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The Value of MBA Internships to Employers

Only a few short years ago, the "new" economy was booming. College graduates and those holding professional degrees enjoyed a host of employers seeking their talents. From investment banking and blue chips to non-profits and start-ups, opportunity was everywhere.

No longer. Today, the recruiting process has become increasingly competitive and candidates need more initiative and tenacity than ever to land the job of their choice. How can you get your foot in the door? Answer: An internship.

The internship, which full-time MBA students typically do after their first year in business school, can be very important in shaping your career path. Strategizing now about what kind of internship you will want is just one more way of preparing yourself for success in your MBA program and your post-MBA career.

MBA Internship Table of Contents

  1. What is an internship, really?
  2. Finding the Right MBA Internship
  3. How to Apply for an Internship
  4. Use Your Internship to Build Your Career

What is an internship, really?

The word "internship" has a variety of connotations. Many people wonder whether being an intern means that you are a volunteer rather than getting paid, and whether you perform substantive work or just fetch coffee. The reality is that it depends. With so many internships out there, an internship can be practically any experience that combines learning with hands-on activity. Interns for members of Congress might do clerical work for free (or for college credit) ten hours a week, while college juniors who intern for P&G are full-time, paid members of a professional team. Interns earning their graduate degrees in law or business might "train" for an employment opportunity after graduation. In other words, internships can be paid or unpaid, full- or part-time, and short- or long-term. Internships can be formal programs with lengthy application procedures or informal opportunities that you seek out. No matter what, an internship offers you the opportunity to acquire practical skills in a structured environment.

As an intern, your environment should be characterized by the chance to: bond with a mentor; attend organizational meetings; shadow staff working in various functions; perform research or analysis; take ownership of a specific project; and receive training specific to your field of interest.

The extent to which your internship will offer you a defined role depends on the organization with which you work. Some companies have rigidly structured, long-standing programs for interns, while others, particularly small firms or organizations in the public sector, might offer you an incredible amount of self-determination.

Explore a career path

Regardless of how structured your role might be, internships offer you a chance to explore a potential career without having to make a long-term, life decision. By actually participating in a field that interests you, you not only have the opportunity to "get your foot in the door," you also acquire practical skills and make valuable contacts. Even if you learn via your internship that you would never enter that particular career or corporation, you have learned something of immense value. Far too many bright and ambitious individuals earn graduate degrees or commit themselves to a career before even taking their interest for a test-drive.

By completing an internship, you have the chance to gauge how reality measures up to your expectations. Not every internship will provide you with a solution to your career search, but even if your internship doesn't "work out" in the traditional sense, the skills you acquired and the contacts you made will offer you resources with which to pursue your next step. No matter what, introducing yourself to the internship can significantly advance your search for a rewarding career.

Finding the Right MBA Internship

Because internships can take on so many guises-from the formal to the informal, the paid to the unpaid-finding the one that is right for you might seem like a Herculean task. The possibilities seem, and nearly are, endless. Many potential interns begin the process feeling overwhelmed as they try to prioritize their search in terms of interest, function, location, prestige, amenities, hours, and pay. The article below will guide you through the thought process and steps characteristic of a successful internship search.

Your First Step: Reflection

My first recommendation is to forgo centering your search on the eye-catching but superficial qualities of prestige, amenities, hours, and pay. Instead, concentrate on the opportunity to perform substantive work in a field of choice. Undergraduates in particular, often don't give enough consideration to what field really interests them. They prefer instead to apply to a range of internships, usually those listed in popular internship "bibles," because they believe that practically any internship with a large company in a metropolitan area will provide them with "direction" and a valuable, marketable experience.

While internship bibles and guides can play an important role in locating an internship that fits your unique ambitions and character, you can make the most of your internship search by first thinking carefully about your ambitions and goals. This kind of reflection will often narrow your search considerably. For example, instead of applying for every paid internship with every company you can find, you might apply only to advertising firms. Likewise, if you are interested in the public sector, instead of applying to every prominent foundation and organization, you might apply only to those focusing on election reform. Thinking about your goals BEFORE you begin your internship search will give you the confidence not to waste time and energy seeking internships in which you have no genuine interest.

Starting the Search : Survey the Scene

Once you have narrowed your search to a particular field (health care policy) or function (accounting), survey the scene. Visit a local bookstore or library and dedicate an afternoon to looking through internship directories, or "bibles." Publications like The Internship Bible, America's Top Internships, The National Directory of Internships, and Peterson's Internships, are valuable because they offer you an opportunity to scan internships by field and-or location. You might also pull books off the shelves that refer to careers in your area of interest. Sometimes, internship information is included in these books. Even if it isn't, you might, for example, walk away with a list of companies doing advertising work for record labels. Take notes on possibilities that pique your interest, but use this exercise to give your search a foundation, not a conclusion.

You might also survey the scene online by visiting prominent internship sites like WetFeet.com and MonsterTrak.com (formerly JobTrak). These sites will offer you up-to-date information about internship opportunities and will be more comprehensive than printed guides, which often focus on prominent and established programs rather than on start-ups, non-profits, and small businesses.

Go the Distance & Network

Once you have an idea of what opportunities are available, your work begins in earnest. Unless you are interested in a very narrow field, you probably have a variety of programs and opportunities to choose from. Networking can help you uncover hidden gems and narrow the programs to which you will apply.

Networking, while the word sounds formal, can be nothing more than asking professors and peers about their experiences and recommendations. Asking for advice from a career counselor at your school or attending a job fair is an obvious place to start, but few internship seekers branch out to network with the people who are most familiar to them: parents, older siblings, fellow alumni, roommates, and friends of friends. If you are currently enrolled at an academic institution, consult professors, section leaders, and researchers affiliated with programs close to your field. You might be surprised how eager people are to talk with you and offer you advice.

You should also mention your internship search when striking up conversations. Informal dialogues have the distinction of being the most overlooked (and the most fertile) avenue for internship seekers. For example, you might find out that a friend's parent works at a prominent think-tank and is looking for a summer research assistant. Your friend will not only be able to put you in direct contact with his parent, but provide the "personal touch" that often makes all the difference. Likewise, the gentleman in the suit seated next to you on your flight home for Spring Break with the WSJ logo on his carry-on might be able to hook you up with the internship of your dreams! Share the fact you are searching with everyone you meet.

Networking offers you the opportunity not only to get the inside scoop on prominent internships, but to discover internships that you didn't even know existed.

Internships Out-of-the-Box

While "MBA bibles"tell you what internships are the most popular and networking will alert you to unpublicized internship opportunities, these avenues still overlook a source of incredibly rewarding internships: those that are intern-initiated. For those willing to think outside of the box, the rewards can be staggering.

By "intern-initiated," I mean that you should not limit your search simply to programs that exist. Although intern-initiated internships are often unpaid, they often reap greater dividends in terms of experience and "fit" because you, yourself, shaped the parameters of your experience.

If, in the course of your research, you come across organizations or companies that capture your interest, approach them and offer your skills and time in exchange for your ability to learn more about their work. You might offer the firm evidence that you have particular experiences or values that the firm can use. Consider proposing a specific project or area of interest that you would like to pursue. Be transparent about what you hope to gain from your internship and talk about what you hope to learn from your time with the firm. The fact that you are there to learn, as well as to work, distinguishes you (particularly in the public sector) from someone who is merely volunteering their time.

If you aren't sure how you would arrive at ideas for intern-initiated internships, you might just start reading trade journals in your area of interest and keep your eyes open as you go through your daily routine. Reading about your industry, for example, will not only give you a sense of where your ambitions might be headed, but it will offer you the names of companies that are doing cutting-edge work, or that are active in your area. If the company has exciting entry-level positions, you might approach them with an internship proposal that might train you for those positions. Similarly, if you live and work in Los Angeles and happen to read an article in the Los Angeles Times about how the mayor is starting a civil rights commission, you might approach the mayor's office and ask for the staff member in charge of the commission. You might explain how you have a special interest in civil rights, are bilingual, and are writing your senior thesis on police brutality. Could you observe the commission at work and do outreach into the Hispanic community? They answer might just be, "Yes."

Once you open your mind to the possibilities of an intern-initiated experience, chances are you will be pursuing at least one or two opportunities that you have come up with entirely on your own.

Narrowing the Field Before You Apply

If you have done your homework well, you will have a number of opportunities before you. Most likely you will have several "piles" of information: the formal internship programs that are widely published and have firm deadlines and requirements; internships you located online some of which you have detailed information and others for which you need to place calls; information on companies or organizations with whom you are interested in working but have to formal internship program; and a stack of business cards, cocktail napkins, and email that are a result of your "networking."

Narrow your search by combing through this material and making decisions about which opportunities to pursue. Recenter your thought process on the opportunity to perform substantive work in a field of choice. Even if your interests have shifted since you began the process, try to stay focused on what internships offer you the best opportunity to do the kind of work you are most interested in doing.

This is also the time to begin factoring in components like location and pay, if you haven't done so already. Be honest about where you want to be and whether you can afford to work for free. Remember to explore options like living at home, taking out a loan, or obtaining funding from an outside source. If the work you are interested in doesn't pay or isn't in New York City, but you are committed to that work, then sacrifices might be in order. Maybe living at home in the suburbs but commuting into downtown is an acceptable compromise.

If you refuse to work in the Midwest, however, don't apply for an internship in Milwaukee no matter how great the internship sounds. This comment might seem obvious, but so many internship seekers apply to internships they would never accept unless it was a "last resort." Many applicants also harbor the mistaken impression that internships that they are less interested in (those that are in less desirable locations or that don't pay), are somehow "easier" to get. The result is that seekers spread themselves too thin and don't end up following through. Keep in mind that most internships are equally competitive. Just because you don't really want to work in Des Moines doesn't mean that there aren't lots of people who do (and who will show up for an in-person interview!)

Sort through your piles and create a single, manageable pile of internships that you would actually accept if they were offered to you. Begin to gather all the information you will need to apply to those internships. For companies that you are interested in, but which you are not sure offer internships, find a phone number or an email address for a recruiter and make contact. If you don't get through or don't get a response, keep trying. Make sure you have a list of deadlines, qualifications, and required materials. Complete your research early. Your foresight will ensure that when you sit down to actually apply that you have all the information you need.

How to Apply for an Internship

Just as there are an infinite variety of internships, there are an infinite variety of application processes. Each firm or organization will have a unique deadline, specific requirements, and expectations for follow-through. For example, while most internships will require a resume and cover letter, others will request writing samples, transcripts, or recommendations. Painstakingly follow instructions. You can make your application stand out by following the advice below.

Cover Letter

Your efforts should be concise and well-organized. Keep in mind that cover letters for internships should be limited to one page and follow the standard four paragraph format of 1) stating your purpose for writing in plain language 2) explaining how your education, work history or unique background will allow you to make a substantive contribution to the position 3) describing your plan for action : interest in an interview or what you will do to follow through 4) a concise sincere sentence that thanks the recruiter or firm for considering your letter. If you are unsure of the tone or style of a cover letter, consult resources dedicated to the writing of cover letters for specific guidance. No matter what, do not write a single, generic cover letter and use it for all of your applications. Tailor your entire letter, especially the section where you discuss your background and experience, so that your letter is original and convincing.

Be certain your information is accurate and up-to-date! Nothing can hurt an otherwise strong cover letter more than misspelling the recruiter's name or addressing it to someone who left the company five years ago. If the information you have is from a "bible" published several years ago, look up the firm online, or call the recruiting office, if appropriate. Details matter.


Choose a resume format and content that complement your choice of internship. For example, if you are applying for an internship with a think-tank, your academic work should have more visual emphasis and textural detail than your experience volunteering with the homeless. On the other hand, if you are applying for an internship with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, your volunteer experience should have more prominence. Again, tailor your resume so that the person reading it leaves your resume convinced that your experiences have clearly led you for the particular internship being offered. In addition, edit your resume carefully. Sloppy resumes and those with grammatical errors are rarely taken seriously.

Stay Organized

Too many applicants send out an armload of internship applications but don't keep track of what they mailed or what they promised recruiters at each organization they would do (follow through with a phone call, request an interview, etc.). Set aside time each week, say Tuesday afternoon, where you flip through the materials you mailed, make phone calls, or otherwise refresh your memory of what you expected to have happened at that particular point in the process. While formal, competitive programs often have a "don't call us, we'll call you" approach, internships at local businesses or those in the public sector often appreciate an appropriately timed and thoughtful follow-up letter or phone call. If you have focused your internship search in a particular area, you might use a follow-up contact to inform the recruiter that you will be in the area on specific dates and you were hoping to schedule an interview or visit the firm. While you should always be prudent when making unsolicited contact with potential firms, don't be afraid to make one discreet call or send a follow-up letter as long as that action does not directly contradict the firm's instructions to you.


If you are asked to give an interview, whether it is in-person or over the phone, prepare for the kinds of questions you can be sure you will be asked. "Why are you interested in completing an internship with us?" is a common question. Do some homework on the company or organization, not only to impress the interviewer with your knowledge, but to guide the conversation toward your particular interests. If you can leave your conversation with a sense of whether the organization is going to offer you the kind of work you are interested in, then you will have acquired valuable insight into whether you should accept the internship if it is offered.

Follow Through:

If you interview, particularly if it is in person, send a thank-you note right away. You don't need to be grandiloquent, but thank the interviewer for his or her time, mention something you learned in the interview, and confirm your interest in the internship. Candidates who express sincere interest and demonstrate the ability to follow through are the ones who succeed.

Use Your Internship to Build Your Career

If you made the most of your internship, then you are ready to turn your experience into a catalyst for your future career. Many firms and organizations turn to their intern pools to recruit for entry-level positions. You can capitalize on this trend, not only by doing an outstanding job throughout your internship, but by following through with the following steps after your internship is complete.

Shortly after you finish your internship, send thank-you notes to your supervisor, mentors, and any colleagues who went out of their way to enrich your experience. You might also consider sending a note to one of the firm's executives or someone in Human Resources who oversees the internship program. All of these people might be valuable contacts in the future and all deserve written thanks if you have enjoyed your internship and learned from your experience.

Assess your Experience

While your internship experience is fresh in your mind, reflect on what you learned about yourself and the industry in which you worked. Evaluate the work environment and corporate culture. What do your conclusions tell you about your interest in the industry in which you worked or in the role in which you played?

Update your Paperwork

For your resume, craft a suitable paragraph that highlights your responsibilities and accomplishments as an intern. You can use some of your reflections as generated in the point above to steer you toward the duties that you most want to emphasize to future employers. If you need help integrating your new experience into your existing resume use printed and online resources to unify your draft.
Also, write your mentor or supervisor and request a letter of recommendation. In your request, you should include your updated resume as well as a cover sheet that illuminates the kinds of assessments you have made about your experience. Give your recommender as much material and insight as you can as to what you hope he or she will write about. The more reflection and effort you put into your request for a letter of recommendation, the better your letter will be.

Pursue New Opportunities

Use your internship as a springboard for your next career move. If the company you worked with is not hiring at the moment or you want to pursue a related but not identical internship opportunity, don't be afraid to ask your former colleagues for helpful advice. You might be surprised at how willing they might be to provide you with contacts either at competing firms or with clients doing the kind of work you are interested in. Always follow through with people who offer you their time, and remember that if you prove lazy or inconsistent with follow-through that your actions will reflect poorly upon the person who is helping you out. Always act professionally and value the network of which you are a part.