Congratulations! Your application has impressed the hiring manager and now you’re invited for an interview. But how do you prepare for your dream internship and stand out from the competition?
As a student who’s applied to over 30 companies in the last 12 months, I’d like to share my experience and insights.
First, keep in mind that an interview is a two-way street. Yes, the company will ask you challenging questions. They want to test your knowledge and see if you’re a good fit. But don’t forget that the interview is also YOUR CHANCE to see if you like a company or not.
That means you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions to get a better feel for the company and figuring out if you’d like to work there. After all, it’s just as important that you enjoy your internship and get to learn new things. So, if you feel like an opportunity is not for you, don’t be afraid to turn it down, and look for something else instead.
But assuming you like the company, let’s talk about you can wow them in your conversation. Here are some of the most common interview questions, and how you can answer them:
Question 1: Tell me about yourself
It’s super common for hiring managers to start this with this question. They want you to introduce yourself, and will often use your answer as a basis for the rest of the interview.
Therefore, I like to think of this question as giving you the chance to make an elevator pitch. In less than a minute, you need to sell yourself to the company and tell them why you should be their next hire. To do this, I suggest you highlight your existing experiences to convince the company that you would be a great addition to their team.
Obviously, the exact skills and values you want to show will depend on the role you are applying for. But in general, the formula for delivering a good pitch remains the same:
- Have a storyline throughout your pitch. Are you an aspiring marketeer with a background in sales? Or a programming wiz who knows all about C?Think about how you want the company to see you – what is the main message they need to get?
- Highlight your best experiences. Talk about the projects you’ve worked on and the results you’ve achieved. For example, if you were the president of your university’s dance society, you can talk about how this helped you plan and manage events like dance festivals and coordinate performances.
- Include a compelling reason why the company should hire you. You can use a call-to-action or briefly mention why you would like to work for the company and what you are excited about during the internship. Find something that makes the company unique, and how that will allow you to contribute to the company and benefit from the internship. This could anything from a custom training program for interns to the fact that they have access to cutting-edge technology.
Here’s how all of this could fit together into one neat answer if you were applying for a copywriting internship:
“Well, if you look at my experience, you’ll see that three things stand out.
First of all, I love writing. I contribute to our university newspaper at least once a week, and recently I’ve started a personal development blog where I publish more casual articles.
Second, I’m really into entrepreneurialism and the start-up culture. In my free time, I like to read books from successful founders like Peter Thiel and attend conferences for tech start-ups and scale-ups.
Finally, I’ve always been interested in different industries, which is why I’ve interned at a company in the water industry, but also at a consultancy. Now, I’m excited to join your innovation program as a copywriter, because I’d love to bring together start-ups and write emails and articles to stay in touch with program participants.”
As you can see, this answer succinctly summarises the applicant’s main experiences while also making a case for why they want to join the company and what they can offer.
This is much better than what most other candidates do: wasting precious time by repeating information that’s already on their CV.
They say things like: “I went to high school in A City and graduated with these grades. Then, I moved to B university. I’m now majoring in C subject and looking to gain practical experience in the industry.’
To make sure you don’t fall into this trap, I suggest you prepare a thorough response to this question well in advance. It’s so easy to ramble when you’re nervous, and having a clear pitch will help you start your interview on a strong foot.
Question 2: What do you know about our company?
Many recruiters ask this to know if you’ve done your research, can describe the company, and are truly interested in working there.
Based on how you answer the question, the hiring manager may also give you additional information about the company. This is usually a good indicator. It shows that they are interested in you and want to sell you on the company.
However, the best approach is to offer the right information upfront. And be aware this is different for each company. For example, I recently applied for an internship at an employee training company and talked about the products/services the company was providing – but what the interviewer really wanted to hear was: how many employees they have, when they were founded, and what makes the company unique.
Therefore, I think it’s important to give a broad answer that covers all bases and also shows your enthusiasm for the company. For example, if you were applying for a software development internship at an agrifood tech start-up, you could talk about the challenges in the food industry, what problems the start-up is solving, and how you can bring in your skills to help the company.
Similarly, in an interview for a marketing internship with a large company like Nike you might say something like:
‘”I’m a loyal customer of Nike and have been a big fan of your running shoes for years. But I know that Nike is much more than a manufacturer of athletic clothes and sports equipment. You have a brilliant marketing strategy, in which you sell the emotional benefits of your products, for example in your recent ad: ‘You can’t stop us’. I’m excited to join your marketing team to support you in developing targeted campaigns for young people from ethnic minorities.’“
Question 3: Why do you want to work for us?
‘Why do you want to work here’ is a common interview question, but it’s also hard to answer. What you say can make could make all the difference in whether a potential employer extends a job offer to you – or not.
That’s why it’s important to prepare a solid response.
But before we go into how to do just that … let’s think about the question from the recruiter’s point of view. They want to hire someone who believes strongly in the company’s mission and can make a positive impact on the organisation and its clients.
Recruiting is also a costly and time-consuming business, so the hiring managers want to get a good return on their investment.
Therefore, a key to getting hired for an internship is convincing the company that you would be a valuable addition to their team and can leave a lasting, positive impact on their business. Ideally, you can talk about your previous experiences, but also what you hope to gain during your internship and how the company is uniquely positioned to offer you a learning experience.
And please don’t bring up perks like salary or holidays. While these may be compelling reasons for you to join a company, the recruiters want to know that you will like interning (and potentially working) there for other reasons as well.
Instead, it is much better to answer with a thoughtful response like this:
“Well, I’ve always been interested in the space industry. From the age of 9, I’ve been building and launching rockets in my backyard. At university, I’ve decided to major in astrophysics to continue exploring this interest. Now, I would like to work in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help you develop better rocket propulsion systems and fulfil the human dream of one day enabling humans to travel to Mars. The NASA is a true pioneer in this field, and I love to work alongside the best scientists in the world to make space travel possible for everyone.”
Question 4: Why should we hire you?
By asking this question, the interviewer invites you to sell yourself and explain why you are the best possible intern they could hire. A good answer will convince the hiring manager that:
- You can deliver outstanding results
- You will fit in with the team
- You have a unique set of skills and experiences that is valuable to the company.
A good sales pitch will be concise, show your enthusiasm for your role and also highlight your main strengths.
For example, if you were planning to do a project management internship at Tesla, you could say something like:
“I am very good at keeping track of complex projects and I think I can deliver outstanding results for your company. At my university, I’ve successfully coordinated and directed a theatre show which we performed in front of more than 2000 students. This has taught me a lot about managing multiple stakeholders, adapting swiftly to sudden changes, and resolving problems at the last minute. Through my studies in mechanical engineering, I also have a working knowledge of task planning and documentation systems, as well as quality management tools. I’d love to bring this experience to Tesla to help you coordinate the construction and set-up of the Gigafactory.
This type of answer works well because it makes you seem confident and enthusiastic, and also highlights what you can bring to the team.
Just be mindful that you don’t discredit other candidates or come across too cocky. There is a fine line between being confident and being arrogant, and you don’t want to be the person to cross that line.
Question 5: What do you want to get out of the internship?
A huge mistake many students make when answering is this question is that they only talk about themselves. They get so caught up in their own dreams and aspirations that they forget to talk about what the interviewer wants.
They say things like: ‘I’m looking for an internship that challenges me. I want to learn more about X topic and be rewarded for the hard work I do.’ This is the entirely wrong approach and will basically guarantee that your application ends up in the ‘Do Not Hire’ pile.
A better approach is to talk about what the hiring managers want. If they ask you ‘Why do you want to work for us?’ you don’t want to be the person that gives a rambling, me-focussed answer.
Instead, talk about the mutual benefit for you and the company. Like this:
‘I think that Uber is a very result-driven company. You care a lot about meeting the needs of your customers and I’m excited to learn from your marketing team, which consists of some of the best marketeers in the world. I look forward to helping you gain insight into what your younger consumer groups, such as university students, want from a ride-hailing service.”
Notice what I did here?
For one, I linked my interest in Uber to the company’s values. (Uber is known to reward high performance and looks for employees with a customer-first mentality.) As a result, I seem genuinely enthusiastic about the role and signal to the hiring manager that I would be a culture-fit.
Second, I made a switch. Instead of only talking about what I wanted to learn, I ended my response by shifting back to the needs of the company and what value I can offer. This works really well because it is the complete opposite of what most students do.
Question 6: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Lots of students dread answering this question. But it’s one that interviewers almost always ask.
They want to find the perfect candidate for the internship, and this means weeding out anyone who may not be a good fit. So when they ask you this question, they want to see if you are self-aware and can give a candid, but also positive, response.
One of the best strategies is to hone in on skills sought in the job description. Just address 1-2 requirements of the job and use actual examples to show that you’re a great candidate. Especially in an entry-level role or internship, try to respond like this:
“One of my main strengths is that I pick up new skills and tasks quickly. I’m a fast learner and I thrive on being challenged. For example, for a recent university project, I was assigned a new task where I had to learn how to make a basic company website in 15 days. At first, I was very confused and overwhelmed with all the code. But I decided to stick with it and looked for tutorials on YouTube to help me out. Ultimately, I put together the website and even managed to add a sign-up form for the company’s email list.”
What we’ve done here is to take a generic answer (‘being a quick learner’) and bring it to life with real examples. This shows the hiring manager how our strengths can create meaningful results for the company.
Now, let’s move on to the hardest part: talking about your weaknesses.
This is something many students get wrong. They give cliché answers like ‘I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘I’m too committed to my work’.
But recruiters have heard answers like these a million times. They know that you’re just bullshitting – trying to spin a positive trait into a negative.
Another common mistake is being too open about your weaknesses. If you give away too much information, you might unintentionally admit the wrong shortcomings. If you know you’ll be delivering newspapers from 4 AM every day, don’t say that you’re not a morning person. Something like this will immediately destroy your chances of getting the job.
So what should you do instead?
According to well-respected career advisor Martin Wehrle, the best answers will:
- Admit a true weakness
- Explain how you recognised it
- Talk about what you are doing to overcome it.
For example, instead of labeling yourself as an untidy and chaotic person, you could say:
‘When a deadline for a major project is approaching, I am fully focussed on perfecting all the details and delivering the promised results. In situations like this, I often have a lot of paperwork on my desk which can make me look disorganised and chaotic. However, as soon the project finishes, I always make an effort to get back to a tidy state.”
Similarly, you could talk about a relatively trivial weakness for your role. For example, if you know you will be doing client presentations once a month, and you are nervous about public speaking, you could respond along these lines:
“I often get nervous when asked to present in front of a large group of people, especially if I’ve never met them before. One thing that has helped me is preparing thoroughly for presentations because this gives me the confidence to handle unexpected questions in a professional way. I’ve also noticed my anxiety levels are becoming less with every presentation that I do’.
A response like this works really well because it shows the hiring manager that your weakness is manageable and that you have a positive prognosis. Additionally, you seem to be taking the right steps to reduce its impact. Finally, the fact that you won’t need to present to clients regularly means that your weakness is relatively trivial and does not affect your suitability for the role.
Question 7: How do you organise your time and priorities during a busy day?
Especially if you don’t have much experience in the workplace yet, this can be a tricky question to answer.
Compared to university, where tasks are usually set months in advance (and relatively predictable), at the office, you might have to deal with a lot of unexpected changes. As a result, hiring managers look for candidates who are flexible and can adapt swiftly to new circumstances. At the same time, they want people who are committed and stay on track for long-term tasks.
Therefore, a good answer will highlight your ability to plan ahead, but also show that you can respond quickly to changes outside of your immediate control.
Obviously, your exact response should change depending on where your strengths lie. For example, if you are good at finishing projects way in advance, you could say:
“I like to schedule big projects months in advance and break them down into small and manageable steps, that I can tackle on a day-to-day basis. On a busy day, I try to balance these tasks with any urgent commitments. I will usually deal with the most urgent responsibilities first, and come back to all other tasks second. In this way, I can make sure that pressing problems are resolved, while also getting long-term projects done by the relevant deadlines”
Whereas if you are better at doing work last-minute, you could respond along these lines:
“I am very good at working under pressure. In my last summer internship, I was preparing a presentation for a client when another customer had an urgent issue that we needed to address right away. Because of a recent update that was incompatible with their system, they were unable to use our company’s software for an important project. While I had a few debugging tasks on my to-do list that day, I set aside my list and focussed on resolving the client’s issue together with the team. Despite the pressure, we resolved this issue quickly and I could even get my other work done right afterwards.”
Question 8: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
If you’re like me, you might not have a clue what you’ll be doing 5 years from now. After all, it’s quite a long time for someone in their early twenties, especially as the world is changing at an increasing pace.
Now, of course, the hiring manager knows this too. They don’t expect you to give a perfect answer. Instead, they’re trying to understand your career goals and what you aspire to do going forward.
If they’re interns to attract future graduates, they might also want to know whether you would consider staying with the company after your internship. In that case, they’ll want to know: are you devoted to the company? Will you be in it for the long haul?
To show the company that you’re not an immediate flight risk, it’s best to steer away from job titles, unrealistic aspirations, and ambitious dreams like starting your own business or writing a best-selling novel. Instead, I would suggest focussing more on the broader goals you have for your career and what types of new tasks and responsibilities you would like to take on.
The interviewer also wants to hire people who are genuinely interested in the internship, versus those that just want a foot in the door. That’s why it’s so important to let your enthusiasm and personality shine through in your response.
Here’s an example for a research assistant internship in a biochemistry lab:
“I’ve always had an interest in experimentation. As a young kid, I would save up my pocket money to buy science kits and throughout university, this interest in working with different chemical substances and doing reactions has turned into a passion of mine. In 5 years, I would like to be specialising in an area of biochemistry like enzymology or medical biochemistry. I’m looking forward to this internship because I aspire to immerse myself in one of these fields and you have a great team of researchers to support me.”
Question 9: Did you also apply to any other companies/roles?
This question can easily throw you off when it comes up in your interview. But it doesn’t have to.
With the right preparation, you can give a solid response that matches your personal circumstances. Let’s go through a few different examples:
If You Don’t Have Any Other Interviews Lined Up
Let’s get this straight. In any case, you want to avoid saying something like: ‘This is the only company I’m interviewing with.’ This makes you very dependent on an offer from the company and gives the hiring manager too much power over you.
So, what can you do instead?
Just talk about the types of companies and positions you are applying to. For example, you could say something like:
“I am applying to a selection of companies in the travel industry, and I’m focussing on opportunities that will allow me to work directly with the customers. Working at [name of company] is particularly fascinating to me, as it will allow me to interact with customers through different channels, like phone, email and chat.”
If You Have Been Invited to Interview For Multiple Companies
In this case, your best bet is to explain that you’ve applied to a few select companies and emphasise the similarities between the internships. Then, highlight what would make this internship special to convey your enthusiasm for the role. For instance:
“I have been invited to a few interviews for B2B sales internships. But based on my research/the conversations that we’ve had; I feel like Reed Light Ventures stands out because of your dedicated mentor program that will help me settle into the company and deliver good results quickly.”
This shows the company that you may get multiple offers and that you could be off the market soon. If the interviewer wants to hire you, they know they need to move quickly and are more likely to act favourably when you negotiate the conditions of your internship offer later on.
If You Already Have An Offer From a Different Company
I would recommend being open about your offer, but also dedicating 75-80% of your answer to explain why you would prefer to work for the company you are interviewing with. This will reassure the recruiter that they have a realistic chance of hiring you.
At the same time, make sure you don’t criticise the first company. You never know whether people in these companies might know each other, and you wouldn’t want a bad word to spread. Talking badly about another company also casts a negative light on you – and the hiring manager may (rightfully) worry that you could spread negative vibes about their organisation behind their back too.
Instead, try to focus on why this company is a better fit for you:
“I currently have an offer from Canvas Engineering, and I think they are a great place to work at. However, I feel like the internship at your company would suit me even better. Your internship is more focused on product development, which is an area that I’d like to work in going forward. Additionally, one of my friends from college, Samantha Smith, interned with you last summer and she was really enthusiastic about her experience”
Question 10: How much do you want to make?
This is a tricky question.
If you ask for too much, you might lose your offer. But if you ask for too little, you will regret your petty salary as you work for the company. Especially if you find out later on that other people are paid more for the same job.
So before you throw a random number at the interviewer, I suggest you do some thorough research. Take a look on portals like Glassdoor or Payscale to see what other interns earn in your industry and location. This will give you a neat indication of what might be a realistic ask. For example, if you notice that interns in Amsterdam make an average of 500 – 800 € a month, you can reasonably ask for 700 – 900 €.
Personally, I recommend making sure you don’t undersell yourself. I always like to ask for a little more than I actually want, just in case the company decides to negotiate my offer down.
For instance, when I applied for a marketing position at a Dutch start-up incubator, I asked for around 600€/month, as I knew the company would realistically offer 400 – 500€. While I didn’t take up the offer in the end, this strategy worked in my favour, as I negotiated it all the way up to 500€/month.
To help your negotiations, I can recommend a few strategies that I’ve learnt from Ramit Sethi:
- Show the interviewer how you can solve 1-2 company problems before you even start negotiating. Especially, in an internship, you don’t have to solve the hardest problems. Sometimes, you can provide a lot of value simply by freeing up time for a manager to work on a new project, or by taking on relatively easy tasks like translating text, writing for the company blog, or assisting full-time staff. Just figure out what the company needs and show the hiring manager that you are the right person to help them.
- Point out that above-average achievement should earn you an above-average salary. Tell the hiring manager that you like to think of hiring an intern as an investment. You can either get average results from a typical candidate, or you can invest a little more and get disproportionate results from a super-star.
- Use marketing techniques like framing to sell yourself and fixate the recruiter on a higher number. The way this works is that you use the responsibilities and salary of an entry-level position as a point of comparison in your salary negotiations. For example, you could say that based on your experience you can take on tasks that go beyond the responsibilities of a typical intern and more towards those of a junior role. Then, you can add that you would like to be paid fairly based on the value you can provide to the company, and that a fair salary would lie between X internship salary and Y entry-level pay. This way, you can shift the conversation away from industry averages and bring much higher compensation into the discussion.
So when asked for a ball-park figure, you say something along these lines:
“With regards to compensation, I think it is important to find a number that is fair to both sides. I think I can do outstanding work for your company by doing X and Y, which will help you get Z. These tasks and responsibilities would take me beyond the role of a marketing intern more towards those of a junior marketeer. I think it would only be fair for my remuneration to reflect this.”
For maximum impact, I suggest you pause and wait for the hiring manager to respond. They will usually get back to you with a reasonable offer. But if they come up with any counterarguments like ‘we pay all of our interns X amount’ or ‘we have a tight budget’, you can respond like this:
“I can imagine that you have a tight budget right now, and that you want to compensate all interns fairly. However, I like to think of hiring as an investment. You can either hire an average candidate and get average performance, or you can invest a little more and get someone who can create double or triple the value for your business”
That way, you are politely acknowledging the hiring managers’ point of view, but also making a strong case for why you deserve to be paid more. You can conclude your counteroffer with something like this:
“Based on my experience and the value I can provide to your company; I think a salary of 1200€/month (or whatever figure you come up with) would be fair to both sides”
But before you go into negotiations, please also read this post where I uncover why you might be getting paid less than you deserve.