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.
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.