Winning the Internship Game

MBA internships are more important—and more competitive—than ever. Now, besides helping business school students get a taste of life post-graduation, they are the main gateway to a full-time job offer.

During the recession, companies cut back on their on-campus recruiting of second-year students, relying instead on internship classes for their full-time hiring needs, says Michelle Chevalier, director of the Graduate Business Career Center at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management (Carlson Full-Time MBA Profile).

At the strategy consulting firm Bain & Co., the internship class grew more than 20 percent in 2011, and the same will probably happen next year, says Mark Howorth, senior director for global recruiting. And a high percentage of interns will get a full-time offer at the end of the summer, he adds. When the economy is good, interns are more willing to be experimental with their internships, whereas nowadays they're looking for a permanent home starting in the summer, says Howorth. That, say experts, can bring on the stress to perform well from day one.

"It puts an insane amount of pressure on MBA students," says Chevalier.

Indeed, not everyone will get a full-time offer, and no one wants to have to explain to other potential employers why he was not hired. To improve one's chances of converting an internship into a permanent position, it helps to get an edge on the competition, even before the internship begins. What follows is a checklist with advice from experts on how to end the summer on top.

Put Your Employer Under the Microscope

During the recruiting and interviewing process, most internship candidates have already begun to research everything from the company's earnings and executives to its dress code. But those initial findings are just the beginning. Once they've accepted an internship position, MBAs should ratchet up the research, investigating the company's MBA hiring record, its competitive position in its industry, and industry trends.

One easy way to keep tabs on an employer is to sign up for Google Alerts about the company, which are e-mails with links to relevant news stories and blogs that will automatically arrive in your in-box, says Priyanka Bajaj, a student at the Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile) in Glendale, Ariz., who will be interning in the finance division at Mattel (MAT) in Los Angeles over the summer.

This is also the time to dig deeper, and learning about the company's culture—its core values and what it takes to fit in—should be at the top of every incoming intern's to-do list.

"Most students go into the internship perfectly prepared for the job," says Rebecca Joffrey, director of career education at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business (Tuck Full-Time MBA Profile) in Hanover, N.H. "But there are cultural differences."

One of the best sources of information about a company's culture are second-year students who have already worked there. Tuck conducts panel discussions with second-year students to help prep first-years who want to learn more about a company. Joffrey says the goal is to eliminate surprises for interns and give them a sense of what to expect.

Network, Network, Then Network Some More

Networking does not end when one is hired. "Networking is as helpful before getting the job as it is after you get it," says Joffrey.

After talking to second-year students and alumni with knowledge of either the company or the industry, soon-to-be interns should reach out to those at the company who recruited and hired them. Joffrey suggests asking them specific questions about how the company operates, such as in meetings. How are they run? What are the expectations of interns? Should they speak up or keep quiet? Of course, interns should ask how to contact their direct supervisors or teams before their start date.

Take this opportunity to find out about projects you might be asked to work on and performance expectations, says Joffrey. Bajaj asked if her supervisors had any readings—documents, materials, or books—for her to get started on before she arrived at work. She also provided them with ways to contact her in case they thought of anything else.

In some cases, interns will not receive their project assignments until they arrive on the job. Benjamin Kraus, a second-year student at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile), is drawing on his contacts at his internship employer, McKinsey & Co., to learn about available projects and managers. The goal: a short list of projects that will make the best use of his talents and allow him to make the biggest impact.

In addition, Kraus is talking to his professors, especially those with specializations that match his goals. He's asking them general questions and asking if he can contact them during the summer as questions arise on the job.

"This way you come in on an even playing field," he says. "It's easier to form good relationships and learn from people, which will be useful moving forward."

Lose the Attitude

While standing out from the crowd will improve your chances of landing a permanent job offer at summer's end, interns also need to play well with others. Touting your own accomplishments may get you noticed, but nobody wants to hire someone without the teamwork skills needed to get things done. Chevalier advises interns to be team players, and let their supervisors know it.

"Share your ideas and best practices with other interns," she says. "Be the go-to person, the one others go to for help."

Avoid sour pusses when an assignment is not one's favorite, says Howorth. Interns should make the most of whatever experience they get, he adds. Regardless of the work, interns should always remain determined and kind, say experts and interns alike.

"Work really hard and don't take anyone for granted," says Bajaj. "Be professional with everyone you meet."

Getting oneself in the professional mindset should be part of pre-internship prep work. Graduate students do not get the pleasure of a summer vacation, says Kraus, and should resist the temptation to treat their internships like one.

"Business students are in the mindset of enjoying a break from work while at school," he says. "But you have to turn the switch back on for your internship and not take it too lightly."

In fact, says Howorth, MBA internships are no joke. "Some people come in and are surprised that this is a real job," he says. "[MBA interns] will have real clients, performance reviews, and people who depend on them."

And when it's all over, a steady paycheck. Hopefully.

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