10 Elements that Take Your Internships from “Meh” to Brag Worthy

internship series

(This is Part 1 of our 3-part internship series. Once you’ve finished this post, keep an eye out for Part 2 and Part 3.)


Can you smell that freshness in the air? Ah, spring!

For many HR teams, this means we’re only a couple months from interns arriving for their first day.

As you prepare for your interns to arrive, it’s helpful to think about your internships as a program rather than just an annual season.

Of course, when we say “internship program,” we’re not talking about something just for the Googles and Facebooks of the world. Yours could be as simple as a few specific guidelines for the one or two summer interns or as large as a dedicated team managing hundreds of interns.

No matter the scale of your internships, without purpose and a designed experience, over time they can erode into just a yearly ritual. If you want them to drive your organization forward, then there are a few specific factors to think about.


Start with the purpose

There are plenty of benefits to having interns, from building a pipeline of future talent to supporting students. Do you know which one will help accomplish your company’s overall mission and goals?

Your internship program’s purpose could include several of the following:

  • Create a pipeline of talented engineering candidates
  • Find and test potential talent
  • Have eager talent to contribute to a big project
  • Increase employee retention
  • Support students with educational experience
  • Evangelize company culture and branding
  • Gain knowledge from students still in college

Starting with purpose and reevaluating it every year will help keep your internship program on track to making a real impact on your company’s mission and goals.


Design the experience, not just job responsibilities

Design your internship experience with the end in mind. Here’s where many organizations skip right over and move on to the where and what. Well-planned job descriptions are important, too, but most underestimate how vital experience is.

Intern experience means more than providing a few bullet points to add on a resume. Don’t get us wrong, those are great. For the moment we’re talking about those essential culture moments that move the way your employees think and feel about your company from “like” to “love.”

When focusing on interns specifically, there are a few questions you can ask knowing their time as an intern is limited:

  • How do you want them to feel about your company? Love?
  • Which element of your culture and values do you want them to engage with?
  • How do you want them to feel about themselves? Accomplished? One of the team?

Asking key leaders these questions will shape the way your internship program looks and feels. And they should be directly tied to your organization’s goals for internships.

If you struggle with this part, surveying former or future interns for the kind of experience they want is a good place to start.


Connect with the student community

Let’s say your goal is to create a pipeline of talented software engineers. How do you get a stream of intern applicants who also fit your company culture? Go to the source!

It may sound simple or a little naïve, but committing to consistently attending career fairs – both fall and spring – will help with this goal, as well as connecting with specific university departments. UCLA is just one example of a university that hosts career fairs specifically for certain skills.

We’ll talk more about attracting interns in Part 2 of this series, but it’s worth noting here that if internships are important to your company, it’s well worth the effort to be part of the community your future talent comes from.



Stepping into the arena

Imagine walking into a crowded stadium for the first time. There are people everywhere, you don’t know where your seat or the nearest bathroom is, and everyone seems to be following some unspoken social order. That’s a bit like the first day at a new internship.

How do you move your interns from that moment to the experience you want them to leave with? Here are 10 ideas:

1. On your interns’ first day, show them the ropes

Have a scheduled orientation and make sure they’re announced and welcomed by key team members on the first day.


2. Work with their direct manager to plan their first week

How many times has a new hire sat around the first few days on the job because their team and manager didn’t prepare work for them ahead of time? Ask their assigned team to prepare work for them before their first day.


3. Check-ins and 1:1s

As the internships continue, regular check-ins with department heads and interns are an easy way to measure whether their experience is meeting your program purpose.


4. Plan activities allowing them to bond with other interns, co-workers, and execs

You don’t need a ton of these to create strong bonds. One or two within the span of the internship could be just fine. Think back to the kind of experience you want your interns to leave with.


5. Schedule a session with the CEO or another senior executive

We get it, all CEOs are busy and time is money. But a Q&A session or lunch with a senior leader can go a long way toward interns feeling valued, especially if finding future talent is one of your goals. It’s a small investment if it helps the best interns return to you when they leave school.


6. Give them real responsibility

That isn’t to suggest you put a mission-critical task in their hands that could cripple your company, but it does mean letting them try real tasks rather than trivial “projects.”


7. Teach them more than just their specific vocation

Many undergrad students won’t have the experience of working with multiple departments or in matrix organizations to complete projects. Showing them how the company works outside of their department gives them a broader perspective of real work.


8. Give them a mentor

Depending on the size of your business, you can assign each intern someone they can go to with questions, will demonstrate your company culture, help develop soft skills, and make them feel included. However, this responsibility shouldn’t be assigned. It should be someone on their team or from HR who actively wants to be a mentor.


9. Let them show off what they’ve learned

Few things are as empowering for interns as the ability to show their fellow interns, co-workers, and senior leaders what they’ve accomplished or gained. This can range from surveys to writing interns blog posts to letting them give a presentation to their new peers. The key is getting them to think about their time with your company.


10. Give them an edge in their future job search

Pair interns up with a recruiter who can help them craft their resume with achievements and metrics. On top of giving them a leg up, they’ll have a direct contact who is a recruiter. Who do you think they’ll reach out to when they start their job search?


A side effect of great internship programs

No matter what your goals are, there’s one side effect every company wants: referrals.

When a student’s internship experience is great, they’re going to tell their classmates and peers. The opposite is also true. Don’t underestimate the impact your internships can have.


Over to you

There’s plenty more that can go into making a great internship program. What marks a great internship to you? Let us know in the comments below.