Internship Decision Time

It's been a long, hard road. Now Mom says follow your heart and Dad says flip a coin. What to do?

Last month my family gathered in Las Vegas for Mom and Dad's 40th wedding anniversary, and I had some heavy decisions to make in between trips to the auto museum and eyeing the nickel slots. By Sunday evening I needed to choose the firm at which I would spend my summer internship, and with several different, challenging opportunities available, I was in a bind. My parents, always the voice of reason even when they don't realize it, kept their advice simple and balanced:

Mom: "Just follow your heart, son.'

Dad: "Eh, stop thinking and just flip a coin."

Before we go further, let me reflect on how I got to this point in the first place.

The past seven weeks at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business were a hurricane of activity as my classmates and I juggled classes, recruiting trips, interviews, and the annual Follies show. Prior to parting ways for the holidays, MBA1s were briefed by the office of career development on the (in)famous "bid process," a type of tool I believe is also employed at other schools, which provides a multi-tiered approach to recruiting.

Here's how it works: each student applies to a company through a "résumé drop" (which simply involves posting your résumé to the online job requisition on Ross's internal recruiting Web site) by some set deadline. The companies then review the applicants and choose which students they want to interview, or "closed list," based on qualifications that they set internally. (For consulting, the trend seems to be that a high GMAT score and undergraduate GPA, and project leadership experience are strong qualifiers). For most companies, about three-quarters of their interview schedules will be composed of closed list candidates.

But the process doesn't stop there. For students who didn't make the list there are still a few interview spots left open for bidding. Usually the bid process for a company lasts three days, and it's somewhat akin to a closed-bid auction—the student decides how many points he or she may need to get on the interview schedule. If, for example, 10 interview spots are open, the top 10 bidders will all gain a spot on the schedule and pay the 10th highest bid—the "market clearing price"—with their available points.

Flaws in the System

Of course, bidding higher comes with a risk that another high-demand interview will be out of your reach; students are only given 1,000 bid-points to use, and some of the big-name firms go for as much as 450 of those precious babies. To accept a closed list position, students are required to pay 50 bid points; this rule was actually scrapped halfway through the recruiting season as the number of interviews per week began to subside.

Flaws definitely exist, though: One frustration for some is the fact that a few companies choose to bypass the bid process and adopt a completely closed schedule on their own timing. A classmate of mine had one of these firms on her target list yet wasn't selected for an interview. With no bid process to lean on, she was left wondering how to approach that company next year for full-time opportunities. Of course, some companies (such as small non-profits or boutique consulting firms) don't have the resources to fill an interview schedule, and pursue alternative options.

A topic of intrigue is whether or not there's an advantage to being a closed listed candidate; after all, these students have been handpicked to fill a company's interview slots, so shouldn't they have the upper hand? Not necessarily. Since the bid process is finished the week prior to interviews, it's highly likely the interviewers are given the entire schedule at one time and don't have access to the closed list. Conspiracy theories abound, though—after all, MBAs can always be counted on to be great gossipers.

Was This the End?

I became both a beneficiary and a victim of the bid process, as I was able to land a spot on one of my target firm's schedules, but didn't set aside enough points to land on the schedule for another. The successful bid also happened to be my first interview of the recruiting season—now was the time to put my almost obscene amount of hours of interview prep to the test.

I had met one of the recruiters the night before and we had a lengthy chat about the company's community initiatives, so the next morning he seemed all the more eager to bypass the "walk me through your résumé" stuff and get right into the case. Whether due to nerves or a lack of preparation, I didn't fare so well. And so it goes: it doesn't matter if you've tattooed the company's name on your forehead, left arm, and unmentionables. If you don't shine in that interview, the process with that company could be over.

Let me briefly mention the case interview: Usually the interviewer prepares a basic business problem relative to a client-case of his own, for the interview. It's whittled down in a way that the problem can be discussed, quantified, and "cracked" in 30 minutes by a strong candidate. The case itself can vary by the interviewer's industry experience, the type of functional basis (strategy, operations, etc.), and the firm itself. Some companies choose to drive the interviewee through the case while others take a hands-off approach (which also varies in degree; let me tell you, having a consultant stare at you blankly in an interview while waiting for you to answer is an experience akin to passing a kidney stone, I reckon).

A Trend Emerges

I've really wavered on what it means to be "successful" in an interview, especially as I saw how the offers shook out this year. We weren't surprised to see classmates earning multiple offers from more heavily recruited firms—they definitely had the chops to get through the process and do well. But I couldn't help but think more about those that exited empty-handed. What about my classmate who lived overseas for eight years and literally owned several businesses but came away with nothing? If anything, predicting which firms would make offers to which people was not only impossible, but also had as much value as staring at the wall for three straight hours.

A trend seemed to emerge in my recruiting, as I tended to fare better with interviews that balanced a case with a more fit-oriented discussion. And to be honest, those discussions flowed more naturally and got me even more excited about the company. What was difficult, however, was the fact that these discussions came much later in the recruiting season. While some secured offers by early February, many of us took our fight into spring break and beyond.

In the meantime, I've chosen to be somewhat selective about the people with whom I share my interview stories; not only do I find it somewhat unnerving to talk about the process with classmates vying for the same jobs as me, but I realize that it turns our cohort into a hotbed of stress as some wonder how to "crack the case" or "win over the recruiters." It really is a painful process considering it only decides your fate for a 12-week summer session, and I got caught up in the thick of it almost involuntarily.

Professors Were Very Understanding

I alluded briefly in my previous post that professors also understand the rigors of the recruiting process, and this quarter was even more demanding. However, I continue to be impressed not only by the quality of the teaching, but also the compassion each of our instructors brings into the classroom. Damien Beil, our operations professor, was exemplary in balancing our needs with his passion for teaching the material: instead of penalizing students for not attending class due to interviews and flybacks, he and the other course professors offered several weekend review sessions to help us catch up.

And he really developed an interest in how the process fared for us all: After I had missed a class to interview with a firm in Chicago, he approached me as the next session started, asked how the interview went, and explained what he discussed in the session I missed. I guess I should have expected such a warm interaction, as I've had similar interactions with nearly all my professors so far.

The best advice I can offer to prospective students is a word of wisdom passed along by Abhishek, a wonderful friend and second-year MBA who will be returning to Booz Allen Hamilton next year: When interviews start, come to school only for class, studying, and interviews, then get away. Invite your peers off-campus for lunch or a beer, but allowing yourself to float in the heaviness for too long will wear you down. Another colleague, Helene, mentioned to me one day that she could feel the tension in the building as she walked in, and noticed that I looked tired and worn down. She and I and another classmate quickly escaped to a downtown brew-house for lunch, and our two-hour discussion became one of the more relaxing moments of the entire quarter.

Looking Forward to More Stories

Anyway, let's fast-forward to decision time. Despite the relative simplicity of Dad's advice, I had to go with Mom on this one: I decided to accept an offer from a Chicago not-for-profit consulting firm for the summer. I'll be working alongside a group of fantastic individuals, many of whom worked in private consulting for years, who are committed to serving the city of Chicago through a variety of public sector projects. I'm interested to see how I handle the transition from a massive multinational company to a firm with only eight consultants on staff, but I have no doubt it will be a fantastic opportunity to use my still-budding business skills to evoke positive change in one of the U.S.'s finest cities.

Before that, however, comes our multidisciplinary action project, Ross's seven-week program that pairs first-year students with nearly 100 companies around the world to complete a comprehensive, team-based project. In my next entry I'll provide some insights on how the MAP selection process works, as well as some general details of the work our team will be doing. I won't provide too many teasers for now, but I will say that I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work on a continent that has been on my mind for years. I'm sure that my classmates will return from their projects with some stories to tell as well!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.