Stack OverflowGood (non-code) interview questions for college intern candidates
[+32] [25] Eric
[2010-02-26 15:40:52]
[ career-development ]

Next week I'm beginning several rounds of interviews for a company wide technical intern program. Many of these candidates are only sophomores or juniors and have little programming experience. They can do basic data structures, regurgitate algorithms and the like, but they have little or no professional coding experience in an enterprise environment.

So, given that fact, I try and ask questions that show a passion for computing and software development. Basically what I want to know is, do these people love the idea of being a software developer? I have a few questions that I always like asking to see if the candidate gets excited or passionate about, but I'm looking for more. I have some simple language agnostic coding questions too, but I'm not trying to focus on those. We're only going to have these people for three months so we really just want someone who is ready to jump in any try anything (while being appropriately cautious :)

Here are the questions I generally use:

Does anyone have any other questions they use quite a bit for this purpose? Like I said, I'm looking for passion (or dare I say nerdiness :) but I don't want to get too technical.

Update This question was closed as a duplicate. I don't feel as though the "duplicates" answered the specific question I was asking. Yes, they asked about non-technical interview questions, but I'm specifically wondering about intern recruiting. 20 plus responses seems to indicate that there are plenty of people willing to respond.

Update 2 for now the question appears to be open again :)

(4) This should be a wiki, also see:… Re-tagged as subjective - Adam W
I saw that question - but there weren't a lot of specific answers - and I'm interested in questions for candidates with little to no experience. And I'm not sure how to go about making this a wiki :) - Eric
(1) @Eric : here are all the answers you need about community wiki :… - Valentin Rocher
So you are looking for passion. But are YOU passionate enough? If so, it shouldn't be a problem for you to invent some new questions yourself, you have a whole week for doing that. - Alex_coder
(2) @alex_coder - I'm not sure that questioning my passion for software development has any relevance on the question at hand. I simply thought I would appeal to the collective experience of the community as many people here have had more experience generating these types of questions than I have. You're implying I'm either too lazy or too incompetent to create my own questions - but what is a site like this for if not to utilize the experience of the community that visits it? - Eric
If their answer to "least favorite website" isn't one of the classic shock-sites, then either they've never been on the internet, or they have really awful taste! - Ken
I think this is a good, non-dupe question. - Paul Nathan
Should be reopened as CW. Duplicate questions do not specifically address college interns/low experience candidates. - EmFi
@gnovice: Interns are not regular programmers. - Paul Nathan
@Paul: This question is asking about how to gauge a candidates "soft" skills and passion for programming as opposed to strictly their technical ability. As such, there is no difference whether the candidate is an intern, "regular" programmer, or advanced programmer. Reading the answers below, they are very general and aren't specific to interns, and most of them say exactly the same stuff already covered in the duplicates I linked to. This question doesn't add anything new. - gnovice
@gnovice - I would argue that the same questions used to gauge the passion of 20 year veteran programmers would be different than those to gauge the passion of interns. For example, you could ask a veteran programmer the question below about a project they worked on that failed, though most interns would not have that experience. Further, I don't know that having a question that covers some of the same ground as a previous one is a particularly bad thing - as people who may not have had a chance to weigh in on a previous question may want to weigh in on this one. What can it hurt? - Eric
@Eric: People can still weigh in on the previous question, assuming they have something different to say than what is already there. Allowing people to post redundant answers to redundant questions just so they can earn Rep and get a warm fuzzy feeling is not the purpose of SO. The purpose is to get answers, and if those answers already exist then there's no reason to repost them. Also, I don't see anything new or specific to intern candidates in these answers. - gnovice
@gnovice - oh yes, I definitely want to add something to a question that was asked months ago that no one is currently reading and is not actively being discussed. That's what SO is all about right?? In my experience once a question is more than a couple days old it's pretty much dead in terms of discussion and new material. By asking similar questions every so often, different people get a chance to join in the discussion. Why is this bad? To be frank, you seem like you're kind of an elitist - do remember we're on a free community site that encourages discussion. - Eric
@Eric: No, I'm not an elitist. I'm someone who has read the FAQ, and maybe you should too. It clearly states "Please look around to see if your question has already been asked (and maybe even answered!) before you ask." If someone accidentally asks a duplicate, that's not a big deal. But purposefully asking duplicates is frowned upon by the community. Please also note that when you answer an old question, it gets bumped to the top of the active list, giving it more visibility to users. And do remember we're on a Q&A site, not a discussion site. - gnovice
@gnovice - Wow dude, you need to relax a little bit - the world won't end if 24 people answer a question you think is duplicate. Chill. - Eric
@Eric: I'm quite relaxed. I'm simply addressing some misconceptions you seem to have about SO. - gnovice
@gnovice - I have no misconceptions. I looked around SO before asking my question and didn't find anything that had answers that addressed interns specifically. Just because some of the answers here are similar to others does not mean the question itself is a dupe. I am not so petty as to ask a question simply to boost my reputation as you imply. Perhaps it's you that has misconceptions about my intent. I had a legitimate inquiry that was not previously addressed, and I am done trying to defend myself. Further, the community spoke and reopened the question after it was closed as duplicate. - Eric
[+16] [2010-02-26 15:55:23] Jay Jackson

My favorite is "tell me about a recent development project you worked on?" Ask that and let the interviewee speak, but look for passion in HOW they answer. Does he/she get wide-eyed and animated as they describe the project?

Other ones I like that will tell you if they keep up with the latest knowledge in the field:
"Tell me about a recent software development book you read".
"What do you think the next big trend will be in 3 years?"

Good luck finding your candidates!

(2) +1 for the "What do you think the next big trend will be" - that's kind of a nice open ended question that hopefully someone would get excited about - Eric
(2) I am not a fan of any of these for college sophomores. These are questions for software engineers working in the field. A CS program is there to teach you theory. - danben
@danben: Sure, but they will have done class projects, and ideally will have had exposure to books. Just don't expect big projects or a lot of exposure to different books. - David Thornley
[+15] [2010-02-26 15:44:54] Oded [ACCEPTED]

Look for interest outside of college/university:

  • What was your first computer (and what age)?
  • Did you program on it?
  • What was your first language?


  • Are you involved in any open source projects?
  • Which ones?
  • Personal projects?
  • What kind?

Oh I like that question! - Eric
(8) +1. The good candidates will have been programming since they were young. The ones who didn't pick it up till college are the ones to avoid. Look for enthusiasm about something they've programmed, no matter how small. - Kylar
+1 @Kylar I absolutely agree with you, maybe I should avoid telling future employers that I didn't know what programming was until my first day of CompSci class in college - masenkablast
(14) @Kylar I'm not so sure this is necessarily true. Maybe it was just my school, but I have plenty of friends who went on to work at Microsoft and Amazon as programmers that didn't have a lick of programming knowledge before freshman year. I agree that early programming is a good sign, but the lack of it is not necessarily bad. - smoore
(22) @Kylar: Lol, so your saying that if people didn't do it before their college they're bad? A chemist is bad when he didn't do chem before college? Managers suck who haven't managed before college? It's rubbish. People evolve, gain interest in different things. You need to judge people according to how they are now. - PoweRoy
(6) @smoore - I agree. FWIW, my girlfriend didn't know how to code before college and she will be joining Google in June. Furthermore, there are a lot of great programmers who studied math or physics or something and didn't start coding until even later than college. I would prefer logic and problem-solving aptitude to raw experience. - danben
@Kylar I agree with you about enthusiasm, but I don't think it matters when a programmer wrote their first line of code (exception: if they wrote their first line of code the day before the interview) - ampersandre
I agree that early programming experience is not sufficient or necessary in terms of making a great candidate, but in my experience those people are the most passionate. I'm sure people who started freshmen year can be good as well, but many of them are not as passionate and therefore don't strive to learn all they can. - Eric
(3) In my experience programmers who started early on their own usually have a very strange view about how things should be done. Imho a student who learned it in college has a better... lets call it fundamental knowlegde regarding best practices, etc. - whiskeysierra
(8) moral of comments: Danben's gf is going to join google - Rakesh Juyal
(1) I first started programming at the age of 21 and I wish to believe I am or could become a good coder....:-) The age is not at all a factor. There are cases were people have learned Medicine at the age of 65. All that matters is interest. - Christy John
It is an unfair expectation to assume a good programmer will have started when they were young, for a multitude of reasons. Some people's family's couldn't afford computers when they were young, their high school didn't offer programmer classes, etc. Asking what they're interested in or what projects they've worked on is a much better indication. - Zachary
* What was your first computer (and what age)? - Intel 386 - windows 95 * Did you program on it? - No. I only play games on it. * What was your first language? - Basic * Are you involved in any open source projects? - No. * Which ones? - NA * Personal projects? - No. * What kind? NA. Am I selected? - Manoj R
[+11] [2010-02-26 18:29:30] bta

Ask them what their current reputation value is on StackOverflow.

(16) Avoid those with a high value, they spend too much time here instead of working ;-) - josefx
[+6] [2010-02-26 17:59:08] Uri

My experience from teaching is that most students (in the degree or afterwards) always write code from scratch based on a very accurate spec. They have limited experience in understanding existing code, playing nicely with it, and figuring out vague requirements or asking followup question.

In reality, however, most of their work will be modifying or adding to existing code, and the requirements will not be clear.

Therefore, find some code in your program that is not super straightforward, ask them what it does. Then, ask them to make a modification or write something that uses it. that will tell you a lot.

I agree that you should avoid the usual cookie-cutter algorithm / data structure questions that every company uses and that college students collaboratively build databases on. In a short summer, you want to get the most bang for the buck, and more importantly, with minimal damage to your product. A bad intern is worse than no intern at all.

[+5] [2010-02-26 18:28:22] Bob Kaufman

A good one for me has been "What's the last cool thing you learned?". This one works on both sides of the interview table, BTW.

A few months ago, I was interviewing for a position. It was the dev team interviewing me. The interview was going well enough, but something was just... not right. I asked this question of the team and they just all stared at me. The interview went south at this point, and I felt this was just as well. It would not have been a good fit for me.

+1 - I'm definitely adding this one to my list. This is a total softball question that I would love if someone asked me! - Eric
[+4] [2010-02-26 15:46:56] smoore

From JoelOnSoftware [1]:

In the past, I’ve used “impossible questions,” also known as “back of the envelope questions.” Classic examples of this are “How many piano tuners are there in Seattle?” The candidate won’t know the answer, but smart candidates won’t give up and they’ll be happy to try and estimate a reasonable number for you. Let’s see, there are probably… what, a million people in Seattle? And maybe 1% of them have pianos? And a piano needs to be tuned every couple of years? And it takes 35 minutes to tune one? All wrong, of course, but at least they’re attacking the problem. The only reason to ask a question like this is that it lets you have a conversation with the candidate. “OK, 35 minutes, but what about travel time between pianos?”

“Good point. If the piano tuner could take reservations well in advance they could probably set up their schedule to minimize travel time. You know, do all the pianos in Redmond on Monday rather than going back and forth across 520 three times a day.”

A good back-of-the-envelope question allows you to have a conversation with the candidate that helps you form an opinion about whether they are smart. A bad “Aha!” pirate question usually results in the candidate just sort of staring at you for a while and then saying they’re stuck.


(3) I personally like these questions alot. However, most of the college intern candidates are so nervous and afraid of giving the wrong answer that they refuse to really dig in to the question. This definitely says something about the candidate to be sure, but I really want to get them talking about themselves. - Eric
While it's good to ask about things like fav software and what they do in their spare time that indicate their interest in computers, it won't clue you in as to how good they are at solving problems. These questions are kind of a non-programming way of finding out if they have a good programming mindset. - smoore
Another point might be that you WANT candidates who perform well under pressure. You don't want someone who freezes up when you ask them to accomplish something difficult. Everyone is nervous, but a good programmer/problem solver can still solve difficult questions under pressure. - smoore
I wish I could favourite this answer :) - Aishwar
(4) -1. The most stupid advice and an idiotic question to ask. If you want someone to program, talk about programming. Otherwise go to some bar, hook up with somebody, get drunk then have all kinds of nonsense talk about piano tuners, ponies, whatever. - Developer Art
(1) -1 These type of questions are a waste of time and by no means indicate the quality of the candidate. Pressure cooking candidates with silly questions needs to be stopped. - Rev316
[+4] [2010-02-26 15:50:40] alpav

Since any good program is well organized piece of information I suggest to ask about passion to organize things (books, files, anything), passion towards good names (variable names, web domain names, file names, ...).

(7) You really don't want to see the desks and cubes and offices of some very good programmers I've known. - David Thornley
+1 - I definitely agree that attention to detail and even a little obsessive compulsive behavior can be a good thing when dealing with software :) - Eric
(1) @David: We should distinguish between 1) knowledgeable programmers who can hack things quickly and 2) those who can sustain code development for a long period of time without redesigning it from the bottom. If you were talking about #2 then I guess their priority to organize cube is lower than priority of coding (which is not bad at all). I can't keep my files organized at home due to lack of time, but I feel bad about it, it's my debt. Some people don't care about that debt - they are those who don't have that passion. - alpav
The must brilliant programmers I know are pretty sloppy and their cubicles look like pieces of modern art (after being chewed and spited back out). I would not recommend this question in particular, I prefer creativity over organization. Organization can be imposed, creativity can't. - Chepech
[+3] [2010-02-26 19:13:33] Dylan Yaga

You can learn a lot by asking what features and aspects of software annoy the candidate, and how they would change them.

As a college student, they should have more to complain about than praise; I know I did. By asking this you can gain insight into a few things:

  • Reluctance to issue criticism (will they continue to let a co-worker perform poorly? reflects teamwork)
  • Willingness to improve (are they willing to inherit code and maintain it? Most college students would rather throw code away and start over)
  • Attention to details (you can't be annoyed by what you don't notice)
  • Ability to think of a way to improve software (do they have ideas of their own?)
  • etc.

Not only will the answers be beneficial, but also the attitude they take towards it. A person should be passionate towards the things that they feel they could improve.

Also, take note of the candidates that ask questions themselves. Always allow them to ask questions. Hopefully they will ask about:

  • Source control
  • Languages Used
  • Development environments
  • Working environments
  • Anything that can't be gleamed off your website...

Just be sure to avoid people who only ask "how much will I be paid?"

[+2] [2010-02-26 19:15:14] EmFi

Get their reaction to this:

'Are you stealing those LCDs?' 'Yeah, but I'm doing it while my code compiles.'

A good candidate would get the joke.

A great candidate would wonder why they weren't doing other related tasks, such as writing documentation.

I would love to see this in an interview :) - Aishwar
(1) Actually a good candidate would yawn because he/she has seen all xkcd comics at least a hundred times. (And I like the goto comic better, - AndiDog
(1) @AndiDog: Believe it or not GOTOs have their uses. Just have a look at the Linux Kernel for plenty of examples. - EmFi
[+2] [2010-02-26 18:16:39] Jacob G

I like to get a feel for personality as well when I'm interviewing, so I try and make my interviews as conversational as possible. Questions I like to ask:

1- What is your most favorite project that you have ever worked on? Doesn't have to be programming related. --I like to see them show some passion and get a feel for if the passion is driven by the work (e.g. I love painting), the results (e.g. the room looked pretty), the impact of the results on others (e.g. the poor family got a new house) or the impact of the results on themselves (e.g. I learned how to use a paint sprayer.)

2- What will you do if software development doesn't work out for you? --Again, this is just to get a conversation rolling. I like to hire people that can appreciate the "business problems" being solved as well as the technical and be able to communicate across domains. Here I'm looking for interest in fields beyond software as that is sometimes indicative of more flexibility when it comes to problems solving.

3- Describe to me a very frustrating experience and, if you got through it, how? --Working in software is frustrating in most places. I want to see patience.

[+2] [2010-02-26 18:37:29] Donal Boyle

A question I have used:

  • When working on a project with others, have you ever had an argument over what the solution should be and how did you manage this scenario?

This is a common scenario even in college and being able to convince your teammates of the merits of your solution, or having the grace/wisdom to accept the merits of the other solution are very important abilities. I think in HR-speak it's called "conflict resolution".

[+2] [2010-02-26 18:43:55] joatis

If you're looking for passion/nerd-ness in young students how about asking them what tech related web sites and pod-casts they visit? It's a conversational open ended question that could tell you a lot.

For example, if a candidate told me they listened to BOL (Cnet's Buzz OUT Loud) or TWiT then I'd assume they were interested in the general trends. If they visit PennyArcade ask them what they like about it.

I would expect an enthusiastic candidate to have a least a few outlets of interest. These sources would not only tell you about their interests but my also prove enlightening to you too!

[+1] [2010-02-26 16:19:56] robert

Describe a creative solution you used in solving a difficult problem.

[+1] [2010-02-26 17:44:12] Halotron

Look for knowledge, imagination and actual coding skills rather than culture.


What current private project are you working on at the moment?

Give an "architect view" of how the problem that is going to be solved during the 3 months should be solved in the best way. What tools to use, ideal language, and so on.

What OS do you use and why? (OS is not important. The reason is. It reflects knowledge and culture.)

[+1] [2010-02-26 17:51:21] Victor Hurdugaci

What is the best/worst software you ever used? Why?

[+1] [2010-02-26 15:59:56] IanW

Tell the candidate they are writing some safety critical code to control machinery on a factory floor. All is going to plan and then someone from the company puts in a request for the ability to over ride a safety feature you have built into the software - Ask the candidate how they will respond to this.

You will be amazed how many people simply say they will add the requested feature.

(3) I don't see what this will tell you about how a programmer will work out. You'll get all sorts of answers based on naive beliefs that will be quickly worn off in real life. Moreover, there are a lot of safety features in various things that need to be overridden in certain circumstances, and an undergrad is likely to have naive trust or distrust of management. - David Thornley
Well, the thing is like David said there might be a need to be able to override a feature in circumstances. Also what would I know about managing a nuclear power plant? - AFK
[+1] [2010-02-26 16:09:07] Jacob R

I agree with everyone saying that "back of the envelope" questions are good to ask.

One question I was asked when I was interviewing out of college was "How many balloons would it take to fill a room?"

It allowed me to ask some questions that I thought were relevant to the answer, and then come up with a solution to how I would figure out the best estimated answer I could. They're great questions to get people to think critically, and you will get to see their problem solving skills at the same time.

[+1] [2010-02-26 22:22:18] Paul Nathan

Ask them what they are awesome at and why they should get the job.

You should not expect them to have written much code or done many projects. For a weaker sophmore candidate, their total kLOC is under 10. Doesn't mean they are bad, just means they aren't tuned into coding yet.

[0] [2010-10-21 11:04:19] zkidd

In Jim Collin's Good to Great book, he talks about leaders not being able to motivate people, but leaders being able to take away motivation from someone. The key, regardless of business role (computer programming, sales, et cetera), is to hire people with high levels of self-motivation. So I would ask in an interview, how does the person define motivation? What is a point in time in which they experienced the highest levels of motivation and what were they doing? And when was a point in time in which they became less motivated. These are all open ended conversations that should lead to a productive and affirming dialogue.

[0] [2010-02-26 22:07:34] HLGEM

I would consider giving them a functional requirements document and ask them how they would go about building it. Make it a particularly bad requirements document (well that should be easy to find).

What you are looking for isn't the software solution or code but the thinking process - do they accept the bad requirement blindly or ask questions to get more detail, do they ask about what tools they have available to use or how this might integrate with existing projects or do they want to go off blindly developing using whatever they want with no thought that anyone else will need to maintain this code or that it needs a corporate standard. If you specify that they must use some old fashioned tool in the requirement, do they say they would use some other cooler tool, do they try to convince you that the cooler tool is the better idea or do they make their plan using the old clunky tool? Do they think to mention setting up the project in source control. Do they have any ideas at all about how to approach the problem? After all the last thing you want is a slug who will only do exactly what he is told and expect otheres to do his thinking for him.

Now a lot of interns are not going to get the most sophisticated answers to this and that's ok, but you want to look hardest at those who seem to have the best critical thinking skills as well as the most awareness that what they do isn't in a vacuum, but most relate to what others have done or will do. You also want to know that they will ask questions and try to refine rather than just change off blindly on their own.

The biggest problem I've seen from intern work is just that, that they get a little project and ignore whatever tools you have or use and do something in a tool no one else knows about with no source control and which no one will use after they leave. That's nice for them, but really very little benefit to the company. (Of course this also reflects that many companies don't manage their interns well, but that's another whole issue.)

You might also consider what kind of project you are going to give them to do. Ask questions that will indicate if they have an interest in this kind of work. If you want them to write some reports, ask some questions about reporting and what they think about it (also ask about some areas you don't plan to use them in so they don't know which is the main area of interest for you). It's no fun to manage an intern who has no interest at all in the type of project they will be working on. If the person is fascinated by embedded systems, even if he is a great candidate, you may want the guy who wants to do web sites instead if that is the project you will have for him to work on. Try to match thier interests to your actual nees for a small project to wrok on inthe three months they will be there. YOu''l have happier interns, they will get experience in what interests them and you will get better work from them - a win all around.

[0] [2010-02-26 16:13:58] Jerome Baum

Since they've majored in computer science, they'll have been in contact with some maths as well. Don't ask them a math question. :) But it probably is valid to ask them to compare (and contrast) mathematics with computer science.

In fact, just ask them what they think computer science is. Of course this is subjective but it will tell you about the candidate.

[0] [2010-02-26 15:59:21] David Thornley

Ask the candidate about any books or languages or language features he or she really likes. Ask why. See if the candidate is enthusiastic about something in the field.

[0] [2010-02-26 15:46:30] Craig Huber

Although some of these have fallen out of favor, some of the Microsoft questions are still great. They show whether the candidate has a penchant for logical / critical thinking when there is no clear answer... Do they give up? Or do they try and think through the issue one bite at a time?

Things like:

  • How many piano tuners are there in the world?
  • How do they make M&Ms?
  • How many gas stations in the US?

Check out the book "How would you move Mount Fuji" for more insight.

(7) No one I know at Microsoft uses these sorts of questions anymore. These questions actually test for ability to solve clever brain teasers, which has only limited correlation to skills and traits we are actually looking for. They are fun though! - Eric Lippert
@Eric: They also test for people who have prepared for such questions, which isn't exactly what you're looking for. - David Thornley
(1) They may not use them, (which is why I said they've fallen out of favor) probably because they've been published everywhere :) I like to use similar types of questions to see how people think, and more to learn about their approach to solving problems. - Craig Huber
[0] [2010-02-26 18:27:19] anon

I was once asked: How good are you at making coffee?

[0] [2010-02-26 18:59:31] temp2290

I was once asked "what's a recent news bit that you've heard about our company" from a well-known tanking technology company. At the time, I thought it was a good question to gage the honesty of a candidate.

I didn't get the job.

That aside, I think trying to create a good conversation between you and the candidate is a must for recent grads. It eases tension and creates an atmosphere that will minimize the stress for qualified candidates. Unqualified candidates will be screwed either way if you set it up properly.