internship

Guest Post By Judith Silverman Hodara, Fortuna Admissions and former Head of Admissions at The Wharton School

Do you have to spend your summers on Wall Street if you’re interested in pursuing an MBA or a future career in business?

Certainly not.

As discussed in my recent post on cultivating your MBA leadership potential, growing the qualities that make you an attractive business school candidate and future leader begins with finding and pursuing the things you most enjoy.

This path may seem counterintuitive amid cultural and cinematic images of b-school apprenticeships with banks, big-brand consulting firms, and, increasingly, tech giants. But don’t limit yourself to Wall Street if you’d rather work with a theatre company. As you lay the foundation for the experiences that will shape your early career—building essential communication, interpersonal, leadership, and teamwork skills—you’ll want to be in a learning environment that sparks your genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. Moreover, the hands-on experiences that can be the most rewarding and remarkable can happen in the least likely of places.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of internships. The first is a set internship program, like those offered by bigger companies. They’re geared toward exposing candidates to the kinds of on-the-job skills and expertise they’ll need as future employees in their industry, while creating a steady pipeline of talent. The second is the internship you create for yourself with someone willing to have you around for the summer, and, if you’re fortunate, pay you for learning on the job.

For example, I recently worked with a young woman who spent her summer working for an internationally recognized rug designer in Philadelphia. The company needed someone to help streamline communications efforts and organize its massive trove of color files. At first blush, the job seemed tedious, but it gave the young woman uncommon exposure to the intricacies of business ownership and operations—from liaising with manufacturers to working with customers and designers.

Will she go on to be a rug designer? Not likely. But by diving in to help where she was needed, she acquired valuable skills, knowledge, and experiences that can be applied in a variety of industries and contexts. And the experience of working directly for the owner yielded opportunities she may not have gained if she sought something more traditional. The big companies like Goldman, Google or Bain have their share of prestige and brand recognition, but small companies or organizations can often give you a lot of agency for hands-on learning.

Your summer vacations between high school and college are a terrific time to experiment. It’s all too common to discover the job or industry at the top of your list isn’t actually a good fit. Maybe you thought you were destined for a career in tech, but your three-month internship was enough to realize it’s not the culture for you, or that the high-stress environment takes the shine off start-up glamor. And that’s okay.

Actually, it’s great. Best to explore and find out your preferences now than after a few months in your first post-college job when the stakes—and expectations—are higher.

I went to University of Pennsylvania for undergrad, which has a very pre-professional culture. It felt like everyone knew what they wanted to be after graduation, and there was a lot of pressure to go a certain path. The prescription was: land a certain internship in the industry you’re pursuing, get invited back, win a great job offer. And for some, it was a good path. But if you’re someone still curious about what you’re passionate about, don’t let these precious summers slip by without exploring what might light that spark.

The truth is that if you find something that’s really a good fit for you, it can open a lot of doors. As Wharton’s former head of admissions, it was a candidate’s thoughtful reflections on their experiences, learnings, and motivations that mattered; and that was not any less important than the name of their firm or employer. We cared a great deal about growth experiences, and less about name brands.

A prevailing myth is that if you don’t choose a set career path, there’s no job or industry. On the contrary, seizing the opportunities that present themselves through conversation, connections, and unconventional offers are all ripe for gaining different kinds of business exposure.

So where to start? Make use of the resources at your institution, be it high school or college, from counseling to career services. Many schools have staff on hand who are ready and willing to help you to interact with people who may be of interest.

And in the digital age, there’s nothing to stop you from connecting across the country—or the world—to people involved in industries or companies that might excite you. Network wisely to reach out to people in industries that might be of interest to you. Most of the time, you’ll find people are more than willing to tell you what they do for a living, what it’s like, and why they do it. In the advent of LinkedIn, you’ll need to start building a profile that’s mature and shows a clear progression in terms of skills and abilities, and it’s not too early to start.

The worst thing you can do is try to fit yourself into a mold you think business schools will want. Trying to fit a perception of the “perfect profile” is detrimental to your growth and development. Business schools want candidates who have a firm grasp of their strengths, motivations, and passions, as well as unique experiences and perspectives that offer a logical connection to their future ambitions as a leader. Giving yourself permission to explore something that’s of deep interest to you may make the biggest difference.

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Written by Judith Silverman Hodara
Judith Silverman Hodara is a Co-Founder and Director of Fortuna Admissions. Judith formerly served as Head of Admissions at The Wharton School.