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In the tough job market for those with M.B.A.'s, many recruiters say the edge in landing jobs and plum internships increasingly belongs to students who have participated in business-school case competitions.
These are typically contests sponsored by a school or an organization for teams of candidates for a master's in business administration who have to solve some sort of business dilemma in a certain time frame. There is usually a cash prize -- and a chance for students to schmooze and network with company executives.
The competitions give students the chance to solve "real world" problems. That is why more recruiters are also using them as a way of identifying top candidates, business schools say. Companies want hires who can hit the ground running at a time when employers don't want to spend money on training.
Reshma Shah, a marketing professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, says that at least four companies have told her they would interview only students who have been part of the Goizueta Marketing Strategy Competition, which takes place this week.
"This is the first time I'm seeing [employers] say that you need to do something relevant before you start work," Ms. Shah says. "They want you to come in with ideas and turn things out right away."
Daniel Smith, chairman of the marketing department at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, says that Whirlpool Corp. uses the competition it sponsors at the school as a screening process for its internship slots. "Instead of running through interviews, they get to see how these students perform on their feet and also how they behave at the cocktail reception the night before," Mr. Smith says.
And schools are also seeing more interest in these competitions from students as well. "A few years ago, students had their jobs and that's all they needed," says Lou Marino, an assistant professor of strategy at the University of Alabama's Manderson Graduate School of Business in Tuscaloosa. "Now, students are looking for the advantage, so I'm seeing more interest."
Kerry Moher, second-year student at University of Georgia's Terry College of Business in Athens, landed two job opportunities because his team placed second in an annual case competition sponsored by his school. "The presentation ceremony helped me stand out from the crowd of participants from the other 11 business schools," he says.
Even undergraduate business schools are reaping the benefits of these competitions. Badal Pandhi, who earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia last spring, participated in a case competition his junior year. He says it helped him land his investment-banking analyst job at Legg Mason Inc., a Baltimore financial-services company.
"My experience in case competitions came up in every stage of the interview process at Legg," Mr. Pandhi says. "It seemed either that the interviewer viewed my experience as unique or even something they wanted to learn more about. ... It was a good topic of conversation which allowed me to talk about my skills in a specific context."
Not that participating in competitions always guarantees a job. "Students do make connections. ... The key is that it's a foot in the door," says Rajiv Grover, head of the marketing department at Terry College of Business and organizer of a competition that took place last month. "I don't know about job offers."
Lyn Baranowski, a 27-year-old who graduates from Harvard Business School this spring, agrees. She and a group of her friends have repeatedly participated in and have won several competitions, and although she does it solely for fun, she also says her victories haven't landed her a job offer.
"There aren't a ton of companies at these things and even if you win, they're still focused on your specific background," says Ms. Baranowski, who is still looking for a job doing international business strategy. Company executives "do come up to you and talk to you, but they never say, 'I have a job.'"
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