Last year, when Steve Goldstein was a Wharton sophomore, he decided he was tired of learning about globalization from the confines of the classroom. He wanted to get out in the world and see it for himself. So Goldstein took a semester to study abroad in Hong Kong. He chose that destination for its thriving business environment and its position as a travel hub in Asia.
Even though he plans to spend the next few years on Wall Street and not in some emerging economy, Goldstein says he hopes his international experience will be valuable down the road. "The nature of business is global, and anyone not prepared to cope with more a powerful India, China, and other countries is going to be left behind," he says.
More undergrad business students than ever are studying abroad in hopes of beefing up their résumée. But before you pack your bag and pocket your passport, think about this: Recruiters say a semester abroad probably won't make or break you -- especially when it comes to landing your first job after graduation. In fact, internships with blue-chip firms like Goldman Sachs (GS) are still the ticket to a great job after graduation.
LEAVING HOME. Still, across the board, U.S. undergraduates are studying in foreign countries in record numbers. The number of American students studying abroad for academic credit increased by 9.6% in the 2003-04 academic year, and 8.5% the year before, according to Open Doors, a study by the Institute of International Education (IIE). From 2002-2003 to 2003-2004, study abroad in China increased by 90%, while the number of students traveling to India jumped by 65%.
At top business schools, the numbers are rising just as dramatically. Since 2000, the number of undergrads at Penn's Wharton School who study abroad has more than tripled to 20% of all students, says Anita Henderson, the director of academic affairs and advising. At New York University's Stern School of Business, most students who wish to go abroad do so through the university-wide program. But Stern's International Business Exchange Program (IBEX), which includes partnerships with 17 business programs around the world, has seen interest from Stern undergrads double in the past two years.
So, do business students really have to study abroad to land a great job? Traditionally, more concrete internships and work experience have been considered the most important factor in landing a job at graduation, along with a great transcript and loads of extracurricular leadership experience.
QUALITY MATTERS. Real-world experience is still paramount, especially in industries like accounting where hard skills are what get you in the door. Without those skills, some recruiters might not even take a second glance at a candidate's experience in a foreign land, says Ken Bansemer, director of national recruiting for RSM McGladrey, an accounting firm with 7,000 U.S. employees.
Even if studying abroad seems like the "in" thing to do, picking a quality program is vital. Leaving the country just to get the check mark for doing it might not get you an interview at Yahoo!, (YHOO) says Grant Bassett, director of talent acquisition programs at the search engine giant. "It's the experience that matters. It's about the life lessons and what you learn about yourself as a person that lets you succeed and achieve," says Bassett. And skipping a great experience in the States for a mediocre one abroad won't help a candidate, he adds.
Recruiters are adamant that study abroad can't replace an internship, but can supplement it. That's why some of the top employers are making concessions so students can do both. Goldman Sachs has started interviewing some candidates for summer internships in the fall to allow those wishing to study abroad in the spring the same shot at landing a summer job when they get back. Goldstein, for one, went abroad in the spring of his sophomore year to maximize his junior year recruiting time. He recently accepted his post-junior year internship with Bain Capital, a private equity and hedge fund group.
VALUE OF CHANGE. Some top firms value international experience because it involves leaving what's familiar and learning foreign things. And it opens the door to future placements in a company's offices abroad. "It shows adaptability," says Janet Raifa, co-head of U.S. campus recruiting for Goldman Sachs. "Learning a new business is like learning a language, and it shows that people are able to grasp entirely new concepts."
As long as the experience is significant, some recruiters say it can distinguish between two otherwise equal candidates. "It's always nice to see a kid who's done a semester abroad -- not a party semester in London but a real deal in Eastern Europe, Asia, or Latin America -- or done work for any kind of an NGO in Africa," says J. Frank Brown, currently a global partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers and dean-elect at INSEAD, a top non-U.S. MBA program. "To me it implies an adventurous spirit, someone who's willing to see some part of the world and broaden his or her horizons."
PERSONAL JOURNEY. If students decide to study abroad, they should spin it right in an interview. It's a prime opportunity to highlight adaptability, independence, and drive. If the experience involves language study and cultural immersion, and students can communicate depth of experience in an interview, only then will they reap the full benefit in recruiters' eyes, says Lee Svete, the director of career services at Notre Dame.
Although getting a leg up in the fulltime job market is key for some, students say going abroad is also about personal development -- getting off their college campus and into the world. "You go abroad for your own reasons and own motivations," says Goldstein. "Even if it's not that important in landing a job or internship, in the long run it's the best thing you can do." For many more business students, studying abroad is less of an immediate payout and more of a long-term investment.
Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York