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Editor’s Note: To help you make the transition from the working world to graduate business school, Bloomberg Businessweek is launching a new series about how to prepare for an MBA program. The series—this is the fifth and final installment—will provide tips from experts and business school insiders, including administrators, students, and alumni, about how to do everything from making ends meet without a salary to setting career goals for achieving your dream job after graduation.
Let’s face facts. In their admissions essays, full-time MBA students might write elaborate career plans that spell out the next five years of their lives, yet most will end up doing something else entirely. Many change their minds a dozen times before enrolling in an MBA program. There is no question that choosing a career sooner rather than later will give students a jump start over competitors who might be scrambling in the fall to adjust to school while they choose whether to attend recruiting and networking events with bankers or consultants, brand managers, or startup gurus.
That’s why it can really pay to weigh one’s options before school begins. “Some people simply don’t know what they want to do,” says Jack Oakes, assistant dean for career development at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Be open and get to know a variety of different people with MBAs to see what your options are.”
Indeed, those who want to succeed in the internship and job search should spend the weeks that lead up to the first day of classes deciding exactly what they would like to do in the next chapter of their career—and what they need to do to get there. Here is a step-by-step guide for incoming MBA students on how to spend the summer finding themselves and their calling:
1. Explore Options
The first step for MBA students in deciding what they want to be when they grow up is to consider the different options they face. In the summer before business school begins, most MBA programs give incoming students access to Vault and WetFeet, online career sites that provide job descriptions and further information on different industries and functions. Many career-services administrators also suggest that students talk to colleagues from their pre-MBA employers who are in roles to which they aspire.
Business schools such as Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management put students in touch with alumni through Facebook and LinkedIn so they can begin networking and asking questions about particular career paths. Finally, students should match job descriptions and the qualities employers are seeking for those positions with their own needs and wants, says Oakes, who adds that sites such as Monster.com provide plenty of opportunities to pursue this kind of investigation. Attending job fairs and conferences is an additional way to see what kind of opportunities are available and intriguing, says Meenakshi Sharma, interim director of the Career Management Office at Weatherhead.
Sometimes exploring options means coming to grips with restrictions. For international students, who frequently encounter lending and visa restrictions along the path to B-school, there is an extra step. “We have them learn about the legal aspects of working in the United States,” says Sharma. “They must know their limitations before they arrive.” Learning about these limits can help international students zero in on more feasible opportunities from the start and encourages them to build networks in appropriate countries.
2. Assess Yourself
Many top MBA programs ask incoming students to complete self-assessment tests such as CareerLeader, which is a product of Harvard Business School, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, in the weeks before classes start. The purpose of these tests is to determine a person’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality types; the results can help students figure out which transferable skills they have and how best to present themselves to potential employers. Most important, the tests give students a better idea of which industries and functions are a good fit for them.
“Self-assessment is a good opportunity for self-reflection,” says Stacey Rudnick, director of MBA Career Management at the University of Texas, Austin McCombs School of Business.
While considering what students enjoy is important, they should also contemplate what they disliked in previous jobs, adds Rudnick. “You didn’t like being micromanaged by your boss?” she asks. “Then you want an opportunity that allows you to manage yourself when you find your next job.” Take note of likes and dislikes and share them with the career management advisors at school.
By summer’s end, students should have narrowed their options so that they have a list that features a reasonable number of target industries and functions to pursue when school starts, says Sharma.
3. Build Your Network
As students conduct research into jobs that are a good fit and work on building up their networks, they should seek mentors—people they can trust to serve as sounding boards as they deliberate on their career goals, says Oakes. “Come up with your own career advisory board composed of mentors, colleagues, friends, and family whose opinions you trust,” he says.
Some business schools pair you with mentors from the start. For example, Weatherhead will put incoming students who are confused about what field to enter in touch with alumni in the industries that interest them. The point is to give them a better handle on the day-to-day operations for the functions they are considering. In addition, all incoming Weatherhead students are matched with a second-year student whose purpose is to answer questions about the job hunt. Almost every school will tell incoming students to maintain communications with previous employers and colleagues. There’s no point in waiting for the fall to start building relationships when students have plenty of time to get to know people—or at least reach out to them—in the summer.
4. Prepare for Recruiting
Once students know what they would like to pursue in post-MBA careers, they can start preparing themselves for the rigors of MBA recruiting. The process begins fairly quickly once school starts. It comes on top of an already jam-packed schedule of class work and extracurricular activities, so starting to prepare as early as possible is never a bad idea, say administrators.
Yale School of Management asks incoming students to become consumers of business news. It encourages them to start keeping up with bloggers, trade literature, and news headlines, especially those in fields they are considering entering, says Ivan Kerbel, director of the Career Development Office at Yale SOM.
“They must read every single day,” he says. “Every day, you should know what’s happening in your industries.” Aside from helping students participate better in class, knowing current events will make them better interviewees with recruiters, says Kerbel.
Having knowledge of what is happening in the business world is only part of the battle. Students must also be able to communicate what they have learned to recruiters, classmates, and eventually those they will manage. Oakes suggests that students build from what they have already covered in their admissions essays by asking themselves such questions as: “Who are you? What value will the MBA give to you? And what value will you bring to a company?” Practicing your responses, alone and with others who can give you feedback, says Oakes, is a great way to prepare for the interviews that lie ahead.
Preparing for recruiting season requires getting one’s résumé in order. Many programs have students use a résumé template constructed by the school, and some even have students complete this project over the summer. Students should find out how the school treats résumés before moving forward. In any event, they can start thinking about things they would like to include and that would be important to recruiters they would like to attract.
One item that often gets ignored on the summertime to-do list is creating a business wardrobe, says Rudnick, whose school provides guidelines to incoming students, both for business casual and formal attire. Having a smart suit for interviews and appropriate clothes—not just the student’s uniform of denim, sweats, and flip-flops—for corporate recruiting and networking events is a must, she adds.
If students do nothing else, they should hasten to meet with the career-placement advisors at their school. “I’d recommend making the earliest possible appointment with your school’s career services,” writes Katie Burke, a 2009 graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of marketing and corporate partnerships for Athletes’ Performance, a fitness and nutrition company, in an e-mail. “The earlier you get in front of them with a plan and your goals, the earlier they can help you revise your résumé and get to work on positioning yourself for post-MBA success.”
5. Keep Your Career Quest in Perspective
Incoming students have pressure foisted upon them rather quickly to come up with a plan for getting a post-MBA job once they are enrolled. That does not mean that they must have the rest of their lives figured out, says Kerbel.
“There is a mindset that MBA students must solve the meaning of life in the first week of school, while they really should be determining what is the best job for the next phase of their life,” he adds. “You just need to get on a path; you don’t need solutions for the next 25 years.”