If anything is a must for someone aiming to get into a top-tier business school while still early in their career (or right out of undergrad), it’s having solid internship experiences on your resume. Internships allow you to gain a valuable understanding of your desired field, fill in the gaps of a classroom education, develop pertinent skills, help you gain confidence, and aid in developing good work habits. Without internships, you can pretty much kiss your chances of getting accepted to a top program goodbye. Let’s look at some ways to land a killer one.
If you think you’re beginning to notice a theme here, you’re right. As was the case with asking for letters of recommendation, conducting research, and pretty much everything else you’ll do in college, the earlier you start, the better. The reason for this is that a lot of companies start recruiting as soon as the fall, and you do not want to be left out.
Your approach is going to differ a bit depending on if your school hosts career fairs or not and if those career fairs feature companies that you are interested in. You can usually find out exactly which companies are attending your university’s career fair via your career resource center or equivalent.
If companies you’re interested in are coming to your campus…
- Practice your elevator pitch. This is the short snippet that you will lead with when approaching company booths at the career fair (short, helpful video about this here).
- Dress up while still trying to stand out. At one of my career fairs, I noticed that everyone was wearing sport coats (as was I), so I took mine off. Underneath I had a tie that was the main color of a company I was interested in and a matching shirt (they noticed). I don’t know if this is always the best idea, but it did work wonderfully at the one career fair I did attend.
- Approach the booths with confidence. I was actually told by the company that I wanted to work for that they knew they liked me just based on how I approached their booth (I didn’t even hand them a resume before I got an interview offer). Now, I am not saying this to brag about how I swaggered over and worked the booth with my charm or something. I am saying it because it was a factor in winnowing out potential applicants that I hadn’t really even thought of. So be sure to get the nerves out and walk over confidently, head up, making eye contact, etc., etc.
If companies you’re interested in are not coming to your campus…
- Apply often
- There is the maxim that says, “less is more.” Or, “quality over quantity.” I can assure you that if applying online on company websites is your chief way of internship hunting, this maxim does not apply to you. Sure, you’ll want to make sure that your resume is in order and that your cover letters are not merely carbon copies of one another with the name of the company switched out. You will need to tailor them. However, many of these resume/application intakes are going to be like blackholes. They will take your resume and application and you will never hear from that company again. It’ll probably happen with 60% of your cold resume submissions (I’d say 30% will then be rejections and the last 10% invitations to interview). Don’t take this personally. In trying to secure internships for the last two summers, I probably applied for 30 different positions and was invited to interview for 3. One summer I only got invited to 1 interview! You never know which company will be that company for you so you have to keep your output up application-wise. Then, when a company finally comes knocking, you need to wow them with your interview.
Nailing the interview
We’ll cover the b-school interview process (which will be much more intense) in a separate section. For now, we need to focus on company interviews.
If your interview is in person…
- This is, in my opinion, the tougher of the two formats for interviews. Just you and the 1 or 2 interviewers. If you’re prepared, though, you’ll be fine.
- First, you need to get comfortable with answering all of the questions that you will likely be asked. Make a flashcard set on Quizlet and practice with the set. However, don’t just read the flashcards. Set the flashcard set’s “audio” setting to ON (See below) and face away from the computer. When you advance to the next card, Quizlet will read the question to you. This simulates the aural aspect of an interview.
- Position yourself in front of a mirror and pretend that your reflection is the interviewer. Practice making eye contact on yourself while you answer. This simulates the visual aspect of an interview. Remember the post on studying? You study in the format that you will be tested in. The “test,” in this case, is your interview. You need to study in the interview format.
- Include basic questions in your set. The kinds of questions that will be asked in 90% of job interviews.
- Tell me about yourself.
- What are your biggest strengths? Weaknesses?
- Why this company?
- Include as many behavioral interview questions as you can in your set. These types of questions (“tell me about a time when you…”) are becoming extremely popular in internship interviews (and b-school interviews). I’ve linked a list of sample questions to help you, as well as a good write up on the STAR method, the most widely accepted way of answering behavioral interview questions. Now you’ll never be able to memorize every question they can possibly throw at you. The trick is to have a handful of really strong examples that can be applied to many different questions. That time you studied abroad? Perhaps that fits into both a time where you stepped out of your comfort zone and a time where you were very busy and had to prioritize. Once you practice enough you’ll see how you can spin your experiences to fit many different styles of questions. Repetition is the key.
- Describe a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.
- Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.
- Tell me about a recent situation in which you had to deal with a very upset customer or co-worker.
- Include basic questions in your set. The kinds of questions that will be asked in 90% of job interviews.
- Be sure that you can also talk through everything on your resume. Do you have international experience? What was that like? Why did you choose that country? What did you learn? Pick up a double major? Why? Do you think it’ll help you in this position? Really drill down on every aspect of your resume and make sure that you can field these types of probing questions.
- When you think you have a lot of this under your belt, practice a mock interview on yourself (some people recommend asking a friend or someone from the career services office to interview you, but I’ve always found it too awkward and fake). Film yourself answering questions and then watch it, as weird as it may feel. You might learn something that makes a big difference. I noticed that, if placed in a swivel chair, I will do just that…swivel. So, I now keep my feet planted firmly on the ground and consciously focus on not swiveling, and it has made a big impact on how I appear in an interview.
- Bring a portfolio. In it place extra copies of your resume. Bring one out for yourself right before the interview begins and ask the interviewer if he or she needs one, as well (they usually don’t but it makes you look that much more prepared). On the paper in the notebook inside the portfolio, have a title at the top (e.g. Company X Interview) along with the date. Under that list all of the questions you wish to ask of the interviewer (3-4 questions) and room for notes under each. You will look incredibly organized and prepared (and obviously that is the point). On the next page of the notebook put some shorthand notes for answers to questions you expect to be asked as well a list of your handful of experience examples. You should only look at this page if you are really blanking (which is unlikely after all that practice, but nerves can creep up on anybody). You can even have the interviewer repeat the question if you need more time. Taking a quick peek at your notes might not be ideal, but it sure beats stammering nervously or sitting awkwardly in a painful silence. It also kind of shows that you’ve prepared for the worst. Glance quickly at the page, gather your thoughts, and get back on track.
- Arrive early (on time is late), be well dressed, have a firm handshake, make eye contact, SMILE, laugh, and do everything else you’ve learned from the internet or your lower level businesses classes.
- Follow up! Definitely send an email thanking the interview for their time and for the chance to interview for the position. Tell them how much you enjoyed the experience. Some people swear by the handwritten note, but I worry that it won’t get there until it is too late to make an impact on the decision (“Huh. That kid Steven that I interviewed sent a note. That was nice of him. Wish I had known this before I gave the job to someone else. Nice kid, though.”). An email is a safer bet.
If your interview is in on the phone…
- Do everything you did in the above. Even dress up. It seems weird but it’ll get you in the professional mindset and cause you to take the interview more seriously.
- Have all of your notes in front of you. Seriously. Type them up, print them up, and spread them out in front of you. All of the answers to all of the questions you expected to be asked. This is a serious advantage to phone interviews, and you’d better believe that other candidates for your desired position will be utilizing this advantage. However, these papers should not replace practice. You still need to know everything inside and out and you absolutely cannot sound like you’re reading directly off of a piece of paper. You need to know what you’re going to say, generally, and you may use the papers to supplement and enrich and already great answer.
I would recommend shooting for at least 2 solid internships during your collegiate career (the summer between your sophomore and junior years and the summer between your junior and senior years). If you manage to get an internship between your freshman and sophomore years, even better, but don’t be discouraged if it is not your ideal company or a “big name.” Most simply do not recruit students that are so young. If you can’t find anything, take a summer class, do some research, attend some conferences, or get some international experience. DO NOT leave summers vacant. Your time in undergrad is precious and you want to fill every gap.
If possible, try to branch out and get some experience away from your hometown. Obviously, if you live in Palo Alto or NYC you can probably put less weight behind this advice but for the rest of us it holds true. Working somewhere across the country, away from your home, shows that you can handle an experience that is out of your comfort zone. Also, you are much more likely to reach out and make friends with your fellow interns, since you won’t have anyone else around. This can be great for networking or just making some lifelong friends.
Once you’re there, you need to remember why you are there, and that is to work. Keep in mind that you will need a professional recommendation for your application to business school. You need to impress your supervisor. You might have to do some grunt work or stay a little later than you’d like, but you need to do this to the best of your ability and with a positive attitude. As you continue on throughout your internship, send yourself short emails every time you complete an important task, listing the task and its facets. You can later come back to these emails and use them to build your resume entry for the internship (you don’t want to forget anything!).
What if I hate it?
If you dislike what you’re doing at your internship, this does not have to be bad news. You have saved yourself the time and trouble of getting into that specific full time and hating it. For example, if you’re a marketing major and you get an internship in product management and cannot stand it, you know that that’s not the subfield (or maybe even field) for you. Do some more research and if marketing still seems like it’s for you, try to get an internship in another subfield (analytics, brand management, advertising, etc.).
Overall, internships are very beneficial experiences for both you and the admissions officers. They allow you to grow professionally and develop relevant skills while assuring the admissions council of your maturity and ability to thrive in the workplace.
For reference–My internships:
- 3M Company
- Marketing internship
- Summer between junior and senior years
- The LIVESTRONG Foundation
- Analytics and Market Research internship
- Summer between sophomore and junior years
- Capital Management Services, L.P. (local financial company)
- Legal Assistant
- Summer between freshman and sophomore years