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High School Internships 101: How to Hire, Manage and Inspire a High School Intern

April 17, 2011

A high school internship with a company or organization can be a life-changing experience for a teenager, an experience that can inspire passion in school, provide motivation to pursue college and create invaluable resume advantages. I know this first hand because I was fortunate enough to have a internship at a company all through high school, working as a computer programmer full-time for two months each summer. By the time I started college I already had eight months of full-time work experience built-up (along with the more typical part-time experience of managing a newspaper route when I was younger). That unique experience of a high school internship continued in college where I pursed a computer engineering degree. The University of Waterloo has a mandatory co-op program where each four-month semester of school is followed by a four-month work term. By the time I earned my degree, my high school internship combined with the college work terms meant I had nearly three years of relevant work experience walking into interviews – a distinct advantage that helped kick-start my career.

While providing internship opportunities to high school students makes perfect sense to me, I’ve discovered that the prospect of hiring and managing a high school intern can be intimidating for many companies. The purpose of this article is to provide practical advice on how to find, hire and manage a high school intern – the experience not only benefits the student but also enables companies and organizations to get work done that would otherwise be left in the “important but not urgent” pile.

Our company successfully hired a high school intern last summer and we have two high school students joining us this summer.

Finding a High School Intern

The first place to start is to contact local public and private high school counseling departments to see if they have an internship program. For many schools, high school internships is an informal process, for others it’s core to the academic program of the school. A well-publicized example is The Cristo Rey Network (profiled on 60 Minutes) where inner city students fund a private school education by working for partnering companies. Our company has partnered with The Menlo School’s Connections Beyond the Classroom program (due to the proximity of the school to our corporate office). Dublin High’s Career Center (led by career education specialist Amanda Carlson) provides more information for Dublin students. If none of your local high schools have a formal program (and many do not), approach the counseling department to see if you can post an opportunity.

Just like you would for a full-time position, write-up a job description. Unlike a full-time position, however, a high school internship job description should be shorter and more general in nature because you will be interviewing and selecting candidates several months before the internship starts. Also cover basics such as the minimum number of hours, whether or not you are located near public transit and whether or not the position is a paid position (many high school internships need to be unpaid for regulatory reasons – something your HR department can confirm). Here is the internship description we recently used:

This position is open to students in grades 10-12 with a strong interest in technology, ideally on a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) track. This is an unpaid internship with flexible working arrangements (but minimum 2-3 days per week, 5-6 hours per day), over the summer break (all or part). We are located in Redwood City and are not easily accessible by public transit.

Depending on the interest and capabilities of the candidate there are multiple opportunities for compelling summer internships:

    • Website Content Authoring: Expanding our direct to consumer website; tasks would include authoring of content on our Content Management System, implementation of SEO recommendations, creation of social networking content (Facebook, Twitter) and more. Strong writing skills required, ideally a candidate with an interest in technology and more than one advanced English courses.
    • Data and Analytics: Running, exporting and formatting ad hoc reporting requests; review, process and analyze web server traffic data; additional automation of reporting requests. Experience with Excel ideal. Strong math background preferred.
    • Product Management / Marketing: Ad hoc research requests into forward-looking topics that may end up on the roadmap in the future, competitive analysis and evaluation of competitor products. Math / science background preferred. Development of content for product marketing materials (presentations, collateral).

For high school counselors it is critical students interested in high school internships create a high quality resume – even a freshman who has never held a job can create a one page resume. Academic and non-academic interests, volunteer work, summer programs and courses taken can all be wrapped up into a solid resume. Learning how to write a resume in high school – and habitually keep that resume up-to-date – is a valuable lesson for students.

Interviewing a High School Intern

With an internship posted and resumes in hand for your high school contact(s) you’ll hopefully have found a candidate you’d like to interview. Here are a few basic tips on making the interview experience fun for you and your fellow interviewers:

  • Have your HR coordinator schedule 15-20 minute interviews – any longer than that will be awkward for you and the student
  • Coach your fellow interviewers about the differences between interviewing a high school student and interviewing a candidate with years of work experience (and years of interview experience). Many of the students you’ll talk to will have little (if any) relevant work experience and likely no interview experience. You aren’t interviewing for experience – you are interviewing for attitude, maturity and excitement about the internship you’ve posted. Ask questions like:
    • “What interested you in applying for this internship?”
    • “Why did you choose the courses you are taking now?”
    • “What are your thoughts about college?”
    • “What is the most interesting school project you’ve completed and what did you learn from the experience?”
  • Don’t expect a high school student to know exactly what they want to do after they graduate, but do expect, and look for, a level of maturity that is appropriate for the internship you’ve posted. And expect the student (and your interviewers) to be nervous. I had one colleague tell me before interviewing an internship candidate “It’s a high school student – I have no idea what I’m going to ask him!” A few minutes coaching each interviewer is time well spent.

Planning for the Internship

With a student (or students) selected schedule a series of short, weekly meetings starting a month before the internship starts with relevant representatives from different departments that could benefit from the intern. The purpose of these meetings (which can be 15-30 minutes long) is to brainstorm on projects – listing out “important but not urgent” ideas for the intern – and stack rank each project that “fits”. A project that fits will have the following characteristics:

  • A project of value to your company or organization – not busy work – but also a project that doesn’t have a tight deadline. If completing the project will take twice as long for a high school student as it would for an employee that’s ok.
  • A project where the student will learn something new.
  • A project that can realistically be completed within the timeframe of the internship (more likely you’ll have a wide variety of projects to choose from – stack rank by fit).
  • A project where supporting the student is realistic – where there can be an identified “buddy” for the intern to confer with if he/she has questions.

In our first meeting last year we generated 15+ ideas of projects (you’ll be surprised how much “important but not urgent” work isn’t getting done when you hold your first planning meeting). As it turned out, one of the projects ended up consuming the entire duration of the internship, and the work produced by our intern last summer still exists on our company’s website today. Ideally a subset of members of this project brainstorming team will have met with the candidates during the interview process and therefore have a good idea of what the student can handle. Most important: high school students are capable of much more than you’ll initially assume!

The First Day

In addition to typical HR orientation activities, on your high school intern’s first day assign this simple project – have the intern write down 2-3 simple goals for the internship – what the student wants to get out of the experience. Your first formal meeting with the student can be to talk about those goals, and talk about the prioritized list of projects you have prepared from the planning sessions described above. Talk about how your company is structured and recommend that the student have lunch every few days with a different person. People love to talk about what they do – and everyone has to eat lunch at some point during the day. If you have a technology-oriented intern, recommend he or she grab lunch with your controller, or corporate attorney. These lunch meetings provide enrichment on top of the internship projects.

The Last Day

On the student’s last day have him or her write a short summary of the experience – what they worked on, what they learned, what was good – and what wasn’t so good. Have the student update their resume with summary bullets from the write-up. This feedback will be invaluable for making your next internship even better, for the student’s high school (that can use the summary to inspire other students) and for the student.

Good luck with your first high school intern. You’ll be amazed what a high school student can accomplish for your company or organization, and how good you feel about the opportunity you’ve created.

Our high school intern (green striped shirt) from last summer

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