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How to Interview Interns and Entry-Level Candidates

Robin Reshwan

Ready to hire a college student or new grad this summer but don't know how to evaluate his or her abilities? It's challenging to determine if someone with little or no relevant work experience is qualified. The good news is that there are three strategies you can use to separate the willing from the truly able:

1. Situational interview questions. Managers of interns and new grads should recognize that entry-level candidates will be short on real-world experience to draw from in an interview. However, many aspects of on-the-job problem-solving can be assessed by asking a candidate to give you her gut response on how she would react to everyday work challenges.

For example, say the internship requires collecting financial information from busy sales managers on a weekly basis to complete reports. You should ask job seekers what steps they would take to get that data each week. Listen carefully to their word choices, sense of urgency, organizational skills and when (or if) they would escalate a problem to their manager. Although it is highly likely they won't have a perfect answer, if their natural instinct on how to handle the situation aligns with your processes, you will have a much better chance of training them quickly.

2. Homework assignments. Before you jump to a feeling of dread with the word "homework," remember that interns and new graduates regularly do homework. Assigning a potential candidate a real-life homework assignment accomplishes four critical things.

First, it quickly eliminates the lazier candidates who don't want to take on a project (or at least not for your role). A job seeker who is not willing to take the extra step while auditioning for a job is definitely not going to give extra effort once he or she has the position.

Second, you get to see how this candidate would handle something like creating an expense report or writing a sample email to a prospective client. People can typically explain how to do something, but actually having to complete that specific task is a whole different animal. At the end of the day, you are paying your employees to do the work -- not tell you how it should be done. A real-life assignment lets you measure their ability.

Third, you can gauge interest, enthusiasm and overall professionalism in how quickly the project is completed and how the results are delivered.

Finally, if the assignment mirrors everyday responsibilities in the role, the right candidates will actually appreciate exposure to the position to better gauge their interest. This taste of a day in the life helps to minimize the risk of turnover due to an inexperienced employee saying "yes" to a position without really understanding what they accepted.

3. Repeat after me. You may be thinking, "what?" An excellent way to assess a job seeker is to ask them to repeat back what he has heard as the job description, how success will be measured, how you sell your company and other details you may have shared throughout the interview process.

It sounds very elementary, but you will be amazed at how surface-level or incomplete the responses may be to this question. A mature, engaged candidate should have taken notes during interviews, done research on your organization along the way and processed what she learned. In other words, if you hold a high standard for how well someone can repeat after you, you are much more likely to identify a trainable, high-potential employee. This is one of the best ways to gauge ability to prepare, learn, assimilate and apply knowledge. All of these traits are key for entry-level employment success.

There is a huge return on investment if you are able to hire the right intern or new graduate. However, many managers simply interview for personality match rather than assess for potential. A great personality, although nice to have when meeting for lunch, is not an accurate gauge of ability, desire, commitment and potential career success.

Hiring a candidate with little or no experience requires preparation to ensure the interview process results in a candidate who is willing and qualified for your role. Look for ways to incorporate problem-solving and everyday scenarios into the selection process. When you combine those responses with a check for understanding, you will have a much better picture of the candidate's future with your firm.

Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.

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