I suppose I’ll start by explaining why I have anything at all to do with internships. In my day job, I’m part of a group that regularly hires several interns each semester. There are some common faux pas that really don’t help a candidate out. Some of these are probably included in the curriculum covered by career resources at universities and some perhaps are not. In any event, here are a few things that I have seen over the years, that you should try to avoid when seeking an internship in any aspect of software development. I will of course attempt to be comical here, and there may be some hyperbole involved.
I should also note for the record that a lot of our interviews (even interns) are panel style, involving 2 or more interviewers. I generally agree with this approach because I’d rather the team spend time making a good hire, than spend it dealing with a bad hire.
1) Show up.
This should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t. People do sometimes get another offer for an internship they prefer, and just don’t show up when their interview appointment rolls around – no phone call, no email, nothing. My personal opinion is that this is the height of rudeness and may ensure that I remember your name for a bad reason. In the event I forget, the recruiter may remind me.
2) Show up on time (or call).
I get it, things happen and people run late – I’m not one of those people that considers being 15 minutes late once in a while to be a major character flaw that will prevent you from getting hired.
But for goodness’ sake, please don’t show up significantly late with some lame excuse, after having left everyone waiting because you didn’t call to tell us you were running late. Time is everyone’s most precious commodity, and you’d be pretty upset if you arrived on time and no one came to interview you for 20 minutes.
As an adult who wants an internship and possibly later on a full time gig, you should look up the address beforehand, figure out the bus routes/schedules if you’ll be using the bus, and have the phone number handy. This will help prevent mishaps, and better enable you to handle them if they occur.
As soon as you expect that you will be late, call, explain the situation, and apologize for any inconvenience. I am much more likely to go out of my way to interview you when you do arrive, or to have you rescheduled, because I appreciate that you respected my time and took responsibility to deal with whatever sabotaged your travel attempts.
3) Present yourself well.
This is another thing that I suspect should go without saying. Shower and comb your hair. Make sure you’ve been awake long enough to form coherent thoughts and sentences. Put on a clean shirt that has seen an iron recently. (I’m pretty casual, I don’t expect all candidates to be in a suit and tie, nor is that the norm for technology jobs these days, but it shouldn’t look like you just took last weekend’s button down shirt out of the hamper and put it back on again.)
If you are running too late to accomplish these tasks and still arrive on time – see #2. You don’t have to tell us that you are running late because you overslept, you can just explain that you are very sorry, but that something has some up and you need to reschedule.
4) Show interest in your field.
If you’re seeking a job in a particular area, it helps if you are actually interested in it. Interviews tend to have a lot of open ended questions because your potential employer wants to get you talking. They want to see your enthusiasm about what you do. If you give the most minimal yes/no answer to everything and then close up like a clam shell – your interview will be awkward and it is likely to be cut short. While this behavior may be a good defense against ‘got ya’ types of questions, it’s also preventing me from getting to know anything about how you operate and whether you even like this type of work or not. It can give the impression that you aren’t really passionate about your chosen career field, which is ominous in thought work where a bit of spark is needed.
If, by your responses, I realize that I don’t know anything about you, and I get the impression you may not really like this field – I’m most likely going to conclude that you probably won’t do well, and that I’d be better off not investing time to bring you on board.
5) Sell yourself.
Your job interview is one time when it is okay to brag a bit. Tell me all about how you helped solve (or directly solved) this or that interesting problem at your last internship, in a school project, or in a personal hobby project. (It’s not a showstopper for me when an intern candidate doesn’t have much in the way of job experience – you’re applying for an internship, which has a different set of expectations.) I have relatively few expectations in this area, but they are pretty steadfast: Be clear about your own contributions and capabilities. Be careful that you don’t intentionally or unintentionally present yourself as having skills that you don’t actually have.
This can happen when you’ve worked on a group project and can speak intelligently about the work, but fail to be clear on the types of work you did vs other group members. So, what if you’re in an interview and the questions start to angle toward a part of the deliverable that you didn’t build? Say so. Don’t feel that you know enough to answer a technical question? Say so. Whatever you do, don’t panic and start trying to tell people what you think they want to hear. It’s difficult because you want the internship and you want to please whoever is interviewing you – but trust me on this one – take a deep breath and clarify what your skills and experience are, and how you think they could help the company.
(You don’t know what problems the company has and how your skills could help solve them? Ask some questions yourself – that’s allowed! You don’t even have to wait until the end when the interviewer customarily asks if you have any questions for them.)
The reason for this point of advice? Many people will respect your honesty and straightforwardness more than your skill alone. Skills can be learned, and most likely they were vetted before you even walked in the door – the interview is mostly about you as a person, not you as a set of features and capabilities.
Some of the best organizations to work for hire people (many of whom start as interns) based on what they can find out about your attitude and character. Saying that you didn’t write that data access layer on that school project isn’t going to cause them to reject you if the rest of your talents and personality traits align well with the company’s values and goals.