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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 31, 2009

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For the most part, a consulting internship isn't all that different from the entry-level consulting you would get after you earn your degree. Still, there are a few distinctions worth noting to applicants.

Why internships exist

Even though recruiting for summer internships is very costly for firms, it seems like many consulting firms love having interns. In fact, most of the large consulting firms have an annual summer internship program. One reason is that summer internships are a highly effective form of recruiting for everyone involved. A summer internship is a chance for the firm to evaluate you for a couple of months on the job before choosing to extend you a full-time offer. It is also a golden, extended opportunity for the firm to sell you on its interesting projects, work-life balance, and culture. Finally, interns are an incredibly effective form of word-of-mouth advertising. If you have a good experience at the firm, you will no doubt tell all of your classmates about how great the firm is and why they should work there.

In addition, consulting interns are a source of cost-efficient labor for the firm. For instance, interns often are paid less than their full-time equivalents. Even though an undergrad intern might do the work of a first-year analyst for a summer, she or he would probably get paid a little less per month than would the first-year analyst. In addition, hiring a consultant for a summer is a lot cheaper to the firm than bringing on a permanent hire, since the firm need pay the intern for a few month's worth of work only.

That said, the internship is a fantastic opportunity for the employee for a number of reasons. The biggest advantage is that an internship gives the student a great inside track to a full-time offer. In a large number of internship programs, the highest performing interns are given an offer to join the firm on a full-time basis after graduation. In addition, working on the job for a few months is by far the best way to find out if you like consulting. And it's a great way to figure out if the particular firm suits you.

A typical summer internship

Most consulting summer internships last 8-12 weeks. A number of summer internship programs start with a week of training to start; typical topics include firm history and values, problem solving, technology training (Powerpoint and Excel for management consultants and systems and programming tools for technology consultants), and presentation skills. If you are interning with a large consulting firm, you will probably have some sort of formalized interactive classoom training along these lines. The smaller firms will often train you on the job instead.

During the first week, an HR professional at the firm will attempt to staff each of the interns, attempting to match the available supply of projects with the interns' interests. Not all interns are staffed immediately, but because they are a priority in the staffing queue, most are staffed within the first two weeks.

The projects are, for the most part, real engagements. A wireless provider wants to develop a strategy for entering the mobile eCommerce business. A global fast-food restaurant company is considering a line extension into higher-end meal offerings. A printer company is deciding whether or not it should acquire a competitor. As the intern, chances are good that your start date won't coincide with the project kickoff, so you really could join the project at any time.

Typical tasks for the undergraduate intern are not that different from those of the first-year analyst, and the job of the MBA summer intern is similar to that of the first-year associate. The main difference is that because the intern is a temporary hire, his or her work needs to be completed within a defined period of time that may not coincide with the actual project completion. So, by and large, interns will be assigned clearly segmentable project work, like the secondary research of 15 competitors, a small market sizing spreadsheet model, or a specific set of Powerpoint slides. MBA interns might take on additional responsibility, such as more extensive financial modeling.

Many internship programs involve at least one performance review, at the end of the summer. Some programs have a mid-summer review as well. This can be helpful because it gives the intern a chance to improve his or her work before offers are made. If you don't have a formal review planned as part of your internship, be proactive in asking for one.

Finally, since as an intern you are still technically a recruit, you will likely be wined and dined a bit. When the economy is alive and kicking and new hires have the balance of power, interns get treated extremely well. Perks include free fine dining, baseball games, attaches, and concerts. In recent years, firms have scaled back these perks considerably for cost reasons, but interns will probably get a nice meal or two during the summer regardless.

~Landing a summer internship in consulting

The recruiting process for summer internships is identical to that for full-time offers. The only difference is timing. The summer internship recruiting cycle typically starts in January, whereas often consulting firms hire for full-time in the fall for the following fall. Be sure to check with your school's career office for timing and procedures.

Be warned that today, due to the economic slowdown, there are fewer available internships for undergraduates and MBAs than in recent years. A compounding affect is the seasonality of the consulting industry. The summer months typically result in the lowest spending on consultants of any part of the year. Combine this effect with the overall economic slowdown, and we have a reduced incentive for firms to take on a full load of summer internships. Firms are significantly scaling back their on-campus recruiting efforts; many are no longer even having a campus presence in January.

Treat the consulting internship job search, then, like an off-campus job search. Do the research on firms and contact your targets to see if they are hiring interns. Also, if you have flexibility in your campus schedule, see if you can work during the spring or fall instead, when there will be fewer students competing for scarce internship spots. If the firm is local, see if you can work part-time during a semester.

Tips on being an effective summer intern

Full-time offers for summer interns were once a given. These days, very few summer interns in 2002 were actually granted full-time offers (as little as one out of thirty for a recent MBA intern program at a large consulting firm). So, given that it will be tough to get an offer, we recommend you focus on making the most out of your summer internship in all the other ways.

Ask to be put on an engagement with travel. You really want to make sure you will like consulting, so push yourself. If you try to get on a project with no travel, you will not have a realistic picture of consulting (since that would be the exception, not the norm).

Collect business cards. You will be meeting lots of consultants, and it will difficult to remember them all. Try to grab their business card at some point and make a few notes on the back. In the future, you can touch base with them and have a few tidbits to remind them who you are.

Attend as many social events as possible. Treat the summer as one long networking event. You want to meet as many consultants of all levels at firm, and you will want to stay in touch with the other interns you meet.

Set up Friday one-on-one's. Again, you are building your network. Try to meet up with a wide range of consultants, including partners. Friday is a great day for this, because consultants tend to be in their home office on Fridays. Grab coffee with some of the newer consultants to get the inside scoop on the firm.

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