Internships: Recruiting the Very Best College Interns

Surveys by Wetfeet and IOMA show that internships are the best way to hire quality college graduates. While few corporations actually track the most effective sources in college recruiting, those that I have worked with have consistently found that quality internship programs produce the highest quality candidates, the most productive hires, and the hires with the highest retention rates.

Unfortunately, many college internship programs are poorly designed, have no or few metrics, are underfunded, and are run by individuals with little knowledge of what separates a great program from the average one.

In addition to producing poor results, poor-performing internship programs can have a negative impact on HR’s image because CEOs and senior executives are frequently strong supporters of capturing the “best and brightest” from the top campuses.

If you’re responsible for developing college recruiting programs, here are 41 of the best practices and tips. These include 13 ways to identify the very best interns; 18 approaches to selling your internship opportunities; and 10 design elements of a compelling internship experience.

13 Ways to Identify the Best Interns

If you can’t find the best students for your internship slots, obviously the other elements of your internship program will make little difference. Some of the most effective approaches for identifying top-quality interns include:

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  1. Grad assistants know the best. Because grad assistants are involved both in teaching classes and in research, they have often worked directly with the very best students. They are also likely to know which students are bright, team players with other highly desirable soft skills. In my experience, grad assistants are more than willing to help, they just have to be asked. Because grad assistants are normally hand-picked by faculty, they should also be considered potential interns. These influential grad assistants are likely to help you recruit other interns if they themselves have a great internship experience. Find grad assistants with a single phone call to the department assistant, or by scanning the websites for target faculty.
  2. Use your current interns. Identify the very best interns you have now and pay them a small stipend when they return to campus to act as your “recruiting ambassadors.” QUALCOMM has experienced great success leveraging this approach, as have many other technology companies.
  3. Ask last year’s graduates. If you’re fortunate enough to have hired individuals from your “target” campus, ask them for the names of impressive underclassmen. Ask them to make some calls or send some emails to the best students they know. In fact, routinely ask all college new hires during orientation “Who else is good?” and “What professors would produce the best students?”
  4. Student referrals. Referrals are routinely the best way to identify potential experienced employees, but few realize that they are also extremely effective in identifying potential interns. Intuit and Valero have had a good deal of success offering small rewards to students for referring the best students they know and compete with in the classroom. Endeca gave away a flat-screen TV as a referral bonus to college students who referred a successful hire.
  5. Technical contests. Online contests are excellent mechanisms for both attracting and assessing potential college interns. Contests are superior because they can help you find relatively unknown students and, in addition, they are great ways to assess talent. Offer contests to student groups, individual classes, or the world population via the Internet. Leading companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! routinely use contests to identify the very best students.
  6. Student groups. The Dean’s office in any school can tell you the names and the presidents of each of the professional student groups active on campus. You can sponsor the group or even just one meeting and build friends for life. Organization presidents are usually more than willing to share a list of their student members. If you’re bold, you can even hire the top officers as interns or as campus representatives for your firm.
  7. Networking sites. College students are extremely active on networking sites (especially Facebook and MySpace) and in chat rooms. Consider asking recruiters and current interns to post a profile on these sites in order to attract potential interns.
  8. Internet searches. Students who write, win scholarships and awards, and are written up in publications are relatively easy to find using Internet searches. Be careful here, because some of the awards and scholarships might be based on grades and not on the student’s ability to work in a business environment.
  9. Faculty internship advisors. Many large programs have one or more faculty assigned to monitor and grade internships. These faculty are generally aware of which students are actively seeking internships and they will certainly know of any quality students who have completed their first internship.
  10. Scholarship contests. Scholarship winners are not always the best overall students, but if you offer scholarships you can then use the biographical information from every applicant to help identify great intern prospects.
  11. Faculty referrals. Not all faculty are willing to make internship referrals, but if you have a relationship with them, it’s always a good idea to ask them to make referrals each year. If you have the resources to attend academic conferences, they are an excellent opportunity to build relationships and to ask for internship referrals.
  12. Student mentors. Some professional schools have volunteer peer mentor programs. These mentors should be prime targets.
  13. Campus newspaper ads. These ads are expensive, but if your firm has a great employment brand, they can be an effective tool in attracting interns.

18 Approaches for Selling Your Internship Opportunities

Every major campus has numerous firms with great employment brands that are offering compelling internship opportunities. If you want your internship opportunities to stand out from the crowd, here are some approaches to consider:

  1. Offer short-term projects. Some students are reluctant to accept an internship because they generally require relocation and an “all summer” time commitment. An alternative approach conceived by Whirlpool involves offering short-term projects ranging in duration that can be completed nearly anytime throughout the year. By offering short but exciting projects that last only a few days to a few weeks, students can gain needed experience and the company is given more of an opportunity to both assess and influence the student than they had before. Allowing projects to be completed remotely means that students won’t have to wait till summer break or to travel to get practical experience. You can allow students to “bid” on projects and you can also offer students the option of applying for project internships as a group. Simply post project descriptions online and let students or student groups apply for them. This is a great way to attract problem-solving students if you are not a well-known employer.
  2. CEO talks. Having your CEO give a speech on campus has proven to be a tremendously effective tool for attracting students. This approach has been used successfully by Microsoft, Whirlpool, Google, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte.
  3. CEO calls. Having your CEO (or other notable executives) call targeted intern candidates directly and ask them to accept your internship offer has had a nearly 100% success rate in companies that have tried it.
  4. Post a video. Students are in love with online videos, so if you post a compelling video about what it’s like to work at your firm or profiles of your recent interns or college hires, you will pique their interest. This might cause them to forward your video or to talk about you. The most popular site is currently YouTube, which has been used by Google, the U.S. Army, Microsoft, and Deloitte, to name a few.
  5. Use “green” recruiting. Being environmentally friendly is essential if you want to attract the very best interns. As a result, it’s critical that you make potential interns aware of what your organization does to protect the environment.
  6. Offer technical training on campus. Students are always interested in supplementing their academic education with practical training. Firms like Microsoft, Google, and Cisco have had success in offering on-campus technical training classes in order to attract and assess potential interns and hires.
  7. Conduct career seminars on campus. These sessions can be effective mechanisms for increasing your exposure and making students aware of the opportunities that your firm offers to interns and new college hires.
  8. Make “same day” offers. Students in high demand can change their mind rather quickly. If you want to avoid this problem, consider completing the intern selection process within one day and then making your offers before the candidates leave. If you scan what students write about regarding campus recruiting on various blogs, you already know that the timeline and process are their number one complaint.
  9. Rewrite your internship descriptions. Most organizations fail to realize that their internship descriptions are notoriously dull. If you want to excite top students, make your internship descriptions compelling and include the most desirable “features” that students are looking for.
  10. Provide students with choices. Many internship opportunities are quite structured, which can scare away some students. Give the interns you select some options in projects, locations, the duration of the internship, or which business unit.
  11. Write a blog. Blogs and podcasts are currently extremely popular among college students. Having a recent hire, intern, or manager write a periodic blog that addresses college student issues will likely soften your image and personalize any corporation.
  12. Provide “local” internships. Many students enjoy university towns and as a result, they would love the opportunity to complete an internship without having to relocate. If your organization has a “branch office” that happens to be close to campus, offer school break and summer internships at that site.
  13. Do “wow!” things. Consider doing something outrageous like sending free pizza to the dorms or student lounge during final exam week to create a buzz (Google does this). Try to come up with something that is innovative enough to be written about in the student newspaper.
  14. Offer video interviews. Some internship programs require potential interns to visit the corporate site. This time commitment sometimes limits the number of candidates for internship openings. To help minimize this problem, consider offering telephone or video interviews to potential interns.
  15. Hire interns early in their academic career. The competition for students in their last year is tremendous. You can excite and build relationships with the best students early on by targeting them early in their college career. Firms like Ernst & Young and Deloitte have had success in offering internships to sophomores and juniors.
  16. Hire them both. College students often develop strong bonds and friendships with their colleagues. Having the courage to offer to hire the best students and their “best friend” as a duo will dramatically improve your chances of getting the best as interns.
  17. Check your negatives on the Internet. In an Internet world, your image can be tarnished very quickly. As a result, it’s important to occasionally scan the Web to see what individuals are saying about you, both positive and negative. Don’t forget to search vault.com, which is a prime source of information for students.
  18. Highlight internships on your corporate career website. No matter how good your reputation or sales pitch, no student will pursue an internship without first visiting your corporate website. As a result, make sure that your website doesn’t directly contradict the message you send on campus. Where possible, provide a separate website that covers information about available internships.

10 Elements of a Compelling Internship Experience

If you have the opportunity to redesign your entire internship experience and program, here are 10 elements of the internship experience that have really excited interns and improved the probability of them wanting to return for a permanent position:

  1. Provide meaningful work. Students take internships in order to test the capabilities and to build their experience. Unfortunately, some managers are skeptical about the capabilities of interns and as a result, they provide them with work with little meaning or impact. Effective internship programs take steps to minimize the “busy work” and to ensure that students have tangible takeaways.
  2. A chance to complete a project. Design your internship program so that students begin and finish a complete project or task; they are more likely to be satisfied and to want to return. Give them an opportunity to formally “present” their work at the end of their internship.
  3. Avoid bad managers. Nothing frustrates an intern more than having to work under a manager who is insensitive to their needs. Survey interns at the end of their experience in order to identify problems and bad managers. These bad managers need to be prohibited from accepting future interns. (Cisco Systems does this.)
  4. The latest technology. Design your internship experience so that they have a chance to work with the kind of technology that they have previously only read about.
  5. An opportunity to make a difference. A good number of college students want to make a difference, and if you supplement their regular internship assignment with the opportunity to help out in the community, you will improve your chances of getting them to return as a regular hire.
  6. A chance to work with senior executives. Meeting senior executives is exciting, but a chance to work alongside a notable individual on a project is more likely to have a lasting impact. Great internship programs ask students directly who they would like to meet and in addition, who they would like to work directly with.
  7. A great location. Combining an internship with an exciting location is a great selling feature. Recently, international placement opportunities are becoming more desirable.
  8. A mentor. Providing students with a mentor who is near their age can dramatically improve their experience.
  9. Diversity. The competition for diverse candidates is even more intense. So if you should expect to attract and retain diverse interns, your program must contain enough flexibility to meet their unique needs.
  10. How much fun? Of course, college students like to have fun but they also want to develop contacts and build their resumes. If you offer too many fun events, and not enough meaningful work, few of your interns will return as regular employees.

Final Thoughts

The battle for interns and new college hires has always been intense but recently it has become a truly global competition. Companies are constantly changing their approach in order to increase their share of interns and new hires.

As a result, if your firm wants to dominate the market for interns at the best schools, your internship program must innovate at a rate that was unnecessary as few as five years ago. The status quo is no longer sustainable or competitive.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

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