The Top 4 Mistakes MBA Students Make During The Internship (And How To Prevent Them)

For many MBA students, the path to the internship took a lot of hard work. First, you have to get excellent grades in undergrad. Then, you need to work for a few years (and be successful) at a branded, impressive company known for selective hiring. Next, you line up the grades, the essays, the GMAT, and the references to land a coveted spot in a top MBA program. And finally, you get an internship offer at a top company—often a company that only recruits from five to 10 top MBA programs. Students from around the world would work for free for such an opportunity. You can see the light at the tunnel.

What matters now is succeeding during the internship. Can you successfully adapt to a top company’s expectations? And to a new culture? You only have three months—what will it take to demonstrate competence and fit?

I was recently talking to Elizabeth Diley, the recruiting manager for MBA hiring at General Mill’s, one of the world’s best companies at developing leaders (No. 3 on Fortune’s list). After almost eight years in recruiting, Elizabeth has since moved to an internal staffing role within General Mills developing marketing talent through their rotational and leadership programs. I asked her how students can succeed during the internship. Because of Diley’s connection to the recruiting industry, she had several illuminating stories to share. Below is her insight on the mistakes MBA students make—and how to prevent them.

Top Mistakes MBA Students Make and How to Prevent Them

1. Believing That The Company Must Adapt To Them: One of the most common mistakes MBA students make, across industries, is to focus on what they want, or what they need. However, the business community is different. Interns (and employees) serve the customer—and bosses—and team—and subordinates. In fact, those who are most successful figure out how to make others’ lives easier. They work hard to make smart recommendations that help strengthen the company. As an example, a common complaint is “my boss doesn’t give me enough time.” If you think about it, that means that either the boss doesn’t have the time or they don’t want to give the intern the time. Either way, complaining won’t help.

The Fix: Shift the paradigm—Serve Others Rather Than Expecting Others To Serve You. Those who have low(er) expectations of others and recognize that they have been invited by a premier company to demonstrate their ability to fit into the company have a greater chance of succeeding. Simply, it’s the job of the intern to fit with their boss and company; it is not the company’s job to adapt to the intern. While great bosses will try and adapt to the intern, the intern is more likely to be successful if they take responsibility for adapting to the company.

2. Inability To Solve Problems Or Overcome Obstacles: Continuing with the above example, there are many ways to get the help needed to do a great job. There are peers, and documents, and cross-functional resources, and yes, the internet. If the boss is swamped, how can the intern facilitate more stream-lined interactions (e.g., an agenda, very tight and focused meetings that emphasize decision making) in a manner she prefers? (Some bosses like to talk and others like to read; it’s the intern’s job to find the most effective way for their boss.) Are there alumni from the intern’s school who might be more willing to provide coaching? At the MBA level, companies pay $100,000+ for full-time hires and expect interns to navigate challenges. One of the first will be whether the intern can get the job done without a paint-by-numbers template.

The Fix: A skill that is not measured in school, yet will determine success, is the ability to find creative solutions to obstacles and challenges. Not enough time with the boss? Identify what is needed and get it elsewhere. The internship is designed, in part, to see whether students can overcome challenges...

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