The Hill Life: Hiring an Intern

Apr 25, 2012

A Hill office is a pyramid.  Interns at the bottom of the pyramid funnel phone calls, constituent mail and other correspondence to the top of the pyramid.  If there is a breakdown at the bottom of the pyramid–an intern who is rude on the phone, who hides mail (yes, this happens) or gives bad tours–it undermines everything happening at the top of the pyramid.  Why?

Because stories and letters to the editor about rude staffers and mail answered months after it was sent have juice.  Many people believe that Congress is lazy, unresponsive and disconnected with a holier-than-thou attitude.  Stories about bad staffers and negative interactions with an office feed that narrative.  So making sure that the interns (who have lots of interaction with contituents) are solid performers should be at or near the tippy top of your priority list.

And since it’s officially intern-hiring season, I thought I would catalog some of the things that I look for when hiring an intern.  These are not hard and fast rules, and you may not agree, but this is some insight into what I’m thinking when I read resumes.

Ask and Receive. I am a big believer that intern job listings should always ask for three things: a cover letter, a resume and a writing sample.  Because you would be shocked by how many job seekers fail to provide either the cover letter or the writing sample. 

I might read the writing sample, I might not.  But the fact that you remembered to include one shows that you can follow directions.  Also, whether you give me a 10 page paper on Proust or a one page press release says a lot about you.

Privacy Matters. I Google all of my intern candidates.  All of them.  Facebook and Twitter, too.  If their privacy settings aren’t set properly, that’s a red flag.  If there’s inappropriate content on the site, that’s an automatic disqualification.  Not everything that happens in Congressional office is private, but some things are.  I like to know that someone understands how to keep things close to the vest.

photo c/o Good Blog

Prior Preparation is Preferred. The best interns usually have some previous work experience, preferrably in a clerical field.  Maybe they had an on-campus job or worked at a family business or answered phones in a campaign office. Maybe they fried frozen cow parts at Burger King, whatever it is, I like interns with a paid job on their resume.  It might just be me, but I am always suspicious of a person who is 20+ years of age and has never had a real job. 

I Never the Ego.  This is a personal preferrence, but I try to avoid hiring overtly political people.  You know the type: President of the College Republicans/Young Democrats, says in his interview he wants to be President some day, quotes political luminaries in his cover letter, has a political blog where he expounds his feelings on the Fair Tax.  You know, That Guy.

That Guy is trouble.  T-R-O-U-B-L-E.  He’s the kind of person who will start every sentence for the next two years with, “Well, when I was interning on the Hill…”  The kind of guy who will tell his family and friends the details of a back office conversation he overheard, event he attended or phone call he answered.  The kind of guy whose ego is so big that it smothers his common sense and leads him to do things that promote him at the expense of others. The last thing you need is to have an egotistical half-wit out there trading on your Boss’s name. 

Question Marks.  Beyond the obvious questions about their education, their political leanings, their interest in the position and their prior work experience, I have some other questions that I like to ask.  

I usually ask prospective interns what books they’re reading and what periodicals they read.  You’d be horrified at how many don’t read or struggle to think of the “right” answer.  There is no right answer.  If you say you read InStyle and the Hunger Games, it’s not ideal, but your reaction was to be honest.  I like that.  You can gain insight into a person by their reaction to a question that they probably didn’t rehearse.  So no matter what you ask about, throw a curve ball in there.  

I also like to ask what they hope to learn during their internship.  If they haven’t thought about that, I wonder how seriously they’re taking this opportunity.  For every intern hired, there’s at least one disappointed, so I want to someone who wants it and has expectations of what she wants to learn and achieve.  

What do you look for when hiring an intern?  Are there any red flags that automatically disqualify a candidate?  What about things that you love to see or hear?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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  1. Stephanie says:

    I work at a local government agency. I like to ask prospective intern candidates to tell me what they know about my agency. It's shocking how many candidates say, “Um, not much.” I automatically disqualify those candidates. We have a website with annual reports, our statute, etc., so it's not difficult to find the basics. The fact that they didn't do any research prior to the interview is a big red flag. I'm also suspicious of candidates who ask no questions during the interview.

  2. SK345 says:

    I ask potential interns what they know about my state/boss – the ones that wax on and on about a particular policy area they like (that my boss isn't even a champion of) or can't come up with anything specific tells me they haven't done their homework. It's actually unbelievable how many potential interns can't come up with anything when it takes 2 seconds to read a bio on our website. I had one that (no joke) told me he wouldn't even be able to recognize my boss if he walked in a room.

  3. MB says:

    I am so happy I am not the only one who thinks it is important for prospective interns to have had a paid job! Any paid job will do, really.

    I also discount interns that have resumes longer than 1 page. It's just not necessary for an intern, under any circumstances. I appreciate brevity.

    I prefer that interns send their cover letters in the body of the email (assuming they are emailing me directly, not applying through an online system) because I think that having the only text in the email something be like, “I am applying for the internship” looks weird.

    I also strongly prefer that resumes are send as a PDF, unless a Word document is explicitly requested, a PDF is a better choice as it preserves formatting. I work in communications so I expect our intern applicants to have a higher developed sense of design and new media best practices than I might in another field.

    I am trying to hire an intern right now actually and have been utterly uninspired by all of the applicants so far.

  4. m says:

    I don't work on the hill, but I do work in an industry where customer interface is crucial (marketing/PR). I tend to ask my interns what type of learners they are (this lets me know if my management style and my office's style will be a good fit for them) and, if they've had work experience, the way they work best (team work, tasked assignments, research, etc.).

  5. r says:

    I strongly second the “prior preparation” point. When I used to hire interns, I'd describe in full detail the amount of clerical work and phone answering they'd have to do. If they still managed to sound enthused (or, even better, explained that they'd done administrative work before), it was usually a good sign that they'd be a successful intern.

  6. KP says:

    This is a minor thing but anyone that doesn't have a professional email address (no surfergurlz25) should be disqualified.

  7. Cara says:

    KP – I cringe whenever I see email addresses like that. It shows a lack of common sense.

  8. KR says:

    “Beyond the obvious questions about their education, their political leanings, they're interest in the position and their prior work experience, I have some other questions that I like to ask.”

    their = possessive
    they're = they are

    also, its = possessive; it's = it is. It really takes away from what is otherwise a fantastic post and blog in general.

  9. E says:

    Damn KR slow your roll. It is Wednesday. Good job Belle!

  10. AG says:

    I'm in the process of applying for summer internships and wanted to follow up on MB's point–do many of you prefer to receive a cover letter in the body of an e-mail or as a separate attachment? Little things can make a difference!

  11. Ellie says:

    AG- def in body. It's a pain to DL and print out extra attachments. Or, combine everything into one pdf.

  12. Belle says:

    KR: I've been doing better with those. I wrote this at 2:00AM, but I have been making an effort lately to fix my dyslexic homophone issues.

  13. anonymous, but regular, reader says:

    The best intern I ever hired in a political office was a fellow who had taken a year off school to take care of his dying grandparent. It was an unusual thing for a young man to have done that, and further for him to think to put it on his resume. It showed me he was a man of empathy and conviction, and had a good heart, which are two things of great importance as an intern for many of the reasons Belle has outlined. I fought hard to keep him in my office after his internship was up, but he was hired away from me (presumably because others could also see his outstanding qualities) and became very successful in the field. I always look now, when hiring political staff or interns, for that unusual thing that connects the candidate in a personal and real way to helping people, no matter their field of education or career goals.

  14. Melissa says:

    As someone who has been on the other side of the “What are you reading” question, I get annoyed when people ask me that. It makes me think that the interviewer is judging me based on the fact that I read InStyle at night before I go to bed (because I don't have the energy to do anything else) and not realizing that I would actually make a great employee. Personally, after three years of law school, I am too exhausted to read anything else in my down time.

    I think other questions like “what is your opinion on X policy?” or “what is your favorite class” can get a similar insight without making them feel like you are judging them on how they use their off time.

  15. Miss says:

    Does anyone take issue with candidates who have facial piercings? I am a writer by profession and graduated college just a few years ago. I have a tiny little nose piercing (a stud, not a ring) that I keep in, regardless of interviews or the type of company I work for. I've worked in numerous industries and in different types of positions, but I've never found the nose piercing to be a problem. I currently work for a government consultant where much of my job involves meeting with government agency representatives and I often find the the nose piercing can work in my favor as a symbol of my “creativity” or whatever as a writer. But, I wanted to see how people who are hiring young jobseekers view the facial piercing situation.

  16. Belle says:

    Melisaa the point of asking the question is that it's NOT policy related. Also, that most people won't prepare for it. If I only ask questions that you can prepare for, i won't know if you can think on you feet.

  17. Belle says:

    Ag i like cover letters in the body. But it needs to be a real letter. At least two paragraphs. No just see attached or one sentence.

  18. V says:

    I'm not a Republican but I would kill to be your intern.

  19. Shannon says:

    Once you've been asked to estimate the number of gas stations in the United States, “What do you read?” is a walk in the park.

    As a longtime administrative professional, I'll say a frustration we often encounter is that we will be responsible for training and working with the interns, but we frequently have no say-so in the hiring process. So we wind up training and interacting with complete turkeys. The hiring manager will look at the “gold star” stuff like GPA or activities, but will not check to see if the intern has the right kind of attitude for the mundane and repetitive nature of an internship. As in, they need to be willing to put their heads down and get to work.

    One of my lowest points was being saddled with two pretty princess interns at a conference registration desk, who were more interested in networking and chitchatting than actually signing people in or cross-checking lists. My requests to cross-check their lists (ie, make sure everyone was signed in) was met with stony silence or protests of, “But that's booooooring!” Their shoddy efforts left me with hours of additional paperwork. (Yes, I informed their supervisor, though they were the supervisor's pets and there were no consequences.)

    So a few things for hiring managers of interns: 1. Let your administrative staff in on the interviews if at all possible. We often work the most closely with interns and have a good sense of who is there to actually work and learn, and who is there to get a line on a resume. 2. Be very clear about what the job entails, ie, “You will spend 75% of your time on the following clerical tasks, and 25% on this semi-interesting project.” If you sell the intern on all the funzie pony rides, and then they show up on their first day and are given a stack of papers to collate, it's going to breed resentment. And since most of those collating tasks come from the administrative staff, it's our headache. 3. Always hire the college kid who concludes the interview with, “Thank you for the opportunity.” It shows humility and class. I've never been led wrong by a student who said that.

  20. Melanie says:

    Belle — can you elaborate on writing samples? What do you look for?

  21. Beka says:

    Your Fair Tax example is so, so, so on! The egos I have had as interns… ugh.

    I also always leave my door open so I can see/hear how the intern greets the reception staff upon arriving. I think that says a lot about a prospective intern.

  22. Belle says:

    Melanie-Ideally I want to see a one page or two page sample. I would accept a press release. A short news article. Blog post. Short essay on something pertinent. Any other suggestions, folks?

  23. gingerr says:

    I don't mind people who mention how many words a minute they can type.

  24. former intern coordinator says:

    As for the writing samples, if they ask for something specific, for the love of all that is good in the world, provide that! At least make it relevant, and definitely not more than two pages. I spent two long years as an intern coordinator (8 intern classes!) and even though we specifically stated that writing samples should be 1-2 pages on domestic policy issues, I can't count the number of 30-page tomes we got on the intricacies of the situations in Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Colombia, etc. Beyond just following directions, you need to show that you are knowledgeable and INTERESTED in the work that they do. And if that means you have to write a special little paper just for that internship, do it well, and weave that modestly into your cover letter somehow – they'll appreciate knowing that you made the extra effort for them. Saying “Most of my papers for school/prior internships focused on…..instead of the preferred ……so I put together this writing sample in an effort to be more relevant to your firm. I hope that's suitable” would do great.

    As for other things I would look for (and I understand this may be touchy), we became very cautious of interns whose only work experience was at some sort of law/professional firm that happened to have their last name attached to it. We ended up with too many kids who filed papers for daddy and had made it sound like some sort of legitimate grown up position. Not only did they rarely have the experience we were looking for, but they also usually had huuuuuuuuuge issues with boundaries, authority, and professionalism in general. This is not to say all family business experience is bad, but if you are an intern who is considering putting that on your resume, you need to make sure there was a professional aspect to it that is transferable to a real world office.

    I always made it a practice to check with the receptionist to see if they were friendly and if there were any immediate interpersonal red flags. We dodged a few personality bullets that way, I think.

  25. Theresa says:

    I second V (even though I lean more conservative) – I would love to be Belle's intern!

    A second question – I was a week-long camp director and assistant director for a tri-state church camp. It was unpaid/volunteer position (though it was an elected position) – is it okay to put that on your resume? I hesitate putting anything about religion on there but it taught me a lot and was an amazing work experience as far as being a supervisor to staff/campers as well as the administrative parts of the job (coming up with a week-long thematic program, etc). Thoughts?

  26. Belle says:

    Theresa: That def counts. You were in charge of little lives. I would put the name of the camp, but if it were me, I wouldn't say anything else about it being a religious camp. Many summer camps are, so I don't think it's the problem, but I wouldn't emphasize that unless I was looking for religiously-based work.

  27. HMSP says:

    I regularly hire interns and there are several things I look for: Organized resume format (a MUST, and does not need to be one page), spelling, writing and basic office experience. Things that turn me off: Inability to listen to directions and not filling out the application correctly. If it says no calls, don't call. Please write a different cover letter for each internship you are applying to and make sure each organization is spelled correctly. Weirdly enough, hand written applications – it's 2012 and I can not read your handwriting. It's also a vibe thing if the applicant is called in for an interview. If you can't answer the questions to fill up 30 minutes by giving me more than the “yes” “no” answers I'm wondering if you can take initiative in your office duties and communicate well with others. Tips: Give a firm hand shake, send your documents (esp. resume) as a PDF and follow up all interviews with a thank you email/note.

  28. Esther says:

    Recently, a former coworker (and friend) asked for help finding a better position as she was uninformed on basic application processes. I assisted her with the wording on her resume, and sent a sample of my cover letter with the job announcement to the position for which it was written.

    After several interviews without a successful job offer, I started to question what the cover letter had said, what questions were asked of her in the interview, and if she had sent a thank you letter. She started by telling me that she had felt the interviews had gone well, and that she was not able to send a thank you letter because she could not remember the interview’s name. I asked if she had requested a business card following the interview, and she had not. I also found out that she had sent my exact cover letter and replaced only the job title/employer, her degree, and the pertinent contact information. I do not understand how anyone could assume that their previous work experience, training and skills were the exact replica of anyone else. Even if that person did the exact same job duties during the time they worked together. And then there is the obvious problem. How could a person with a college degree believe that copying word for word from another person, and then passing that off as their own writing (even on something as trivial as a cover letter), was an okay practice? It is my opinion that the interviewer must have found a wide discrepancy between the details portrayed in the cover letter and the person sitting before them.

    Needless to say, I have since asked her to remove me from her reference list, and refused to give anything more than general guidance when helping others seek career opportunities.

    Please take time to ask individuals to expound on the exprience they stated in their cover letters.

  29. JC says:

    As a law student, I share Melissa's sentiments about the “what are you reading” question. I understand the need to ask applicants something they were not expecting, but that particular question really irks busy students. After interviewing for internships on the hill/agencies (applicants not all law students) as well as summer associate positions, I think a better question to ask is “What do you like to do for fun?” When asked the reading question at a hill interview, I instinctively responded “Do you mean other than the newspaper and my casebooks?” It got a laugh but then the interviewer quickly moved onto the next question and I felt like I missed an opportunity to show my personality. You would think the “fun” question I got from law firms would yield a similar response, but one interviewer advised me to consider it more like, “What is something non-school related you wish you had more time for?” Seeing the question like that made ALL the difference. (You can't lie and say I horseback ride for fun if you haven't been on a horse in months, but you can say I love horseback riding and wish I had time to join a stable community again.)

    I also think interviewers who are used to seeing incredibly busy people are more understanding of an answer like “I devote a lot of time to school and my part-time job, but during what little free time I have, I like to catch up with my friends and family.” As a tip to interviewees, even a simple answer like this can help you segue into an interesting conversation that shows your personality (i.e., “A lot of my friends are in medical school, and given my interest in health care policy, it's fun to see the issues from their perspective.”).

    Basically, if I was interviewing internship candidates, I would reserve the “what are you reading” question to candidates whose resumes suggest they have time for casual reading (and definitely for those I suspect do not read at all!).

    One last tip from a mentor I found really helpful: Internships are about learning. Of course show your knowledge of a relevant topic, but don't pretend like you're an expert. Intern supervisors want quick and enthusiastic learners who won't need babysitting. Thanks for the great post, Belle!

  30. r says:

    Re: the “what are you reading?” question. I think some interviewees are taking the question a bit too seriously. If you aren't reading anything (aside from all of those serious things), you can answer with something you've read “recently” or is on your “must read list.” Use the question as a way to highlight something about yourself that wouldn't have gotten a chance to bring up otherwise. For those of you in politics– you should be masters of the “pivot!”

  31. Lindsey says:

    I realize that I’m commenting on an old piece, but I found it really helpful. I’m applying for both internships and paid positions and I appreciate the advice.

    Any recommendations on where to find information about open spots? I took a look at the page ( I was wondering if you had any additional ideas.


    Also, great job on SEO! This was the second item on my google search, even after all this time.

  32. Lauren says:

    Hey, I’m a Political Science major hoping to get an internship next summer and am wondering about the GPA standard. I am a pretty good student, B average, but this last semester with Ancient Greek earned me a C. How critical is it to have a 4.0 GPA? Should I give up all hope or is the intern pool diverse in their characteristics?

    • Belle says:

      Adorable. I’ve never met anyone who cares about GPA vis a vis hiring an intern. You know what you need? EXPERIENCE. Go volunteer on a campaign, or a grassroots canvassing op for a cause you care about. That would get my attention. “Oh, she already know how to talk to people and discuss issues, and has some vague idea how this all works?” That’s the inter I want. It’s the intern everyone wants. Because in this business, your GPA is not important, your work ethic, people skills and interest level are.

      Good luck!

  33. MOLly T. says:

    Hello! I realize this post is a bit dated, but I am hoping to get some current feedback. I am a non-traditional student (out of academic pipeline for more than 10 years -in my 30s) and expect to complete a dual major next year and a master degree the following year. I looked at some paid summer internship opportunities, but am little hesitant to apply. I am active in my school but I am worried that my extensive work history (and age)may turn potential employers off. Can anyone shed some light on what I should be prepared for if I pursue an internship?

    • Belle says:

      Hi Molly:

      You’re back in school, so just make it clear in your cover letter that you are looking to restart your career in a new field and that you believe an internship would help for the following reasons. Also explain that because you have a lot of experience in your prior field, you will be more office ready when it comes to skills like operating software, answering phones, maintaining decorum with visitors, etc.


      • Molly Therese McCabe says:

        Thank you for the your response and insight. This is certainly helpful and encourages me to be more confident moving forward.

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