Last Updated: Apr 26, 2016
So, you're a business major (or you're studying business...or you just think business is pretty cool or whatever), and you're trying to figure out what you want to do after college.
Maybe you'll go on to graduate school; professional school in business, law, medicine; or full-time work. In any case, getting at least one internship in college can be incredibly helpful in making those decisions, because internships allow you to learn about your preferences and interests. And, of course, internships can also give you the experience you need to get into graduate school or get that first job out of college. But we're not going to be discussing long-term career advice here; rather, we're going to be talking about how to get a internship in business that will further your career. (You can learn more about what internships are really like here.)
I would also like to point out that it is by no means necessary to major in the fields of business, accounting, economics, finance, or marketing to get a business internship. In fact, two of my best friends, both political science majors, obtained excellent internships and jobs in not just the business world, but in finance—one at an industry-leading investment research firm and the other at a large hedge fund. An interest in business and in learning the transferrable skills in the field are all you need.
Skills needed in a business internship
First, let me emphasize that the most important skill in the business world is the ability to critically analyze problems with quantitative and qualitative methods. You might be wondering: what does that even mean? It means that to succeed in business (and in most fields), you need to be able to look at an issue and analyze it using mathematical and statistical (aka quantitative) metrics together with subjective (qualitative) criteria to arrive at decisions. These are also often referred to "hard" and "soft" skills, respectively.
To put it another way, think of business skills in two main groups:
- "Hard" skills: Accounting, Economics, Finance, Mathematics, Statistics
- Related internships/jobs: Accountant, Business Development, Corporate Finance, Economist, Investment Banking
- Hard skills tend to be required for a solid foundation in business and are sometimes measured by aptitude tests, quizzes, brainteasers, etc. Internship employers may also look for evidence of these skills in your college course work.
- "Soft" skills: Communications, Human Resources, Management, Marketing, Sales
- Related internships/jobs: Customer Service Rep, Broker, Marketer, Manager, Salesperson
- Soft skills tend to be handier as one advances in an organization to become the leader of a team, part of the management, or an entrepreneur. But these skills are harder to test in an interview setting and, by the same token, also more difficult to learn through classes or books, which is why employers may look at business students' extracurricular activities, like if they served in a leadership position in a club.
Of course, developing a broad set of skills is still one of the best things you can do to ensure you're a strong candidate for a wide variety of jobs, whether you're a business major or not. But you will almost certainly find that many business internships (and subsequent jobs) require a strong balance of both quantitative and qualitative skills.
Beyond these hard and soft skills, it will also probably need to be familiar with the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access) and/or Google Drive. In general, the more programs, apps, and technology you're familiar with, the better prepared you'll be for a variety of internships—and the better your résumé is going to look to employers. So be sure to engage in any tech you may be learning in your classes and look for opportunities to learn about other programs that may interest you, whether it's teaching yourself some computer programming or following some online lectures. After all, so much of business happens on the cutting edge of technology, so that's where you want to be.
Types of business internships
Before I dive into some tips for business majors on the hunt for internships, you are may be wondering about what kind of opportunities are even out there. Below you'll find descriptions of some of the common types of business internships and even part-time jobs...
Formal corporate internships
Most of traditional internship for business students involve working in corporate offices doing accounting, finance, marketing, product research, etc. for large corporations (think Wall Street MVPs like Microsoft, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Verizon). These internships provide valuable formal training and the chance to see how big companies, like the Fortune 500, work.
More likely than not, these internships will either be very specific to one area of business—such as accounting, corporate finance, or marketing a specific product—or they will be generalist internships that expose you to the workings of the whole company. So which one is right for you? If you're not sure about what you want to do with your business major, or if you're just taking the idea of a future in business out for a spin, you will want to get a generalist internship, since that will allow you to sample many different facets of a company. But if you are in a specific business major, like accounting, and you want real-world experience in that area, you will be better served by a specific internship, because a generalist internship won't help you grow your skills as much.
In either case, these are great internships that provide you with a solid brand name on your résumé, and you'll learn a lot about how large organizations work, how teams work, etc.
Internships at start-ups and innovative small firms
You basically learn everything working as an intern at a start-up, because it's a microcosm containing almost all of the aspects of any major business: teamwork, strategic management, how to develop an idea into a product, marketing, sales, operations, human resources, etc. It’s really exciting to see how the same person can be in charge of customer service, marketing, and sales at the same time. On the other hand, if you don’t step up to the challenge and take on new responsibilities, interning at a start-up may provide no value to you at all. Start-ups typically don’t have formal internship or training programs either (they're basically the antithesis of the big-time Wall Street internships); rather, you'll be expected to learn as you go by making mistakes and taking chances.
After such an internship, if you decide to go for a position at a more established company, make sure you can explain why you want to make such a dramatic shift. Good reasons include wanting more direction, formal training, guidance, stability, structure, etc.
Asset management, investment banking, and strategy consulting internships
First, here are a few firms that fit into these categories: Ariel Capital Management, Barclays Capital, Bain, Booz Allen, Boston Consulting Group, Citadel, Citigroup, CSFB, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JP Morgan, McKinsey & Co., Morgan Stanley, UBS Warburg, etc. These are the big players that mainly recruit at the nation’s top universities, usually offer the highest salaries (unlike start-ups), expect 60–90 hours a week (much like start-ups), and often lead to full-time jobs and careers. They're much like real-world jobs, because these companies are essentially vetting you to become new hires.
If you decide not to stay on with the company after you graduate, having their name on your résumé is practically a guaranteed boost. Be attuned to the skills and knowledge of the people you work with, along with the connections you acquire. Make sure to stay in touch with recruiters too. And when you interview for a new position, detail how you are genuinely interested in the job—not just slapping that company on your résumé—because they might feel that you are looking for the prestige of the name, not the experience.
Basic office jobs
Basic office jobs and internships are found all over the place, often in suburban business parks near where many of us live. This is the kind of “internship” that involves shredding papers, photocopying, faxing, and running various errands. (Be advised: sometimes companies recruit for such positions and depict them as more formal internships like the ones described above.) But even if all you actually did was get your boss coffee, order lunch from the local Chinese restaurant for the whole office, and organize a baseball game outing, figure out what you learned from the experience. Those are the skills you will use to sell yourself on your résumé and in your interview for your next internship (or job). Try to learn what office politics are about. What does the company you interned with do? Who are their competitors? What do they well and what do they do poorly? Glean everything you can.
Okay, these may not fall into traditional "internship" territory: I'm talking about everything from jobs at McDonalds to the Gap. But jobs such as these can still help you achieve your future internship/job goals. They give you experience, and though that experience may not seem related to what you want to do in the future, when you look at it the right way, you can uncover its true value. So when you're writing your résumé or sitting down for an internship interview, instead of just saying you bagged French fries or watched for theft at your retail store, again, think about what you learned from these responsibilities. What would you change if you were the manager? How would you speed up the pizza delivery process? How would you improve your company’s customer database in order to better manage sale and frequent-customer rewards? Take these experiences and build on them. These kinds of positions are a good start in the business world, plus they provide some cash and you can easily pursue them during your high school years and perhaps your first year of college.
Other business opportunities
While everything that exists doesn’t necessarily fall into one of the above categories, most college-level internships fit somewhere on this list. Experience in one of these industries will play a key role in securing a job after graduation.
How find internship opportunities in business
Now that you know a little bit more about the internship opportunities out there for business majors (and non-majors alike), you should have a better idea of where your skills, interests, and goals fit into them. This is the stage of the game where you think about what you want. And then go after it.
As for finding these positions, the process for internships is pretty much the same for business students as any other:
- You can research and target companies directly and inquire about their internship openings.
- You can search through your college's internship database online if they have one and/or go to your school's career office and ask for help. Fortunately, formal business internships are also often formally connected with colleges and universities, making it easier for students to secure positions.
- You can use other internship search and recruiting sites like Looksharp, Idealist, Indeed.com, CareerSushi, and, of course, Internships.com.
- You can ask your parents, friends, other family, professors, and/or mentors if they know of any opportunities at local businesses.
- You can do a straight-up Google search for "business internships in [insert your town]" or "internships for [insert your business major specialization]."
Then, once you have some roles in mind, it's time to apply. Get ready to sell yourself.
Applying and interviewing
Whether it's on paper or in person, the best way to convince an employer that they should hire you is to show that you would be a bonafide asset to their company and that you genuinely want to work there—almost like it's your destiny.
Now, there are just a few more things you need to prepare as you apply and interview for those internships you so carefully collected:
First things first: if you're not familiar with putting together a résumé...go here. Once you have a polished and professional résumé ready to go, make sure it includes all of the following—tailored to your business interests, obviously.
- GPA: Also include your GPA in your major if it’s better than your overall GPA. And keep in mind that many prestigious investment banks and strategy consulting firms will not interview anyone with a GPA below 3.5—so get to studying!
- Major and classes taken: Make sure to list relevant courses such as accounting or database management on your résumé.
- Past work experience: As discussed above in the types of business internships, you can spin the skills/experiences you gain at virtually any job so that they make sense for the position you're going after. Highlight them.
- Extracurricular activities: This comes up all the time, but “leadership” experience is nice to have on a résumé, no matter how irrelevant it may seem. It’s better to focus on one or two activities to show you are dedicated and not doing things just to list them on a résumé.
- Skills: Are you fluent in other languages? What about computer languages? Are you good with MS Excel and PowerPoint?
Tell a story. Explain why you deserve this internship in particular—why it's your destiny. For example, John is interviewing for an investment banking internship and this is his story:
“I have always been interested in investing. When I was 12, my mother got me the Stein Roe Young Investor game and I learned about the differences between different types of investment vehicles. When I was 16, my parents gave me $2,000 to start my own online brokerage account, and I invested it in two consumer durables companies and made a 24% return in one year, but then lost all of it next year. I learned a lot from the experience and realized that I needed more than just qualitative analysis to make good investment decisions. When I got to college, I enrolled in accounting and finance in order to understand the meaning behind P/E and EV/EBITDA ratios and various other metrics. I feel like working for [your company] because I want to build on my skills and work with intelligent people. I believe the team–oriented atmosphere at [your company] will help me learn a lot. I hope that I will be able to add value here because I also value the tenacity, commitment to customer service, and data-backed analysis prized at [your company].”
See, it makes sense. John can adjust this for any company—and he is destined to work at every single investment bank he interviews with.
Again, if you're not familiar with interviewing...go here. In the context of a business internship interview, keep the same tenets of your résumé and cover letter in mind: Tell a story. Show how you're the right person for the job. Spin your past experiences so they fit the job you're applying for. And, whatever you do, practice responding to interview questions! (More interview tips here.)
And that’s it. Create a strong résumé, ask others to edit it (like career advisors, human resources reps, alumni, parents, etc.), and go rock your interviews. Before you do, though, make sure you have spent time thinking about what you want to do and how you will go about accomplishing it. Setting a path with definite goals can help you a lot. Good luck!