in which I had a new intern every few months. The interns were abundant, as Boulder is 100,000 people strong and home to the University of Colorado, which itself has 30,000 students to draw from. This meant we usually had quite a few applicants for our one or two spots each quarter. At first I studied the applicants’ resumes and tried to ask them probing questions about their experience, but after a while I realized it could be much simpler than that (though perhaps not quite as simple as my then boss’ method, which consisted solely of evaluating their handshake as they were introduced). By talking with them for a few minutes and asking a few smart questions to see how their mind worked, I could see fairly well which ones would take to the position, learn something from it, and be able to help our organization. Here’s what I found to be the best qualities of an intern.
Being fearless, and having the ability to jump, neck deep, into a situation, was crucial for interns who had little experience coming into the position. The best employees are those who say “yes, I can do that, I will try that,” even if they don’t have the skills at the outset. This shows an inclination and ability to grow as the company grows. When the interns come up against something they can’t figure out after this initial effort, then of course they can level up and ask for help. But that simple willingness to try proved time and time again to be the most valuable asset to these young interns.
Responding Well to Trust
I had a deal with my interns that for every menial task I gave them, they would also get a creative task. This meant I was on the hook both to create said creative tasks and also to trust them not to completely screw them up. People pick up on that trust, and like a student rising to the challenge, will seek to impress you with their abilities and strive to be recognized. This can lead to some great moments when you are rewarded with quality work that has pushed the boundaries of their skills.
Nailing the Small Stuff
Being really good at the small stuff can provide a valuable niche for interns. When I was an intern, I worked in a city arts organization and mostly ended up mail-merging labels, stuffing envelopes, and running errands. But about halfway through my stint, I got really damn good at mail-merging labels, to the extent that other staff members would come to me to learn. It was a simple task to be sure, but one that was so valuable it led to numerous other positions in the early days. Being really good at that tiny thing impressed my bosses enough to trust me with the next project and move on up the ladder.
Looking for solutions yourself shows that even as an intern, you have initiative. If there is a problem in a business – with workflow, creative process, even technology – sometimes an intern is the perfect person to point it out. Often they are the new eyes, have a younger perspective, are not worried about long-term job security, and may be able to twist a problem around to find a creative answer. Whether it’s a new program, an idea for an article or post, or being connected to new sources from their point of view, taking the time to look for solutions to problems in the business will set you apart as an intern.
Being Able to Engage
Seems easy enough, but the best interns go out of their way to engage the customer, whether it’s in the context of B2B, B2C, or non-profits. They take initiative and ask questions because they know they will have to engage again with those types of people. This doesn’t mean internships are only for extroverts either; you can develop content, programs, or other means to engage completely behind the scenes too, but you have to do it, to own it, and stand behind your work. I often challenged my interns to see what they could come up with to really engage their audience, and was consistently rewarded with excellent results.
When we hire interns, we don’t expect them to come in with much relevant experience, after all, that’s why they’re applying for an internship. Instead of looking at their experience, evaluating them for these qualities of a good intern can help you sort out the best applicants. Hiring managers would also do well to keep these qualities in mind. Often the best employees are not the ones who have the exact experience for the tasks of the job, but instead those who are passionate about the company, willing to learn whatever new skills may be required of them, and who demonstrate a desire to rise to the trust you place in them.