Below are some especially accessible ways to gain skills and experiences demanded by employers as an MBA student:
In a case competition, teams of MBA students compete to develop the best solution to a business problem—usually under intense time pressure. Teams are typically given about twenty-four hours to read and analyze a business case, conduct research utilizing all publicly available information, and develop findings and recommendations that they present to a panel of judges. The case usually focuses on a company about to make a critical decision, like entry into a new market, creation of a new product, or implementation of a new human resources policy. Participants need to identify the key issue of the case and analyze the variables from multiple perspectives. Prizes are often awarded to both the winning team and standout contributors from other teams.
I like case competitions for many reasons. They offer a great opportunity for students to practice all of the skills that make an effective business leader—teamwork, strategic analysis, research, presentation, and time management—in an intense but educationally oriented setting. Case competitions are also amazing networking opportunities. In fact, the judges and sponsoring organizations often use the opportunity to scout for top MBA talent. Several students I’ve worked with were offered interviews, internships, and even full-time jobs as a result of their participation in a case competition.
Case competitions also provide participants with vivid examples to use in their answers to situational questions asked during job interviews. If you are interviewing for a manager position, chances are you will hear a prompt along the lines of this one: “Tell me about a time when you worked with a team to deliver high-quality results under time pressure.” Participation in case competitions makes these types of questions a breeze to answer.
Before starting my MBA program, I had traveled to Canada and Mexico but hadn’t strayed beyond North America. That changed during the first year of my MBA program when I had the opportunity to study entrepreneurship in China over winter break. For three weeks, we visited startups, well-established companies, universities, historic sites, and alumni in six different cities. Along the way, I learned about the history and culture of the Chinese people, talked about the paradox of an entrepreneurship culture existing in a traditionally government-controlled economy, sampled some amazing food, and met several extremely successful professionals. During my second year, our global-marketing professor took us on a fourteen-day adventure to his native New Zealand. We studied the wool industry, and used our findings to develop a U.S. market–entry strategy, which we later presented to a local clothing manufacturer. Between tours of wool factories and meetings with high-level executives, we went skydiving, swam with the dolphins, stayed at a sheep farm, and narrowly defied death on a whitewater rafting trip.
While extremely enjoyable, these trips were so much more than vacations. They were learning opportunities—chances to explore how a country’s history and business culture intersect, and to see the emergence of the innovation economy in one of the world’s largest nations, and to witness firsthand the differences in communication and negotiation styles found in different markets. These experiences have undoubtedly made me a better professional. I can now better relate to prospective and current students from China. I’ve tailored my oral and written communications as a result of what I learned in that country. And, these small changes haven’t gone unnoticed; just last year, a student from China told me she chose our school because I made her feel welcome during the interview process.
STUDENT CLUBS & ORGANIZATIONS
Most programs have a wide variety of student clubs and organizations run by MBA students. Some clubs are industry specific (e.g., finance clubs, marketing clubs, consulting clubs), some are social or recreational (one of the schools I worked for had a wine club), and others focus on the needs of specific populations of business students (e.g., clubs for women in business).
Each club typically has a leadership team responsible for fundraising, hosting events, organizing professional development opportunities for members, and marketing their organization to fellow students, faculty, and alumni. Students are usually elected to leadership positions by their classmates. Many programs encourage students to create new organizations if there is demand from the student body.
Serving in an elected leadership role is a great learning opportunity. Successfully leading an organization requires the same skills—ability to inspire others, communication, fundraising, strategic planning, budgeting, and customer service—required to lead in the business world. Like studying abroad or participating in a case competition, the experience of leading a student organization not only enhances your skills but also provides anecdotes and experiences you can reference in job interviews to answer questions about leadership, teamwork, ability to drive results, and time management.