9 Essential Traits You Should Look for in Every Student Employee You Hire

Print out the interview sheets and dust off your favorite padfolio; hiring season is here! 

SA pros are gearing up to fill their student employee rosters with rockstar candidates.  They are combing through resumes and assessing team needs, all to determine which students they’d like to bring on board. Meanwhile, students are itching to find meaningful work experiences on campus. They’re hopeful that they might be selected for highly coveted roles.

While it’d be nice to hire every student who submits materials, it’s simply not feasible. There are typically way more applicants than open positions and, truth be told, many departments are looking for specific traits when deciding who they’d like to join the team.

What exactly are those traits, though? What should hiring managers be looking for as they conduct their interviews? 

While it might be nice to have someone with many years of experience, the reality is that on-campus employment may be one of the first times students are pursuing professional responsibilities. 

So, instead of scanning resumes for relevant work experience, search for candidates who show great potential. Check out their prior involvement and look for soft skills that show just how promising their future within your office might be. Specifically, here are nine characteristics to consider when building out your student staff team.

1. A Positive, Can-Do Attitude

gif of Tracee Ellis Ross from Blackish saying 'yes I can'

I listed this first because I think it’s the most important attribute for any student employee. I always say that you can train anyone to do a job, but you can’t train them to have a good attitude. With the right mindset, student staff will be eager to exceed expectations while taking on any task or challenge you throw at them.

Observe your applicants: 

  • Solving a complex problem in a group interview (How do they handle stress?)
  • Completing a time management exercise (Are they optimistic about balancing everything on their plate?)

2. Adaptability

If there’s one thing your student employees will need to count on, it’s change. On a daily basis, there will be many unexpected curveballs to respond to. If they can do so calmly and with enthusiasm to navigate uncharted territories, you’re looking at your next employee of the month. 

Ask your applicants: 

  • How do you handle ambiguity? 
  • Can you describe a situation when you needed to adapt quickly?
  • How might you respond to a question that you don’t know the answer to?

3. Critical Thinking

No matter how many days are spent in training, it’s impossible to cover every aspect of a role before the student must start taking on some tasks. Therefore, student staff must be equipped to make calculated decisions based on the knowledge they already have. By connecting the dots, they’re showing their ability to thrive within gray areas.

Ask your applicants:

  • Describe a time when you had to solve a problem or take initiative.
  • How might you prioritize the following tasks: 1) Completing an Incident Report 2) Submitting a work order for a leaking toilet 3) Meeting with a resident who is concerned about her roommate 4) Hanging flyers for a program later that evening. Could you also describe the decision-making process that led you to that response?
gif of Aladdin and Abu thinking

4. Empathy

Customer service is at the root of many student roles. Whether your student employee is working a front desk, programming for their peers, or interacting with families, it’s essential that they have compassion and patience for those they’re serving. When done well, this commitment to customer care will shine a glowing light on your department’s reputation for putting the campus community first.

Ask your applicants:

  • Please discuss your experience working in a customer-facing role.
  • What words would your best friend use to describe you?

5. Teamwork 

Teammates who focus on carrying their own weight versus the collective weight are not often highly regarded. Supporting fellow staff members is an essential part of a collaborative culture. So, be sure you’re hiring someone who’s willing to swap duty shifts, volunteer at a program, or offer a listening ear after a tough interaction.

That’s not to say that you should overwork them to the point of burnout. Rather, they should be willing to lend a helping hand when a peer is in a pinch.

Observe your applicants:

  • In the interview waiting room (Are they cheering fellow candidates on?)
  • When they’re utilizing your office’s services (For example, have they collaborated well with others during programs facilitated by your office, or have they been enthusiastic about helping their peers network during career development events?)

6. Initiative

I’ll admit it; my biggest pet peeve is watching someone sit around, waiting to be told what to do. I really appreciate someone who can look around and intuitively know what needs to get done. Does the copier need to be refilled? Are there outdated fliers on bulletin boards? Could furniture in the commuter lounge be straightened out? These are small things that really add up to making our jobs easier.

Ask your applicants:

  • Describe a time when you stood up for something you believed in. How did you take initiative to enact change?
  • Tell me what you know about the responsibilities of this role.

7. Curiosity

gif of Alice in Wonderland saying 'and curiouser'

This is a very undervalued trait, and here’s why I love it: Curiosity exemplifies a willingness to learn. It also gracefully challenges processes in a way that ensures departments aren’t just sticking to doing things because “they’ve always been done that way.” Hiring more curious staff members will help keep you on the cutting edge of engagement.

Observe your applicants:

  • As they respond to the final prompt (Do they ask you thoughtful questions when you ask, “What questions do you have for me?”)
  • When they send a thank you note (Do they highlight things they learned or suggest an opportunity to connect after the interview process?

8. Sense of Self

It’s immensely helpful to have a staff member who understands their strengths, weaknesses, and overall state of well-being. They understand what they bring to a team and also know when to ask for help. Further, if they’re overwhelmed, for example, they know how to take a step back and advocate for getting help rather than driving themselves to burnout. Student employees with a strong sense of self tend to remain more committed to their roles over the years.

Observe your applicants:

  • Responding to interview questions (Are they self-reflective and knowledgeable about what they bring to the role?)
  • Throughout the interview process (Do they seem to manage pressure well?)

9. Reliability

At the end of the day, you need your people to show up. You don’t want to have to worry about someone sleeping through their alarm or forgetting about a shift. Though everyone is human and makes mistakes, consistently letting the team or department down can really impact morale and daily operations. Look for a candidate whom you can trust.

Observe your applications:

  • When they show up for the interview (Are they on-time and prepared?)
  • Through their cover letter and/or resume (Have they clearly taken the time to research the role and your office?)
gif of a person saying 'you're hired' to the camera

Now that you know which traits to look for when hiring new student employees, revisit your interview questions to see whether they allow a candidate to speak to those attributes. Since time with students is limited, you want to be intentional about how you gather insight on their skills and their character.

Remember: students may not possess all of these traits, but what’s most important is their eagerness and willingness to learn. A teachable staff member will be a successful staff member!

What other traits and skills do you typically look for among student employee candidates? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan (she/her) is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Associate Director for Campus Life at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.