March 26, 2021

5 Keys to Running a Rockstar Internship Program

Devin Hiett

Well-run internship programs are extremely valuable, both for the interns participating in the program and for the contributions interns can make to your organization. 

Almost 65% of employers in America offer internships, but let’s be honest; a lot of them suck. Young people don’t want to be stuck in an environment where they only do busy work or get coffee for senior employees. They want to contribute to the organization they’re working for, make a lasting impact, network with trusted mentors, and learn new skills along the way.

Sounds great, right? What employer wouldn’t want a well-organized internship program that benefits their company and the next generation of workers?

But to get a great output from your internship program, you first have to put in the work for a great input. That means planning for every step of the internship process, from hiring until sending your interns off after their last day on the job.

So how do you put together a rockstar internship program that will attract bright young talent from a diverse range of backgrounds and skill sets? If you want to find out, read on for 1Huddle’s top five keys to running a rockstar internship program.

1. Create an accessible, effective, and equitable interview process

The first step to running a successful internship program starts with your interview process. 

So don’t just Google ‘the best questions to ask during intern interviews’ or stick to boring, safe questions that will only get you boring, safe answers. Let’s be real, no one is going to be honest about their biggest weaknesses or strengths. People already have pre-determined answers for those sorts of ineffective questions. So before you sit down with a potential intern for an interview, ask yourself: What am I really looking for in an intern? What traits or qualities are must-haves in a new hire? What can I ask that will truly show me something about who this person is?

When I interview prospective interns, I prepare a set of questions, but I make them very conversational. It’s important to let the conversation flow freely and tailor some questions to the candidate’s unique background rather than preparing generic questions for every interviewee that seem cold and detached.

For example, if a candidate includes interests on their resume like photography, art, or soccer, lean into that. Ask them why they’re passionate about that thing, and you’ll be able to tell much more about how someone, their passions, and how they think than you would by asking a generic question like “when is a time you disagreed with someone, and how did you resolve the conflict?” 

When it comes to body language and overall demeanor, you should pay attention to whether prospective interns seem present and interested, not whether they seem nervous. An outgoing candidate doesn’t mean an inherently good candidate, so cut people some slack if they appear nervous or need a minute to think before answering a question. Interviews are always intimidating, especially when you’re just starting out in your career. By setting the stage for a casual, personable interview, you will help put your prospective interns at ease and in turn learn more about who they really are and what they’re passionate about.

I used to ask people: what made you apply for this internship? And the most common response I got was “because I want experience.” Obviously, every young person wants experience. That’s why they’re applying to internships. So instead of asking those questions, go further by asking “what attracted you to our company’s mission statement?” This is a good question because it will show whether the person really did their research. If they look alarmed or confused, they clearly didn’t take the time to find out what your organization’s mission and core values are. Is that someone you want as an intern? 

Lastly, it’s important to value a young person’s mindset and ability to grow rather than judging them solely on their resume and past work experience. Some particularly technical internships might require specific experience, but for areas like sales and marketing, finding out what skills the person wants to gain and improve upon is more valuable than asking them what skills they already have. Internships are meant to help young people gain experience, so you shouldn’t expect them to already have a ton of experience under their belt at this stage in their career.

2. Onboard them like a new hire

When you begin onboarding interns, it’s important to treat them like a new hire—not like a short-term employee.

You need to make sure that interns feel like part of the team, because they are part of the team; even if it’s just for a few months. You never know which interns could end up being your next full-time hire—especially since paid internships turn into official job offers about 65% of the time—so integrating interns into your company culture and team dynamic is just as important as it is for any other new hire.

The first two weeks on the job define an intern’s entire experience at an organization. This is the time when interns will need to get adjusted, which means understanding your company’s culture and values, connecting with fellow team members, and becoming acquainted with the different tasks and responsibilities they will be undertaking during their internship. It’s important to set clear, concise expectations early-on and create an open channel of communication where interns feel comfortable asking questions and seeking advice.

Another way to set your interns up for success? Pairing them with a mentor! Which brings us to point number three.

3. Pair interns with a mentor 

Learning the ins-and-outs of a company takes time, and starting a new role at a new company can be daunting for young people who are just entering the workforce. 

Pairing every intern with a mentor is the perfect way to help them get integrated into the company while setting up interns for long-term career success. And mentorships aren’t just valuable to the interns themselves; they’re also extremely valuable for your full-time employees. 

Think about how often some of your employees, especially those in senior management roles, get to interact with young people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. There’s probably a good chance that at least some of your employees almost never talk with and learn more about young people who are entering the workforce. And if you’re a talent leader who believes that learning and development is a lifelong process, then it’s important to realize that more senior employees who have been in the same types of roles and environments for years have just as much to learn from young people as young people have to learn from them.

Point being, mentorships are the perfect way to challenge both mentor and mentee to connect with someone new and help each other learn new skills and have unique experiences that will benefit them both personally and professionally.  

4. Give interns ongoing feedback 

One fatal flaw in a lot of internship programs we see is that many interns don’t receive feedback until their exit interview. If an intern has been with your company for three or four months, waiting to give them meaningful feedback until their last week on the job is highly ineffective—both for your intern and for your organization. 

Scheduling weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with every intern is one of the most important keys to running a successful internship program. Even if your intern supervisor or manager has a tight schedule, taking even five minutes to check-in with an intern and ask them how they’re doing and if they have any questions is invaluable. Many young workers often feel shy or anxious about asking questions and approaching team members for help. So taking the initiative to check in with your intern and asking them explicitly how you can help improve their experience is vital if you want to run a truly effective program.

Plus, giving interns feedback challenges them; it pushes them to do better and keep growing and improving throughout their time at your company and afterward. Young people both want and need to be challenged. Giving constructive, actionable feedback is the perfect way to do it.

Getting feedback from your interns can also be just as valuable as giving it. Ask them what you could do to better support them. Ask if there’s anything they haven’t been able to work on yet that they want to delve into. These types of questions will help you see your internship program through the intern’s eyes, and it will ensure that you’re able to continuously build a stronger and more effective program for every class of interns that comes in.

5. Encourage interns to work across different teams and departments

While structure and expectations are important for a successful internship experience, it’s equally important to give interns the flexibility to try new things and branch out of their comfort zone. 

Maybe you have an intern working in the communications department, but you notice they easily connect with others and are naturally persuasive. Encourage them to sit in on a sales meeting or connect with a senior sales rep on what it takes to succeed in that space. Working across departments also gives interns the opportunity to compete with their fellow interns. A healthy sense of competition is good; it pushes every intern to be their best and rise to the challenge, while preparing them for the competition they’ll face when applying for full-time roles. 

And at a time when nearly half of all graduating college students don’t know what they want to do with their degree, so giving interns space to evolve and try out different tasks in different departments is a great way to help them discover a range of career paths they might enjoy, while making sure that every team in your company gets the opportunity to help train and mentor your interns.

6. BONUS: Our 6th key to a great internship is…

As a special bonus, we have a 6th key to developing a great internship program. But if you want to know what it is, you’re going to have to earn it by answering a question from 1Huddle’s Bring It In podcast. 

Here’s your question:

Shadae McDaniel, Vice President and City Leader at the All Stars Project of New Jersey, was a recent guest on Bring It In. Shadae is an expert on internships who said that internships are valuable because ___________.

  1. They give young people different avenues for growth and development
  2. They give young people the opportunity to build relationships with people who don’t look like them and allow both interns and the employees to step outside of their comfort zone
  3. They expand access to new opportunities that many young people didn’t realize they could be a part of
  4. All of the above

Think you know the answer? Email your guesses to, and we will send you our sixth key to a great internship plus an exclusive copy of 1Huddle’s eBook that illustrates the problem of employee turnover and how to fix it.

Devin Hiett, Content Marketing Lead at 1Huddle

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