Advice to First Year MBAs: Get Functional Experience

One thing I did not know when recruiting for the MBA summer internship was the following: just how important prior experience in the function that you're recruiting for was. For example, I recruited for marketing and the one thing I didn't have was strong functional experience in marketing prior to the MBA. What I did do was leverage the opportunities in the first year of the MBA to help build that functional skill set in marketing.

Here's the reality. Everyone's going to be super polished when it comes to interview technique. Not just in your MBA program, but also students at peer schools where the company is also recruiting. It's expected that you get your S.T.A.R. stories down and make a really good impression to recruiters. But first you have to actually have the right stories to tell.

Your MBA career center can only help you with polishing your interview technique. They can't actually help you with creating the stories to tell during the interview. Because that is something they have no control over - since it depends on your previous experiences and your motivation to pursue the right experiences during your time in the MBA.

When companies are hiring, they're looking to reduce risk, as I've alluded to here, where I discuss "night jobs". Getting into a really good MBA program helps reduce that risk. However, as most MBAs are career switchers, there's always a lot of uncertainty in people's future performance in a new function.

Just imagine yourself in the shoes of a recruiter. When someone has zero experience in the function that you're recruiting for, that's a pretty big liability. Paper trials are incredibly important when hiring people, and as an MBA you want to make sure the evidence is right there for recruiters. You don't want recruiters to assume anything, you have to spell it out for them.

While demonstrating leadership is incredibly important as I've discussed many times, you still want actual functional experience. Here are some ways you can get these experiences as a first year MBA student. These will serve as the source of the powerful stories that you can tell during interviews:

1.  Start something. 

It could be anything - a student club, a team that works on a start up project, a fundraising campaign for a non-profit. Here's my example again: I served as the marketing lead for Duke Ventures, a new student organization that was just founded when Fall 2 term began. I built the pitch deck for venture capitalists and launched the entire marketing campaign for our inaugural venture capital conference in February.

I had never done marketing in this capacity before, and I learned so, so much. My client was the student leadership team and I needed to build the strategy, execute the tactics, and collect the market data that allowed for recommendations on the overall strategy of the club.

This experience served as the basis for one or two of my interview S.T.A.R. stories and demonstrated my commitment to the transition into marketing and just how passionate I was about it. When you start something new, you're in a leadership role almost by default. So not only will you provide evidence on your performance in the new function you're pursuing, but also your leadership potential.

2. Be picky about first year cabinet positions in student clubs.

You want to experience as much as you can in your first year, but you also don't want to overwhelm yourself with things that aren't efficient in achieving your goals. From a recruiter's perspective, simply having a leadership title in a student club isn't that impressive. It's what you do that matters. You want to really find a position that can help you build the skills you need for your next role.

3. Look outside the business school.

One of my most intensive first year MBA experiences came outside of Duke Fuqua. It was the start up challenge that was run by the National Cancer Institute. Ultimately, you need to find something that you are passionate about. For me it was innovations in the health care industry. I know some of my classmates got involved with a student-run initiative to send a time capsule to Mars, which is out of this world, literally.

This is really the value of the Health Sector Management or Finance certificate from a recruiting perspective - it allows MBAs to demonstrate they are committed to something. As I mentioned, business skills are really just tools, what matters most is what you do with them. So if you're interested in health care and marketing, do a project with the medical school, nursing school, or an organization like the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs.

It's like hitting two birds with one stone. Not only will you get functional experience, but also an opportunity to work on a real world project within the industry that you're pursuing as well. You don't want to limit yourself to the opportunities in the business school - you want to be as broad as possible and make as big impact as you can.


By now you may have noticed that all of these strategies to help with your recruiting are also beneficial in the long term as well. That's because your long term development plans are aligned with the MBA recruiting goals of hiring companies, believe it or not.

These companies pay big bucks for MBAs because they want to hire the great leaders of tomorrow. You're paying big bucks to get the MBA because you want to be a great leader of tomorrow. In the end, everyone's on the same team.

This blog post is part of a 6-piece series called "Advice to First Year MBAs". You can find a list of all the post in the series here.


  1. An absolutely great post! I enjoyed reading every bit of it, Thanks for taking the time. This kind of works as an eye opener for me. I was recently admitted into the Duke daytime MBA and I will be matriculating next year. I plan to go for management consulting after my MBA coming from project management. Though I have substansive management/leadership/project work experience which can work for my advantage when applying for internship, I never really had an actual consulting experience. This is something that will hunt me back if I don't pay enough attention to how I can fill those gaps and get the functional experience you mentioned in your post.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about what we need to consider the most. No matter how and where I search/read to prepare for the MBA experience (BusinessWeek, forbes... you name it), great blogs like this one are the best place to find the most valuable information.

    I can only imagine your busy schedule and how you're struggling to find the time to share stories. But I am sure many readers (obviously most of them are invisible) do read and like the content of this blog

    1. Hi Abdul, thanks very much for your comment and kind words about my blog! It's always great to get feedback and hear how it's helping out prospective students.

      Regarding your goal to get into consulting, there's a ton of resources at Fuqua that will help you obtain success in your transition. With consulting firms some look more at behavioral questions and some rely more heavily on evaluating the case interview. You'll be in good hands, as the community here is quite amazing.