How to Prepare for an Internship Interview
Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy… Either we’re in an Eminem song, or you’re preparing for your first internship interview. If so, congratulations! Most applicants never even get to the interview stage, so you should feel proud to have made it this far.
In the past year I’ve interviewed with companies large and small, and while I didn’t get an offer from everyone, each experience gave me a sense of what the process looks like. In this guide, I’ll first preview what you can expect out of the interview process. Then, I’ll share some tips on what to do before, during, and after the interview.
Overview of the Process
In this section, I’ll take you through an overview of what the internship interview process generally looks like. Maybe you already know all this, but I didn’t before my first.
Step 1: You apply for the job
Step 1a: Career Fair/Networking
If your school is holding a career fair and the company you want to work for is there, GO. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions of the people who actually work there. Further, if the employer you talk to is impressed, they can expedite your application. If you don’t have a career fair, but the company visits your school in another capacity (information sessions, meet and greets, etc.), go to those and get your name out there. People remember names more than you think, so make a positive impression!
If you already know which internship(s) you want to apply for, I would suggest you submit your application(s) before going to the career fair. This shows the employer that you’re serious about their company and the position. Then, you can use your conversation with them to ask any questions you may have about the company or job.
Step 2: Screening Interview
Once you apply and the employer likes what they see, they’ll reach out (usually by email) to set up a screening interview. The screening interview will likely be performed in one of two ways:
- Phone (or video) call – This is what I would think of when I think of a screening interview. Someone will reach out to you and set up a time to talk on the phone or video conference.
- Video recording – For the larger companies I applied at, the screening “interview” wasn’t a live call. Instead, I was sent a link to a virtual interview portal where I recorded my answers to questions that a recruiter would typically ask in a live call. These recordings took the place of a call, but were more convenient because I didn’t have to coordinate my schedule with the employer and vice versa. Once I submitted my video responses, I presume HR or a manager viewed them to determine whether or not I would make it to the next round.
In my experience, rarely did the employer ever come out and call it a “screening interview.” They used phrases like, “just reaching out to talk” or “have a quick chat.” If the same happens to you, don’t be fooled by the casual language. You want to prepare as if it’s the real deal because they will ask you real questions. At this stage, they just want to make sure you can communicate and that you have a shot at succeeding in the next round.
Keep in mind, the person you’re talking to at this stage probably isn’t the person you’ll do the real interview with because screening calls are often performed by recruiters or HR. For me, it wasn’t until the actual interview that I would speak to the managers who would actually be hiring me. That said, don’t blow them off because they take notes on how you do and they pass those notes along to your next interviewer. You obviously want those notes to shed you in the most positive light possible.
Step 3: Actual Interview(s)
If the employer likes what they see in the screening interview, they’ll push you through to the actual interview round. Personally, I didn’t think the actual interviews were that different from the screening interviews. They were more like extended versions of the screening interviews. Honestly, if you’re prepared for the screening interview, you’ve already completed most of the preparation you need to do for the actual interview. All that’s left is practice and maybe preparing for more questions.
Out of all the interviews I went through, I always spoke with more than one person. Sometimes it was a group call all at once, but more often it was with multiple people one-on-one. Thus, I would expect to talk to multiple people the day of your interview if they don’t come outright and tell you.
After the first actual interview, there could be more rounds, but that’s rarely the case for most internships. Since you’re just applying for a temporary internship position, one round usually suffices. Personally, I only ever had two rounds: screening and final.
What to do Before
(i.e. How to Prepare)
Acing the interview begins well before you ever step foot in front of your actual interviewers. Below are suggestions that helped me prepare for my own.
Be ready for the questions you already know are coming
There’s no way to know every single question you’ll get. However, from each of my interviews, I found that most companies would ask the same four types of common internship interview questions. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but hopefully it’ll give you some direction.
- About Me
These are easy questions that the interviewer will ask to make sure you meet some basic requirements for the job. They’re not meant to trick you and you don’t really need to prepare for them.
- Where do you go to college?
- What year are you?
- What’s your major?
- Do you have legal authorization to work in this country?
- What dates are you available to work?
- Stuff like that
2) About Me
These types of questions came up more often for me in the screening interview and are supposed to help the interviewer get to know you better. I’d also imagine an interviewer asks these questions to make sure your goals and values line up with the company’s goals and values. For example, if you’re applying for an accounting position and you tell them you see yourself as a professional scuba diver in five years, that might set off some alarm bells.
- Tell me about yourself
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- What are your career goals?
- Why did you pick that college?
- What kind of role do you assume in a group setting? (e.g. leader)
- Why should I hire you?
- Always have an answer prepared for this question. Even if they don’t explicitly ask it, you want to identify what sets you apart and keep that in mind as you’re answering the questions they do ask you.
3) Behavioral Questions
These questions allow you to describe, in action, the qualifications you say you possess. For example, saying you have leadership qualities is different from giving an example of a time when you demonstrated leadership. These questions usually begin with phrases like “tell me about a time when you…”
I was taught to use the STARR method when answering these questions. It’s a simple framework that helps you answer behavioral questions fully and clearly. I actually had one interviewer explicitly instruct me to use STARR.
When you’re prompted with a phrase like “tell me about a time you…” or “name a situation where you…”, you can mentally fill out the STARR framework to clearly break down the situation to your interviewer.
- Situation – Explain some background on the scenario. Give the interviewer context. Was this a group project? Were you at work, school, or volunteering?
- Task – What was your specific role in the scenario (i.e. What were you tasked with?) What was your objective and desired outcome?
- Action – What did you actually do?
- Result – What was the result of your action? Was it positive, negative, or neutral?
- Reflect – What did you learn from the experience? How would you do it over if the result was negative the first time?
- This last “R” is commonly forgotten, but it might be the most important especially if the result was negative.
There are three ways you could go about utilizing the STARR framework.
- On Demand
- Use it live in the interview simply by keeping the acronym in the back of your mind.
- This is probably what most people do. It requires you to “start from scratch” for every question because you have to formulate an answer on the spot.
- Pre-write Specific Responses
- This involves writing out responses to every question you could possibly think of using the STARR framework. Then, you would memorize your answers before the interview.
- The drawback here is that you would have to try and anticipate every question they could ask you. This would be nearly impossible, not to mention extremely time consuming to memorize all your responses
- Hybrid of 1 and 2 (recommend)
- This strategy is most similar to #2, but less extensive. I liked to think of a few scenarios that could apply to multiple questions and just fill out some main points on the STARR framework for these. This way, I would have some answers ready, but could still tailor my responses to fit the exact question in the interview.
- Again, you won’t know every single question they could ask you, but I’ve noticed a pretty consistent pattern. Some examples that I always prepare for are:
- A time you faced a challenge
- A time you worked with a difficult person
- A time you showed leadership
- A time you failed
- A time you succeeded
- A time you received feedback
- Anticipate a job specific question
- In most interviews, I was faced with a job-specific behavioral question. For example, one time I was interviewing for a supply chain internship and they asked me to “Name a time when you made a process improvement.”
- You can also get get an idea of the types of behavioral questions they may ask just by reading the job description and searching for key skills they’re looking for.
4) Company Specific
Make sure you research the company before you go into the interview. They will likely ask you questions to see if you actually want to work for their company or if you’re just looking for a paycheck anywhere you can find it.
- Why do you want to work at our company?
- They may also ask “Why this job?” When they asked this, I always tried to tie in why I wanted not just the job, but why that job at that specific company. I wanted them to know I was very interested in the company itself as well as the job.
- Why do you think you would be a good fit it our company?
- Research what they value, what their culture is like, etc.
- How do you exemplify _____ that’s important to us?
- This is similar to the last question, but you want to understand what do they care about as a company. For example, one company I interviewed with was big on diversity and inclusion, so one of the questions they asked me was, “How would you bring diversity to our team?”
If you search [Your Company Name] + “Interview Questions”, there’s usually a Glassdoor.com page where previous interviewees provide the questions they were asked and some other insights into the interview process. I found these to be surprisingly accurate especially for larger companies. This is because large companies typically have pretty standardized interviewing process so they tend to use the same questions for every interview.
Practice, practice, practice.
Ideally, you want to practice with real people, but even just rehearsing answers by yourself will put you ahead of most students.
Best case scenario: practice with a career counselor/coach/advisor. If your school has a career center, chances are they have someone who can run through a mock interview with you. Mock interviews are an excellent, no-risk, way to get some unbiased feedback on your interview skills. It’ll also help you shake out some nerves.
These are helpful because it’s literally your school’s career counselors’ job to think critically about your skills, strengths and weaknesses, and help you succeed. Furthermore, the career center people are usually the ones who interact most directly with the recruiters/companies that go to your school. Thus, they have the inside scoop on what companies are looking for.
Going to the career center is something we all know we should do. It’s something parents who hear about it in orientation want their kids to do, but still very few students actually take advantage of the resource. Go! It’s included in your tuition. You’re paying for it regardless, so you might as well use the resource that’s already available to you!
Friends (be careful)
You could ask your friends to ask you sample questions you wrote down on notecards, but there are a few things to be cautious of:
- Keep in mind, your friends may not want to hurt your feelings and may be too busy with their own stuff to think critically about your performance.
- Giving good feedback takes effort and most of your friends may be too overwhelmed with their own stuff to commit that effort.
- Depending on what circle of friends you’re in, it may turn into the blind leading the blind. If none of you all have ever interviewed and/or interviewed successfully, you may not want advice from them anyway.
Content and Delivery (but Content over Delivery)
There are two components of answering any question:
- Content – What are you going to say?
- Delivery – How are you going to say it?
I found focusing on content to be more helpful because when I’m confident in the content of my answers, the delivery comes naturally. Sure, body language is important, but people can tell when it’s forced. Remember, you’re not a robot.
What to do During
(i.e. In the Interview)
Keep it Positive
Even if you had a negative experience in your last job, group project, etc., focus on what you learned from it and how the experience made you better. It’s not a good look to just slander people throughout your whole interview.
In line with keeping things positive, don’t forget to smile!
If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t lie. I once heard another student say she was asked what the stock price of the company was. She hadn’t prepared for that question, so she simply admitted, “I don’t know, but I’ll definitely look it up after this interview.” Had she tried to lie about something she blatantly didn’t know, that would have made her look much worse. I suspect some interviewers will ask you a question they don’t expect you to know just to see how you’ll respond (i.e. will you lie?).
If it’s a more open-ended question you don’t know how to answer, still explain your though process and how you would go about finding the answer. Give them something to work with.
Don’t Play Mind Games
Let’s get elementary: boy likes girl, boy doesn’t want to look desperate, so he tries to subtly attract girl with mind games and ends up making her dislike him.
If you pretend you’re too good for the company and like you have so many options, it could backfire. Companies want applicants who are genuinely interested in them and show it.
How do you show it? Research. Look at their website, related press, and media coverage. Go to any information sessions/workshops/events the company holds at your school. Talk to the people from that company. Even if the people you talk to don’t end up interviewing you directly, your name can and probably will still get around to the other people who will interview you (just make sure it’s for a good reason.) Stop trying to look cool and start trying to look interested.
I was talking to a recruiter once and she said, “There is almost nothing worse than getting to the end of the interview, asking the applicant if they have any questions and they say, ‘nope’ because then I think, Are you even interested in this company or this job? Have you even researched the company? Are you not curious?“
Ask questions! Again, you want to show you’re interested. If you’ve actually done your research, there are things you should genuinely be curious about. If not, then maybe this isn’t the right company for you. I liked to ask about the role, the company culture, and anything else I wanted to know.
The end of the interview is also a good time to ask any logistical questions e.g. “When should I expect to hear from you?” or “What are the next steps?”
I know, I know, easier said than done, but one of the most important things to remember is that you’re talking to a human being, a lot like you. They’ve been in your shoes. They’ve interviewed before too. Unless you get some malicious villain, they’re not out to get you.
Moreover, the person you’re talking to may very well become your boss. Even bosses want to work with people they like, so it’s not just about impressing the person. It’s also about finding that personality match.
This should be obvious, but be nice. Most people want to work with nice people. People hire people, not resumes.
What to do After
(i.e. After the Interview)
There’s not much you can do afterward except send a thank you note. Most of the time I was given my interviewer’s email so I could send them a couple sentences thanking them for speaking with me. Since I’ve never been on the other end of one of these notes, I don’t know if it’s actually appreciated. That said, most of the recruiters I’ve heard speak advise students to do it, so I did it anyway.
If you don’t have the interviewer’s email but still really want to thank them, you could probably find them on LinkedIn and message them.
Follow up (if applicable)
If a long period of time goes by without hearing anything (i.e. week(s) longer than they said they would take to get back to you), I don’t think it hurts to send a follow-up email to verify the status of your application.
Keep in mind, every company is different. Although I talked to a range of businesses from Fortune 100 companies to smaller private firms, I’m still only sharing based on limited experience. Depending on where you apply, the process may look different.
Also, I’m a business student, so the jobs I interviewed for were businessy in nature. If you’re applying for more technical jobs (engineering, sciences, etc.), I’m sure many of these tips could still apply. However, I would ask an upperclassman in your major/degree/field for advice on any technical questions.
Last disclaimer: I went through this all during the peak year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, only one interview was in-person and the rest were virtual.
At the end of the day, an interview is really just a conversation (a fairly formal one, but a conversation all the same). Yes, it will feel like a lot of pressure in the moment, but you will learn and grow through it. All you can do is prepare, practice, and take a deep breath. The rest is in God’s hands. Best of luck!