Interview tips for landing your dream internship

After being offered an internship position at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP), I wondered what made my interview successful.

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To get a behind-the-scenes perspective on that question, I interviewed Ms. Denise Maines, the Student Affairs Administrator at the IHSP.

Denise Maines was on my interview panel.

Here are her thoughtful answers to my questions about preparing for a successful interview:


What are you looking for in the content of the candidate’s answers?

Accuracy, depth of knowledge, thoughtfulness. I’m always listening for fit with the program.

What about a candidate’s general presentation?

It is perhaps cliché, but a good, firm handshake is often indicative of confidence.  Business casual attire shows that you’ve put in some effort and are taking the interview seriously.  Professionalism and poise certainly go a long way.

What do all successful interns that pass through your organization have in common?

They are self-directed and able to meet deadlines. They are critical thinkers who can do the work their supervisor will ask them to do.  Successful candidates demonstrate how they will apply what they learn with us elsewhere, and what they have to gain from the internship. They need to strike a balance between being qualified for the task at hand, and in need of additional training.  Being over-qualified can thus be detrimental.

What are you not looking for in a candidate?

A red flag is inconsistency.  If a candidate’s answers are contradicting, or if cover letters don’t line up with verbal answers, I become skeptical.

Inability to follow instructions is problematic, and it does not bode well if an applicant is not familiar with the requirements of the internship.

Another red flag is when a student is unwilling to say “I don’t know.”  It’s one thing to take a guess at a question, and frame it as such, but I always prefer hearing a student say “Honestly, I don’t know much about that particular area, but I’m willing to learn or read up if necessary,” than try to convince me they are knowledgeable when it’s clear they are not.

What were some features of the best interview you ever witnessed?

Thoughtful answers.  Even if you need to take a couple of seconds to think before responding, it often pays off.  Humour can also go a long way in demonstrating people skills. Lastly, great interviewees also ask questions.  Not just for clarification, but about the nature of the work, the program, the institute, etc.  This demonstrates that they are making sure we are a good fit for them, which is another key element in a successful internship.

What were some features of the worst interview you ever witnessed?

Disconnect between the program goals and candidate’s answers.   Another turn-off is inability to focus on a question at hand, resulting in rambling, off-topic answers.  It’s better to keep answers brief and ask the interviewers if they would like you to elaborate than to try to pack as much as you can about yourself into every question you’re asked.

I’ve also conducted interviews where the candidate focuses too much on their past experiences (or sometimes just one past experience), and doesn’t make the connection between that past work and the internship they are in the process of interviewing for.

If you had a piece of advice for potential internship candidates at your organization or beyond, what would it be?

Do your homework.  For me, if you can make a clear connection between your goals in terms of an internship and the organization’s mission, it both shows that you’re interested in our program in particular and not just any internship, and also signals to your interviewer that you are keen to benefit from what we have to offer.

Finally, if you’ve made it to the interview, you’re already at the top of the pile, which means you’ve impressed reviewers with your academic ability, your references have written glowing letters about you, and your cover letter demonstrates interest in this particular internship.  The interview is a chance to bring these qualities to life, and find out for both you and for the organization, whether this position is right for you. Special thanks are dedicated to Denise Maines for her insider’s perspective, and for the generous gift of her time!  I also want to gratefully acknowledge the excellent work done by the IHSP, and the rich learning opportunities it offers McGill students.

3 thoughts on “Interview tips for landing your dream internship

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