Internship training directors across the board emphasize that much of the internship application process boils down to fit between site and student.
The interview, many say, helps determine that fit-of personalities, training goals, supervision styles and other factors-for both sides.
And because many competitive training sites invite half or fewer of their applicants for an onsite or phone interview, students first need a strong application to get their foot in the door. Once they land the interview, it's equally important for them to make a good impression, whether it's a one-on-one Q and A with the training director, a short phone interview or a daylong marathon of meetings with rotation supervisors and current interns.
In this roundtable, the Monitor polls five training directors on winning and making the most out of interviews.
The training directors are:
Pamela J. Epps, PhD, associate director for training, Emory University Student Counseling Center, Atlanta.
Jeanette Hsu, PhD, training director at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif.
Ian R. Nicholson, PhD, director of clinical training, London Health Sciences Centre, Ontario.
Barry A. Schreier, PhD, coordinator of training, counseling and psychological services, Purdue University, and president of the Association of Counseling Center Training Agencies (ACCTA).
Patricia Weger, PhD, director of internship training, Houston Independent School District.
Q. What makes a candidate's application stand out?
Hsu: The personal essay is really important to us. Some students get advice that they shouldn't include anything personal on their application, but we actually want to see who you are, how you are integrating your interests, what is valuable to you and what led you to psychology. You should show in your essays that you've cultivated some specific interests in psychology and are thinking about how internship fits with your career goals. When people are not as coherent in their essays, we think "Who are you?"
Nicholson: Good writing. Some applicants don't put enough thought into the writing; they lose sight of the fact that this is the best writing example we have for them. We have had applications filled with grammatical errors and typos, and it undermines the piece. Also, follow the 500-word limit. After having read dozens of essays each year, we know what qualifies as over the limit. Trust that you can show who you are within the limit, because more is not always better.
Epps: I like to see an application letter that highlights for me what to look for in the other pages in their application, that is a road map for all their materials. Also, if you have done a practicum at a site similar to the site you are applying to, it's very important to have a letter of recommendation from that site. If you don't, it raises eyebrows-they want to know how you function at a site like theirs.
Q. How important is an applicant's practicum hour count?
Schreier: When ACCTA surveyed its membership in 2003, training directors ranked the number of practicum hours low: It was ranked on average 15th out of 39 criteria they were looking for in an intern. Practicum hours can be important, but they can also be a meaningless measure because a good, efficient student may not need as many hours as another one who needs more time.
Hsu: It's not the number as much as the quality and the kind of hours. We want to know how many of those hours are supervised and about the quality of their supervision. We take people with low hours, but we would ask them more about their case conceptualization and treatment experiences in their interviews. When they have too many hours, we wonder how they could have done this along with all the other graduate school tasks they need to do well.
Epps: We have a minimum-400 hours-and we get some applicants each year who think we don't mean that. But even if you are the most wonderful candidate in the world, if you don't meet the minimum for us, we won't read your application.
Q. What sort of qualities or responses are you looking for during the interview?
Epps: We like to hear how they worked with a certain client and specifically what problems they had. Don't just share what you did that was great, but the areas you feel like you need to grow in. I really am impressed when someone says, "I wish I had done such and such." That gives us a sense of what you will be like to supervise, and that you will be insightful and reflective.
Hsu: We watch how they connect with us and the current interns, and it's an opportunity for us to see how they manage a stressful situation and will function on a team.
Some people have negative interactions with other candidates that we pick up on. If they seem really competitive, they might not be a very good member of the intern class. We don't want someone who can't share and work well with others.
Q. What are the best-and worst-questions students can ask during the interview?
Nicholson: The best questions are those that are thoughtful and indicate that you have an understanding of our program and want to see that you would fit in during the training year. Two types of questions are problematic: Those meant as a way to show off and those that indicate that you haven't read our manual or that we don't stand out for you.
Epps: I really like questions that flow from the conversation, that show that the applicant has really been thinking about the dialogue and the questions we're asking them.
Schreier: We do phone interviews, and "Where is Purdue?" is our least favorite question. We want candidates to know our site and to ask specific questions about the nature of certain rotations. We also often get good questions about how we handle conflict, which cues to me that they are also thinking about a fit.
Weger: We appreciate when they seem interested in what life is like in the Houston area, because that gives us an idea that they might really want to come to Houston for internship.
Q. Should a candidate share details about their dissertation status in their application or on the interview?
Hsu: I like to make sure they are in progress with their dissertation, because it makes a difference for their experience if they are well on their way versus just starting. If they are still collecting data, it can be very hard on them during internship, especially if they are trying to work with their data and adviser long distance.
Weger: Applicants should definitely discuss their dissertation status and their research topic because it may be on something about which one of the staff has a particular interest or the setting may have a need for that particular area of expertise. And the interviewers need to know how the completion or noncompletion of the dissertation will affect the intern's workload. Interns should also check the program's requirements. Some programs require that the dissertation be completed prior to internship; others may require that the proposal be approved and data collected.
Q. Anything else students should keep in mind throughout the application process?
Nicholson: If you don't get an interview, it's not necessarily because we think you're a bad candidate. We may have 40 excellent applicants, and we can only interview 20. And sometimes the difference between candidates 19 and 21 is awfully small.
Weger: Students should also look at the interview process as way to meet other colleagues through contact with other intern candidates and internship administrators; they are establishing their own colleague network at this point. It's also an opportunity to learn about a variety of service models and job settings, whether they end up at the site or not.
Schreier: When I was an intern candidate, the advice from the current interns I met at one site was to just be yourself because if it's a fit, it's a fit. It's very decent advice, because if you are yourself, the fit will become obvious.