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Conducting Reference Checks for Interns

In our article, Getting the Most From Reference Checks, we explored some important questions to ask when calling professional references for a potential new hire. When making reference calls for a potential new intern hire, however, not all of those best practices translate. Since interns are often still in school and usually have less professional experience, we consider how to adapt some common reference questions to best assess an intern’s fit for the role and screen for any red flags.

Context and Background

Like any reference call, you will want to begin by confirming who the reference is and their relationship to the candidate. For many college and graduate school interns, it’s likely these references will be professors. With that, it’s important to understand exactly how they worked together. Were they a student? A teaching assistant? A research assistant? Or working on an independent project together? Take time to learn about who this person is and how they have worked with the candidate in order to best understand and value their reflections and insights. Here are some examples of questions to get the call started (for simplicity, we’ve chosen a fictional intern candidate named Jamie):

  • Could you confirm your current title and place of employment
  • In what context did you work with Jamie?
  • What projects or areas of research did you work on with Jamie most closely?

Role and Responsibilities

Since references may have varying levels of familiarity with your work, it can be particularly helpful in intern reference checks to provide specifics about the role you’re hiring for. This can help your reference gain insight into your work and consider if they have seen the candidate perform under similar circumstances. For interns, it is quite possible the reference hasn’t seen them in a similar situation. This shouldn’t in and of itself be a deal breaker since it’s expected that interns have less experience than regular job applicants. It’s also important to remain more open to reference responses since the experience an intern brings may not match up as directly with the internship opportunity. For example, you might describe that the internship role you’re hiring for requires attention to detail and punctuality. The reference you speak with is a parent who has hired your intern candidate as a babysitter for the last five years. While the reflections they share might not be office-based, the ability for the intern candidate to show up on time, and note the child’s needs or specific instructions, can demonstrate clear strengths in keeping with what you’re looking for. With that in mind, here are a few questions to consider:

  • What were Jamie’s specific responsibilities when you worked with them? What do you feel were Jamie’s biggest strengths in those responsibilities? What were their biggest challenges and how did they deal with them?
  • In the role we’re hiring for, we are looking for someone who is (characteristics such as adaptable, able to work well in a fast paced environment, etc). How do you think that aligns or stretches Jamie’s strengths and areas for development?

Working and Leadership Style

While you often ask these kinds of questions of a former manager, it can be helpful to hear from professors and others working with intern candidates in an academic capacity about their working style. Additionally, campus jobs like working at the library, dining hall, or as a tour guide are formative experiences that can speak to how an intern candidate takes initiative and encounters their work. School activities like Mock Trial, Chess Club and Student Council can also showcase an intern’s leadership sensibilities. Here are some questions to explore an intern candidate’s working and leadership style:

  • What are your favorite things about working with Jamie?
  • Can you provide an example of a time when Jamie faced a challenge or a great deal of stress and how they handled that situation?
  • (If interviewing a former manager) What are pieces of advice that you have for how to best manage Jamie?

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Reference calls are also an opportunity to learn more about how your intern candidate demonstrates emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage your own emotions as well as the emotions of others. You may find it helpful to ask for examples with this line of questioning in particular in order to get details about how they exhibit these behaviors. Here are a few options to learn more about a candidate’s social and emotional intelligence:

  • Did Jamie have to work in collaboration with others to complete a project? If yes, were you able to get a sense of how he worked with his peers/other staff?
  • In working with others (peers/other staff) either formally or informally, what are two of Jamie’s strengths and two of Jamie’s areas for development when it comes to handling conflict (or unexpected change/uncooperative or unfocused teammates/etc)?
  • What were Jamie’s biggest contributions to the school or campus culture?

Space for last thoughts

A good way to catch any blind spots that may have been in your reference check is to simply ask if you missed anything. It can be a nice opportunity for your reference to share any last reflections, something else that came up for them in answering your questions, or an important insight that didn’t get addressed earlier. Given the larger variance in experiences for intern reference calls, these questions can be particularly important. Some you might consider include:

  • Do you have any questions about the role or what we’re looking for?
  • Is there anything I didn’t ask about Jamie that you think I should know or we didn’t get a chance to talk about?
  • Any last thoughts you’d like to share about working with Jamie?

We hope these questions are helpful as you consider your next intern reference call. We’re also interested in your thoughts on whether these questions have worked for you or if you have others you prefer to ask references for interns you’re considering hiring. Email us at to share your suggestions!

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