The Basics

10 Internship Characteristics That Attract Exceptional Interns

What Do Interns Want? 10 Characteristics That Attract Exceptional Interns

Some employers believe that the current economy means companies have their choice of available interns. They think that, due to a shortage of employment opportunities, interns must be indiscriminately searching for any organizational opening.

As a result, some companies have gotten lax in terms of learning what students really want in an internship; they’ve gotten lethargic about program development and promoting themselves to peak the interest of interns.

While it is true that some companies have cut spending on internship programs, if you want to attract the top talent and achievers, you need to create a program that appeals to students.

So what do interns look for when choosing a program? What do interns want?

10 Features Interns Look for in an Internship Program

1. Fitting fundamentals. Whether the basics of a program meet the student’s specific needs is the first criterion they consider: Is the nature of the work a match for their major and career objectives? What is the timeframe, duration, and location of the program? How is the program structured in terms of hours and days per week?

Yes, many of these criteria are outside a company’s control. However, understanding what’s important to interns means you can create a posting that clearly addresses these aspects. And in it, you can put a positive spin on any less-desirable details. (Click here for tips on writing an effective posting.)

2. Compensation. Sure, it’s not all about the money; and, it’s true, you can’t put a price on valuable experience. But the unfortunate reality is that not all students can afford to work for free, no matter how much they might be motivated and interested in your industry. So before you decide you can’t compensate interns at all, consider whether your budget might accommodate a more modest wage.

3. Appealing perks. Even if you can pay interns a standard wage—and especially if they’ll be working without compensation—give some thought to how you might entice the cream of the student crop with some (seemingly trivial) incentives.

More than you might imagine, extras like free breakfasts, lunches, or designer coffee drinks—or even a half-day off every other Friday—can tip the scales in your favor when interns are picking between programs. And should they choose your organization, benefits like these can boost morale by communicating to interns their value to the company.

4. Meaningful work. Possibly more than anything else, interns are constantly clamoring for more “meaningful” work. Remember, their primary objective is to learn…both about the business in general as well as to acquire the specific skills necessary to function effectively in the industry. When you “use” students simply to perform grunt work, you are robbing them of the opportunity to develop their knowledge and abilities. In short, a program without meaningful work is rendered meaningless to the intern.

5. Inclusion. In line with the learning objective is to what extent the organization includes the intern in employee activities. Aside from assigning challenging projects with educational value, inviting interns to meetings and other activities—as participants or observers—is an enticing attribute.

Including the intern whenever appropriate serves a dual purpose: It exposes them to more situations in which they can observe supervisor behavior and interactions. Moreover, it makes them feel part of the team. In the end, an intern who was treated like an “insider” is much more likely to accept a job offer or to speak favorably about a company to their peers.

6. Supervisor accessibility. There’s nothing more frustrating to interns than feeling forgotten: being left hanging around with no one to tell them what to do or to clarify the questions necessary to complete a project. In the best internship programs, there is always someone available.

Essentially, when the direct supervisor is out or occupied, there should be someone else assigned to the intern; and the intern should be made aware of this person and how to get a hold of them. Therefore, if at any point the intern has questions, they know there’s someone who can, if not answer their question, at least assign an interim task or let them know when their supervisor will return.

7. Detailed direction. Popular internship programs see to it that supervisors give easily understandable direction. Because not only does this reduce feelings of frustration, it gives the intern the information they need to succeed. Remember, an intern who feels proud of their accomplishments will more likely feel pleased with the program itself. (Login here to view the free Internships Made Easy manual to download detailed Project Sheets.)

8. Effective evaluation. Students want to succeed. But the only way they’ll know if they’re falling short or exceeding expectations is through feedback. In a highly rated internship program, evaluations are structured, scheduled regularly, and include both praise and critique. Most importantly, criticism is coupled with clear direction on how to make improvements.

9. Appealing environment. Just like permanent employees, interns want somewhere comfortable to come to work…on both a physical and personal level. On the physical front, interns should have a workspace where they don’t feel like they’re intruding on another’s territory. And they certainly need their own chair and desk (or at least a dedicated tabletop). Also, employers must make sure interns have easy access to any necessary equipment: computer, printer, phone, fax, etc.

On the personal front, friendliness and helpfulness go a long way in affecting an intern’s opinion of an organization. Above all else, interns should be treated with the same respect as any employee—bonus if the environment is free from cattiness, unnecessary drama, and oversized egos.

10. Candidness & congruency. Beginning with the posting of the position, it’s important that employers are honest about what the student can expect from the internship. Misrepresenting the ratio of meaningful work to mindless work, the number of expected hours, or the skill set and/or subject matter involved can cause your program to develop a negative reputation. Moreover, pretending a program is something it’s not, in order to attract candidates, takes away an intern’s ability to choose the position best suited to their academic and career objectives.

Employer takeaway: Don’t let the current economic climate make you lax; in any economy, the interns who can make the most important contributions to your company will choose the most quality internship programs.

So how will interns know whether your internship program is top notch? As mentioned, your posting sheds some light on what students can expect. But primarily, their peers will tell them. And for better or worse, word travels fast around college campuses.