Are internships important for MBA students?

BY Jordan FriedmanAugust 18, 2021, 2:00 AM
A job seeker looks at recruiting materials at a Wells Fargo booth during a career fair at San Francisco State University in April 2015. (David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Students may enroll in full-time MBA programs to advance their career or change industries (or both). To gain the skills needed to accomplish their goals and to assess what route they want to take professionally, many students complete internships, usually during the summer between their first and second year of study.

Internships are short-term opportunities for students at a company in their field of study. They typically last between about 8 and 12 weeks in the summer semester, says Scott Edinburgh, founder and CEO of Personal MBA Coach, an admissions consultancy. A full-time MBA program may require students to complete an internship, though this varies. 

Experts say internships can pave the way to future full-time roles for students; for employers, these short-term work arrangements can serve as a recruiting tool of sorts. Nearly 60% of full-time students in the class of 2020 at the New York University Stern School of Business received job offers as a result of their summer internships, according to the school’s 2020–21 MBA employment report.

Here’s everything you need to know as a prospective or current full-time MBA student when it comes to finding and landing an internship.

MBA internships: The basics

Many MBA students in full-time programs are making a career pivot to a different industry or function, or may be moving locations, says Abby Scott, assistant dean of MBA career management and corporate partnerships at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business. Scott views internships as serving two purposes: They will test a student’s career hypothesis and help build new skills that will benefit the student in the long term. 

“The summer internship is a great opportunity to move in the direction that the student wants to go,” Scott says. 

During internships, students usually work as part of a team, get a feel for the company’s culture, participate in the organization’s greater mission, and complete a specific project, Scott says. Compared with undergraduate interns, MBA interns are typically given more strategic assignments and complex projects, she adds. Because most MBA students already have some previous work experience, they can offer unique perspectives and have a greater level of autonomy. 

An undergraduate intern may require more supervision or oversight, and sometimes MBA interns are asked to supervise or review the work of undergraduate interns, Scott notes.

While a smaller number of full-time MBA students may pursue internships during the spring and fall, summer internships are the most popular, Edinburgh says. He adds that students may be more likely to complete fall and spring internships in larger cities where they have access to a wider array of opportunities.

Summer internships tend to be full-time, paid opportunities at post-MBA salary levels, while fall and spring internships are more likely to be part-time jobs, Edinburgh says.

What happens after MBA students complete their summer internships varies depending on the school and whether the internship is required, Edinburgh says. If a school requires an internship, there may be some sort of additional component where students, for example, have to share what they learned.

If a school doesn’t require an MBA internship, “the student would leverage learnings in the classroom, and there may be discussions about the internships, but they would be more informal,” Edinburgh says. 

At Haas—which began requiring full-time students to complete internships starting with the class that entered in fall 2020—students often refine their professional goals based on what they learned, Scott says. During their second year, full-time students might meet regularly with a career coach to discuss key learnings and goals; secure leadership positions in related clubs, programs, or initiatives; and take elective courses tied to their discovered interests.

Do MBA programs require internships?

Whether an internship is required varies depending on the school. In many full-time MBA programs, a vast majority of students choose to complete an internship, even if it’s not required.

Haas began requiring internships in part after recognizing their importance in students’ career trajectories, Scott says. Internships are also required in full-time MBA programs at schools like the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Yale School of Management, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“It’s really part of the experience,” Scott says of internships.

Experts say internships are less commonly required in online and part-time programs because many students who enroll already hold full-time jobs.

Types of MBA internships

Some internships—especially at larger companies—are structured with a very formalized recruiting process. But at smaller organizations, especially startups, internship responsibilities and recruiting timelines aren’t always so well defined, says Emily Anderson, senior director of the Career Management Center at the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management.

“Often, [smaller] companies don’t have these big programs,” Anderson says. “It would require more networking on the student’s part to uncover some of these.”

MBA internships can also span a wide range of industries. Historically, MBA internships at major consulting firms—McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co., and Boston Consulting Group, for instance—and investment banks are among the most popular summer options, Edinburgh says. Tech startups have also started drawing more MBA interns in recent years.

In Berkeley Haas’s full-time MBA class of 2021, technology was the most popular industry for internships, followed by consulting, and then financial services, according to the school’s employment report. In 2020, students completed internships almost entirely online, and some internships were shortened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott says. But in summer 2021, there was a blend of face-to-face and virtual formats.

Narrowing your internship focus

As tempting as it may be to explore a variety of options, that usually won’t be feasible. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to be able to explore everything,” Scott says. Narrow your focus to just one or two areas of strong interest when assessing internship opportunities.

“Try on the job for size by doing a tremendous amount of research to figure out as much as you can ahead of time, so that when you get to an interview, you can make it more of a conversation and less of a one-way Q&A session,” Scott says.

You should also be true to yourself, Scott adds, and not focus on what your classmates are pursuing. 

Many full-time MBA students enter their program with an idea of their career ambitions based on their previous job experience. Because the summer internship recruiting process may kick off early in students’ first year of study, Anderson advises that prospective full-time students spend time before classes getting at least a rough idea of what direction they want to take so they can better manage their resources when submitting applications.

Experts recommend attending networking or recruiting events at your school (or online) and engaging with second-year students or alumni who have worked at various companies. At Berkeley Haas, almost as soon as students arrive on campus, Scott says, they can hear from former MBA interns and gain insight into their experiences.

“The student would start to assess, ‘I think I’m a better fit for a smaller startup,’ or ‘No, I’m looking for a larger company because I really want that structure,’” Scott says.

Applying for an internship

The timeline for the MBA summer internship application process varies among companies and industries. Especially with larger, well-known companies, students are traditionally exposed to an array of options through presentations, information sessions, and alumni events during the fall semester of their first year. At these companies, offers are often made in early to mid-spring.

“[The process] usually starts with submitting a résumé and sometimes a cover letter to show interest in the company,” Scott says. A company may interview students and then perhaps invite them back for a second-round conversation in its corporate offices before making an offer. 

However, smaller companies in newer industries are more likely to expect MBA students to take the initiative and reach out to them if they want to be considered for a position, experts say. In these cases, networking is key. Companies seeking out just one student, like startups, typically hire interns later in the spring semester, Scott says.

To stand out with potential employers, ensure you make clear that you understand what challenges and major issues companies in your industry face today, Scott recommends. 

Anderson says landing a great MBA internship is a combination of knowing why you’re pursuing the degree and articulating your strengths and aspirations to an employer.

“Having a good understanding of what the landscape is for the MBA will also help folks be able to package themselves in what their experiences and skills are to make themselves a value-add candidate to these companies,” Anderson says.

See how the MBA programs you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best full-time and online programs.