When we interview college students for internships at Reese News Lab, they often assume we are looking for candidates who are masters of a specific skill or who regularly have brilliant ideas.
That’s what worried Reese News Lab intern Sarah Whitmore when she interviewed with us last fall. “On paper, I had told these people that I was innovative, creative, and quick-witted,” she wrote of her interview. “And now, here I was sitting in front of them in person having to be all of those things.”
We like skilled interns who are creative.
But when Executive Director John Clark and I interview applicants, we don’t actually look for those qualities. We don’t have quotas either — we’re not looking for three computer programmers, three journalists, and three business majors, for example.
Instead, we hire a group of students who we think will work well with each other, bring a variety of experiences to the table, have good attitudes, and who are passionate about pursuing new ideas.
So how do we identify those interns?
First, we recruit the most diverse applicant pool that we can. Recruiting a diverse applicant pool is simply the right thing to do in a 21st-century workplace. We’ve also noticed that the ideas generated in the Lab are better when we build teams from a broad mix of backgrounds, experiences and majors.
So in each recruitment period, we advertise our internships all over campus, including in the computer science department, the entrepreneurship minor and the School of Information and Library Science. The UNC Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs has helped us advertise our openings to applicants underrepresented in the startup world.
We ask each applicant to submit a resume and a personal statement. Those materials help us immediately identify strong applicants whose enthusiasm for the Lab jumps off the page.
When we get to the interview stage, we spend about 20 to 30 minutes with each candidate. The two of us (or sometimes three of us) interview each student, asking questions like “Tell us about a time when someone depended on you,” “Tell us about a time when you had a conflict with someone and what you did about that,” and “Tell us about a time when you had a problem and you found a creative solution to it.”
These types of queries — the kind that prompt the candidates to tell us stories about their pasts — are known as behavioral interview questions.
Some people dread behavioral interview questions, but as interviewers, we love them. Getting students to talk about their behavior in the past offers clues to how they’ll behave in the future, when they might be working with us.
We listen carefully to what students say about themselves, listening to the stories they tell about how they’ve approached projects in the past and dealt with obstacles. We look for students who light up when they talk about solving problems. We keep an ear out for candidates who can talk honestly and thoughtfully about how they’ve addressed tricky interpersonal conflicts.
We also look for students who ask us a lot of questions. We love it when students ask questions like, “Why did you start working at the Lab?” “What’s the most successful project to come out of the Lab?” and “What’s it like to work with you?” As the students ask these questions, we look for students who shine with excitement about the idea of joining the Lab.
So, in a nutshell, we hire students based on how we think they’ll work with us and with other students. That’s why, though we love idea machines and skill superstars, you don’t have to be one to work here.