Making the most of an MBA internship

DilbertAs the lead MBA recruiter for one of my company’s executive partner schools, I’m often asked about making the most of the MBA internship. Obviously every company is different but here are four things that almost always come up as I talk to full-time-hire-hopefuls.

1) The MBA internship is never what you expect it’s going to be. It’s filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. The project you were assigned to might change. There may not be a project at all and your manager may have no idea what to do with you. Be prepared to get dirty and assert yourself without being that over-confident MBA. That means asking thoughtful questions with all the stakeholders in your business and coming to your own conclusions. Be prepared to scope and pitch your own project! “Nobody had anything for me” is not going to go over very well when you’re jockeying for a full-time role.

2) Focus on what’s measurable and set clear goals up front to objectively evaluate your contributions. You know those sexy, game-changing strategic projects that will forever change the face of business? You know the ones I’m talking about… Buyer beware. While on the surface this can lead to some good learning and exposure – what can you REALLY accomplish in 12 weeks when tackling something of that magnitude? If expectations are not managed from the beginning, you may have nothing to show for heading back to your second year of business school.

3) Know how your business makes money. This probably seems obvious to a lot of you but I’ve met too many candidates who, when explaining their internship, had no idea how what they did contributed to the bottom line. I’d say this is especially true in complex revenue recognition businesses like financial services. Be prepared to defend how what you’re doing translates to growth. Even if you can’t prove a direct impact (which you probably can’t in the short time you’re there), intuitively drawing line of site to revenue (or costs) will really help your audience understand what you you were up to for 3 months.

4) Remember the gatekeepers. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t have time for someone unless they are equally busy and important. I was once stood up by an interviewer (the guy just didn’t show up). My gut reaction was to take the hint and pack my stuff. But on my way out I chatted with the admin who I had greeted earlier in the day and thank goodness I did. She made a few phone calls and within 15 minutes I was interviewing with someone else. The gatekeeper is the gatekeeper for a reason. They are empowered to make judgment calls and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of those.

I’m sure I could go on but these are the big ones I come across with eager-beaver MBAs. For the readers out there, what other knowledge would you impart as interns prepare for final presentations and interviews in the coming weeks?

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  1. #1 by Kris Kaneta on August 5, 2010 - 1:39 pm

    Adding a 5th point – don’t be lame and put “MBA” after your name. It’s just… lame. It tells me your experiences don’t stand on their own. That’s why you’ve added those ridiculous letters.

  2. #2 by Sam Kale on August 11, 2010 - 8:13 am

    I’d add a 6th: Network.
    People hire people, not resume’s, so being able to make a human connection with someone can only help you out.

    And a 7th: Never say that anything is beneath you (or act like it)
    Whether it be cleaning up PowerPoint pages, picking apart a convoluted Excel document, or filing papers, there’s nothing that you shouldn’t be doing.

    This also gives you the opportunity to see what kind of manager you have. A good manager will protect you from the silly stuff. A not-so-good manager will *give* you the silly stuff.

    • #3 by Kris Kaneta on August 11, 2010 - 8:21 am

      Good point – especially #7 (I think #6 should be a given for most). Building on that, I’d say don’t worry about getting credit for the work your doing. Make your manager look good and good things will follow.

  3. #4 by Curious George on August 18, 2010 - 11:00 am

    I unfortunately didn’t get an offer at my mba internship, and there were a few things that I could have done better in terms of leadership, but I felt the scope was miscommunicated and it was too late to change my project. How do I now interview with other marketing companies if they ask why I didn’t get an offer?

    • #5 by Kris Kaneta on August 18, 2010 - 10:30 pm

      George – this is a great question. First, sorry to hear that your internship experience was not what you had hoped. Scoping an internship is not as easy as it seems at the onset. That said, no point in dwelling on that.

      Even though you didn’t get the role – you should still be able to articulate your contributions. And if asked why you didn’t get the role (though I must say – I have NEVER asked that question in the interview process), don’t be negative. Remember the internship is a learning experience and that might require some candid reflection and growth.

      A couple years ago I interviewed a candidate who, worse than not getting a job following his internship, was actually suspended for one year between his first and second years for cheating on an exam. I did not know this when we placed him on our interview list. Prior to the interview, he called me personally to disclose this fact and offered to give up his spot to another candidate if this would be problematic for us.

      What I learned from that encounter was that this person gained a new sense of accountability. I chose to keep the interview with him. In fact, his growth in between that first and second year was abundant to me as we discussed how he challenged himself to make the most of a bad situation.

      My advice to you is no different. Make the best of it, learn from it and be able to demonstrate that learning through actions taken since. Best of luck to you!

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