HIRING

Why Hiring Summer Interns Is Like March Madness

Here are five ways that candidates from less prestigious colleges almost always trump their peers from "elite" schools.
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In my company's annual summer internship hiring madness, candidates from "mid-majors" such as The University of South Carolina, SUNY Oneonta, Trinity University, and the University of Delaware are besting their peers from Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon to advance to the final rounds.

I liken Peppercomm's annual intern hiring process to the NCAA college basketball championship because the competition is just as frenzied: We receive an average of 300 resumes every spring, interview 50 or more promising candidates, and end up offering only eight paid internships.

I must admit to being more than a little intrigued about how students from lesser-known schools often are advancing past the first and second rounds, entering our version of the Sweet 16 and, at this very moment, winning spots among the Elite Eight. Here's what our intern committee found. Their hiring experiences give a good indication of the qualities and accomplishments you should be seeking in your intern candidates.

1. Street Smarts

Ivy Leaguers may possess the academic smarts--the equivalent, to borrow a basketball phrase, of demonstrating perfect foul shooting technique. But, the mid-major student has the street smarts--or, if you will, the ability to improvise and put the ball in the hoop from any distance or angle.

Mid-major prospects realize that coming from, say, Western Kentucky University puts them at a disadvantage when competing for a summer internship at a Manhattan PR firm. So they instinctively raise their game. They land relevant internship experience right after high school through their first two years of college. What's more, schools such as Syracuse actually create student-run PR agencies that provide real work to real clients.

So when the WKU student sits down to interview with our team, he speaks from a position of real, relevant experience. Compare that with the Penn student, who vainly tries to convince the intern committee why her Anthropology 201 class has any relevance whatsoever.

Final score: Western Kentucky 87, Penn 62

2. A Strong Training Regimen

Most mid-major schools typically offer a fully developed public relations/communications major. As a result, the PR major from Northeastern University already knows our industry's trends, issues, and buzzwords. One might liken this to the type of training regimen the Providence Friars used this year to advance to the Big Dance for the first time 11 years. Even though they were eliminated in the first round, the Friars brought their A-game to the tourney.

On the other hand, Ivy Leaguers and students attending such top schools as Stanford or the University of Chicago pursue majors in history, English, or political science because the majority of those elite institutions simply don't recognize PR as being "major worthy." That leaves the prospective intern from Columbia trying to explain why knowing every character in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales makes her the ideal candidate, while the Northeastern student engages in an in-depth discussion about best practices for managing a crisis on social media channels.

Final score: Northeastern 101, Columbia 35

3. Good Coaching

Many mid-major schools actually send teams of students and professors to visit our offices. We've had the pleasure of hosting schools including The College of Charleston, Marist, Fordham, St. John's, and Florida State University. Many of these same schools will invite a member of our intern committee to attend one of their career day fairs on campus. They'll also invite us to guest lecture in their PR and communications classes.

These getting-to-know-you sessions benefit the school and Peppercomm alike. We get a much better feel for some of the prospective candidates before they ever sit down for an interview. Conversely, the faculty gain valuable insight from our professionals about the skills and accomplishments the students will need to secure internships and, later, full-time jobs.

We've yet to receive any such offer from an Ivy League or other elite school. Not a single one has visited our office nor extended an offer to guest lecture or participate in a career day. I don't blame the students. I blame the faculty and administrators. In basketball, poor coaches lose their jobs. That doesn't happen with tenured professors.

Final score: Mid-Majors 88, Elite Schools 0

4. Advance Scouting

Mid-major students almost universally do a far better job of researching our firm and tailoring their resume. One notable candidate actually borrowed David Letterman's shtick, writing a list of "The Top 10 reasons Why Mandy Roth Would Be Peppercomm's Next Top Intern."

Mandy attended Virginia Tech, a fine school, but one that's certainly not regarded the same way as M.I.T. But her creativity and personalized resume got our attention. We brought her in for an interview and hired her on the spot. She's now a junior account executive.

Then there was a guy named Gary from Brown University, who recently sent me a cover note addressed, "Dear Scott." His resume contained any number of typos, but did take great pride in pointing out his 4.0 GPA.

I, in turn, took the time to write him back. I did so:

  • To let him know my first name was Steve, not Scott. (Note: My salutation read "Dear Greg…")
  • To suggest he not rely solely on spell-checker when pursuing his career.
  • To ask if the 4.0 GPA had been just one of the many typos in his resume.

Intern candidates who don't take the time and effort to research you or your firm and suggest specific reasons why they'd be an ideal fit are not worth your time or effort. I'd suggest hitting delete the next time you receive a "Dear Scott" note.

Final score: V-Tech 77, Brown 4.0

5. One-On-One Skills

While there are exceptions to every rule, many mid-major intern candidates will:

  • Thoroughly describe the relevance of their previous employment.
  • Express a clear goal they'd like to achieve during their Peppercomm internship.
  • Listen before speaking.
  • Demonstrate a positive and passionate willingness to do what it takes to succeed.

And, likewise, while we've seen notable exceptions to the Ivy Leaguer rule, many elite candidates will:

  • Bash a previous employer.
  • Mistake PR with advertising, marketing, or sales.
  • Say, "I think I might want to give PR a try."
  • Cop a superior attitude and repeatedly interrupt our employee as she asks questions.

Final score: Mid-major candidates 87, Elite candidates 44

I hope someone in a position of authority at an Ivy League school, Stanford, the University of Chicago, M.I.T., and the other noted bastions of academic greatness will pay attention to this column. Public relations, like many fields, holds nearly limitless career opportunities for candidates with the proper skills and preparation. It's a shame that, when it comes to Peppercomm's Summer Intern Madness, it's almost exclusively the Cinderella candidates that end up winning.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 7, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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