How to Hire Interns: How Startups Can Recruit Top-Performing Interns

  • 4 min read

More and more students are looking to broaden their work experience by interning at different organizations. For students, the benefits of internships are clear: they provide more job opportunities after graduation. For startups, interns can help in many different facets.

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Interns help increase productivity, and interns make finding and hiring talent later on easier. Furthermore, interns can help fill talent gaps internally. Startups face two problems when recruiting interns. First, many students want to intern at big-name organizations. Second, it can be hard to find talent that will really perform. An intern that doesn’t want to be there will ultimately hurt productivity and cause more work for the team.

Going through hundreds of applications is incredibly tedious, especially since most startups don’t have a dedicated HR department. But, finding that hard-working, dedicated intern is worth it in the end. Here are tips for startups looking to recruit top intern talent.

1. Send pre-interview material and follow-up work

Many startups offer robust internship programs, and just because they’re not Google or Facebook, doesn’t mean the interview process should be easy. To find candidates and hire interns that really want to be there (and are not just interning for course credit), send some pre-interview material.

This could be as simple as reading a page on the website and asking the candidate about it in the interview. After the meeting, send some work. Again, this could be simple such as writing 300 words about the company. The work doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult, but it will be easy to tell which interns are dedicated and which are not by how they perform these tasks. This is an excellent way to screen candidates in the initial interview phase.

2. Watch them work through a challenge

Interning at a startup involves real work, which isn’t always easy. When looking to hire interns, startups will want to find candidates that don’t get overly frustrated and give up. One way to do this is by giving them a challenge during the interview; something that would frustrate anyone, such as a difficult puzzle or math problem.

Of course, whether the candidate solves the puzzle or not is beside the point. It is essential to watch the person problem-solve or work through a challenge. Does the candidate get frustrated and quit? Or do they calmly try to work through to a solution? What they do is very telling of how they will handle challenges in the workplace.

3. Give them real work

A great way to test out an intern is to give them real work during the interview. Since most internships at startups include real work on the product or service, it’s vital to see how an intern performs.

The test can be very simple. For marketing interns, it could be a writing or editing challenge, while for engineers, it could be debugging a line of code. Startup managers will want to see if the potential intern asks questions or just tries to solve the problem on their own.

The end result does not have to be perfect (since they are still students, after all), but seeing how they perform and deal with real work helps determine what type of intern they will be and can help in the hiring process.

4. Consider future skills

It’s not just past performance that indicates whether or not a person is fit for a position; future skills play a part as well. Top-performing interns may not have had the training necessary up until this point, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be an asset to the team. It is difficult figuring out which candidates will rise to the occasion and which won’t, but it’s an important aspect of intern hiring. An internship includes mentoring and training, which could make some candidates incredibly useful to the company. Many future skills come down to how well the candidate communicates and his or her drive for the position. Think about what skills are important to the company, what can be taught, and which internship candidates could potentially learn these skills to succeed in the position.

5. Explain the internship program

After sussing out top candidates, it’s crucial that startups explain the internship program. Big companies have a robust internship program that outlines what the interns will achieve from start to finish.

However, at a startup, this plan may change. Before you hire interns, they should understand what skills they will attain and how the internship will work. This is especially important to remain competitive with larger companies.

After a startup finds top talent, the next challenge is to get those candidates to accept the position. Explaining the internship program in depth and outlining its key elements is one step towards securing that top talent.

  • Originally published April 1, 2019, updated April 26, 2023