Preparing for Business Careers

In the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Northwestern University


If you are like over seventy percent of recent Weinberg seniors, you will go directly from Northwestern to some position in the business world.  Making the transition from college to a job usually involves a complicated process that you may find intimidating (most people do!), especially the interviewing part where potential employers will ask you questions about what you’ve done with yourself so far.  While Northwestern does not offer a bachelor’s degree in business, this handout is intended to be a first step in thinking about what choices you should make to prepare for entering the real working world.


While some people come into college thinking they know exactly what they want to do with their lives, we hope that the process of completing a degree in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences will cause people to reassess and think through their goals.  Other people come in with very open minds or, alternately, no idea of what they want to do with themselves.  Here we hope that the Weinberg curriculum will expose these people to ideas and possibilities that will get them excited about some direction.  If you fall into either group, thinking specifically about what you might want to do after graduation may help you make choices now that will help you later. 


Even if you intend to continue your education in graduate school, finding a job right after graduation might make a lot of sense.  One, it’s a good chance to take a little break from your studies so that you can begin graduate school refreshed.  Two, a couple of years spent working can often improve your chances at getting in to better graduate programs.  Three, even when you’ve finished your graduate studies, there is a good chance that your work after completion will involve business to some extent.  It used to be that many people chose to go to business school for an MBA right after graduation.  This has become very rare these days, with all the top business schools expecting considerable work experience, most of them three or more years.  (At the end of this handout will be some discussion about applying for business school.)


            Northwestern University is committed to preparing you for the challenges you should expect to face in today's business world, and tomorrow's as well.  We hope that completing any of our majors will give you the wide exposure and practice with deep thinking that will ready you for success in whatever field you eventually choose.  Every major involves learning about complex relationships, assimilating large amounts of information, identifying and interpreting the central issues, and then using or presenting what you have learned and figured out.  In studying any area, be it Art History, Classics, or Astronomy, what is most important is that you are perfecting your ability to pick up ideas quickly, think them through, grasp and extend the logical structures they contain.  These developed talents are what will serve you well when you are faced with making sense of the diverse and changing situations you will face in the business world.  While it is clear that certain majors serve as better preparation for certain fields, Northwestern offers an array of classes that go well in combination with any major and are likely to be helpful to you no matter what you find yourself doing with your life. 


            This handout is in two main parts, each with three sub-sections.  The first part concerns how your academic choices within Weinberg may best be made to prepare yourself for a place in the business world.  The second part concerns what you should be doing beyond your academics, in terms of internships, leadership, and activities, to develop your talents and refine your interests about what you can do to earn a living.  Both parts are equally important.  Finally, the handout concludes with some information about pursuing a graduate degree in business.


Academic Choices and Pre-Business


            In applying for jobs, three academic issues will almost always come up:  your major(s) and minor, your grades, and your other classes. 


Truly, there are employers who will not be interested in interviewing you if you are not majoring in a science, or in economics, or in some other specific field; and there are majors that are not specifically sought after by any employer.  There are employers who disdain anyone with a GPA below some arbitrarily selected cutoff.  However, the method used by Northwestern’s Placement Center gives you a chance of drawing an interview with any company that interviews on campus.  But what can be done to help you chances in such an interview, or to get companies to request you for an interview either on or off campus?



            As everyone knows, certain majors can help you get a job in a certain industry or with a certain firm.  However, choosing a major that does not interest you just so that you have a better shot at some job is a poor strategy.  You’ll be happier with a major that you enjoy, you’ll learn a lot more from it, and you’ll do a lot better academically.  Furthermore, with the flexibility afforded by the quarter system, you can pursue the major you like most, and still have room for enough classes and even a minor in some other field that will demonstrate to employers your aptitude and interest in a given area. 


            Just to support our case that choosing a “non-business” undergraduate major certainly need not conflict with your goals for a career in business, here is a list of some prominent corporate leaders and their undergraduate majors.


Jill Barad, CEO of Mattel, Inc.  English and Psychology

David Carter, CEO of Sonatix Theraby Corp, History

Kevin W. English, Chairman and CEO of, History

Michael Fuchs, Chairman of HBO, Political Science

Alan Gilman, President of Consolidated Products, History

Mitch Kapor, Founder of Lotus Development Group, Psychology

Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, English

Scott Krentz, Treasurer of EDS, History

Frank Popoff, CEO of Dow, Chemistry

Alan Stillman, Founder of TGI Friday’s, CEO of Smith and Wollensky’s Steak House and New York Restaurant Group, Music

Jeff Vinek, Manager of the Magellen Fund, English


            In choosing a major or minor or even when you are considering taking classes in a new field, you are well advised to seek out advice from departments’ designated advisors, Weinberg College advisors, and also from other students who have had these classes.  Many students are too shy to talk to department advisors or only feel they are only worthy of doing so after they have taken a number of courses in the field.  This is very unfortunate, and given the great expense of coming to Northwestern, and that these department representatives are paid for the job of giving just such advice, this is akin to a hungry person who has paid for a meal but is too shy to eat it.  Departments are the best place to go for specific course related questions, Weinberg College advisors are better suited to broader curriculum questions, but often it’s best to combine this advice with the wisdom of students who have already taken the path you are considering.  You would be doing yourself a big favor if, through your housing, your activities, or through department oriented undergraduate associations, you could meet students a year or so ahead of you in the process and get their views on how their studies are preparing them for careers.  Seniors who are actively interviewing on the job market are of course the best source of all, and will often be pleased that you respect their opinions enough to ask.


Grade Point Average

            You are unlikely to have an interview where you hear anything like, “Well, we were hoping to find someone with fewer quantitative and writing skills, and with a lower GPA.”  Sure, more acquired skills and a better record of achievement will make you a better candidate.  However, the only employers worth working for are those that recognize that some classes are more challenging than others, and that students who push themselves by taking such classes are likely to pay a cost in terms of somewhat lower grades.  A transcript that displays a high GPA earned in a narrow specialization along with little but introductory classes will often truly be less impressive than one that has a lower GPA but with a lot of challenging courses.  This is especially so if the challenging classes show some sort of mutual coherence and don’t just seem like a random sampling from the course catalogue.  Similarly, an outstanding academic record with a weak set of extracurricular activities and internships will look pretty thin.  Some people work so hard to raise their GPA by a tenth of a point, but then fail to get involved in outside activities that they would enjoy and that would impress potential employers more than a half a grade level rise in GPA. 


            However, there is no doubt that grades are very important.  Grades are often treated as some sort of measure of intelligence, but are a fairly poor one.  What they really are is a measure of meticulousness.  How well you did on mastering details when your own interests were directly at stake will give some indication of how carefully you will work when it is your employer’s interests that are on the line.  The author William Faulkner said, “If you are a writer, you will make time to write.”  In that spirit, your grades give an indication of your consistent ability, over three or four years, to prioritize your professional and personal life.  It shows that you make the sacrifices to get the work done and that you recognize when you need help and that you go out and get it.  Employers recognize that grades aren’t everything and that anyone can have a personal disaster that leads to bad quarter or two, but from experience they know that there is probably no better single predictor of how good an employee someone will be.


Business Oriented Classes to Supplement any Major

            Beyond whatever choice you make for your major, in preparing for a career in business, there are central skills that you would do well to perfect.  These skills can be gained through specific academic programs, through groups of courses you choose to take, or even through your non-academic experiences.  Important among these skills are general ones like effective written and spoken communication, quantitative skills, leadership, and general cultural awareness.  While it is good to cover these bases, you can also build a coherent academic business background through your choices of classes within the Weinberg College.  This could begin with the specific courses offered in accounting, advertising, and marketing but would extend to many possible areas of specialization. 


            Specific programs offered through Weinberg College that teach important business skills include the following:

            Business Institutions Program:  This is an interdisciplinary minor program that focuses on how the complex organizations of businesses function to meet the demands of customers, workers, ownership, government, and technology.  This program also offers the possibility of for-credit internships in Chicago and around the world.

            Chicago Field Studies:  This is a one-quarter, four-credit structured internship program that places a student in a designed internship program with a wide variety of top businesses and organizations in the Chicago area.  The program requires four full days per week of work at the internship with considerable writing in the evenings, and then Friday’s are spent in seminars and discussion groups.  This program is offered, by application, every quarter, including summers.

            Undergraduate Leadership Program:  This two-year program is open to sophomores and juniors and teaches the history, methods, and problems that go with various forms of leadership.  Leadership is often held up as an abstract quality, but it is only by breaking it down to study it carefully, and by trying out various approaches in the face of challenges that we can hope to understand and apply this elusive talent. 

            Concentration in the School of Speech:  There are a limited number of openings for concentration programs in the schools of Speech in the areas of Media Studies, Political Communications, and Human Development & Public Policy.  This offers superb training in communications and public relations.


            Beyond your major and what is offered through organized programs, you can choose classes that will teach you business skills and create an academic record that you can show to potential employers.  Here are some suggested classes that have direct applicability to the world of business.  This list is hardly exhaustive and please note that some of these courses require prerequisites.  In making your choices, it’s probably best that you aim for assembling a coherent group of classes that can easily be described to potential employers, for example “an Advertising and Communications focus.”  Beyond this list, you would do yourself no harm and probably a big favor by improving your speaking, writing, computer, and quantitative skills through any of the courses Northwestern offers in these areas.


Accounting and Finance

            Economics 260:  Accounting and Business Finance

                Economics 308:  Money and Banking

                Economics 309:  Public Finance

                Economics 360:  Corporate Finance

                Industrial Engineering 326:  Economics for Engineers

                Industrial Engineering 373:  Financial Engineering I

                Mathematics 301-1,2:  Mathematical Models of Finance



            Journalism 303:  Advertising

                Journalism 304:  Direct Marketing


Business Organizational Studies

                Sociology 215:  Economics and Society

                Sociology 302:  Sociology of Organizations

                Sociology 331: Markets, Hierarchies, and Democracies

                Learning and Organizational Change 211:  Introduction to Organization Theory and Practice

                Learning and Organizational Change 306:  Studies in Organizational Change

                History 375-1,2:  Technology:  History, Society, and Economy

                Economics 250:  Business and Government

                Industrial Engineering 325:  Engineering Entrepreneurship


Communications and Negotiation

                Communications 205:  Theories of  Persuasion

                Communications 220:  Theories of Argumentation

                Communications 260:  Theories of Organizational Communications

                Communications 363:  Bargaining and Negotiating

                Communications 364:  Collective Decision Making and Communication in Organization


International Studies

Economics 322:  History of the Global Economy

Economics 361:  International Trade

Economics 362:  International Finance

Political Science 240:  Introduction to International Relations

Political Science 340:  Global Society

Political Science 342:  International Organizations

Political Science 372:  Politics of Global Economy

History 319:  History of American Foreign Relations

Language classes



                Economics 202:  Introduction to Microeconomics

                Economics 310-1:  Intermediate Economics

                Economics 339:  Labor Economics

                Economics 349:  Industrial Economics

                Industrial Engineering 324-1,2:  Engineering Management



            Psychology 239:  Marketing Management

Communications Studies 385:  Mass Media Economics


Pre-Business Preparation Outside the Classroom


            What can you be doing other than your studies to learn about business and to impress employers?  You should do things that are fun, lucrative, and exciting.  Firms and business schools like people who are proven leaders who are active with things they care about and who have experienced meaningful work situations.  Straight A’s in your classes don’t mean that you’d be an interesting or useful person to have around but a record of achievement outside the classroom will open some eyes.  This second part of the handout focuses on what you should be doing in terms of participating in extracurricular activities and internships to develop and demonstrate your leadership abilities. 


Leadership and Extracurricular Activities

            Some high prestige companies interview almost solely based upon high grade point average, and there’s no doubt that a strong academic record shows personal persistence and the ability to focus on the important goals.  However, good extracurricular activities and internships often count even more than grades, particularly once you have made the interview stage. 


            Your extracurricular activities give potential employers some notion of your personality and interests.  However, when it comes to choosing extracurricular activities, quality certainly outweighs quantity.  A deep commitment in a significant role with just a few or even one group is more impressive than a host of groups where you had at best minor roles.  It is through these deep commitments that you get a chance to showcase your leadership skills.


            Within Northwestern and across the Chicago area there are organizations that can match almost any possible interest and if you still can’t find the group you’re looking for, consider starting it.  The best companies that recruit at Northwestern are looking for employees that can do more that just apply standard formulas and methods.  Our students are known for their initiative and their abilities to create and fill complex and challenging positions.  If you can organize the ideas and pull together the people you’ve found or motivated to share your sense of mission, you’ve done a good thing for everyone involved and proven something important about your leadership and organizational abilities to your potential employers. 


            Within any organization you join, it’s good to show that you can be a part of an effective team, but at some point, it’s also important that you find some project or initiative of your own.  Something that will have your fingerprints indelibly all over it, where it is your initiative and vision that was primarily responsible for how successful it was.  This could be organizing an annual event, starting a speakers series, creating some informational publication, beginning a new form of fund raising, devising some new product or service, or reaching out to help some previously ignored needy group.  You should be able to explain how you came up with your ideas, how you got things going, what challenges you faced with organizing people, and how you wished you’d done things differently.


There are so many possible activities you could do that you would both enjoy yourself and also making a contribution.  These include humanitarian, environmental, athletic, artistic, not-for-profit, political, philanthropic, and even directly business related.  Included in this last group, Northwestern has groups like the Nugget, which is a student investment club, the Enterprise Club which is dedicated to helping students set up companies and perfect their inventions, and a number of others.  You could also get involved with the Ayers College of Commerce and Industry, a residential college on north campus that is dedicated to learning about business through speakers, trips, activities, internships, and faculty contact with Kellogg.  Northwestern is full of large and complex student-run organizations that offer a lot of experience with directly business related tasks, particularly allocating budgets, advertising and promoting activities, planning events, and organizing people.  Certainly the Associated Student Government, A&O, and Dance Marathon (particularly the finance and corporate relations offices) all are great examples of this. 



            The importance of real world experience cannot be stressed enough when it comes to trying to get a job.

            There’s no doubt that employers would like to see a list several quality internships or summer jobs on your resume.  It’s not so much that they think that you will have learned some specific skills or knowledge, although that’s always a plus.  Instead, by getting internships, you signal many important things.  One, you show that you are careful about planning your future and are serious about gaining the preparation to be a good employee.  Two, you understand business culture and how to work reliably within an organization.  Three, it is interviewing experience.  Four, you show that you were able to impress someone enough for him or her to take the time to hire and train you.  Five, talking about what you did in your internships is one of the best topics in job interviews.  Six, if you are lucky enough to have interned in the sort of business for which you are interviewing, you can believably say that you know what you are getting into and like it.  Certainly many seniors have managed to get jobs in areas that they thought would be interesting but where they had no direct experience, and very quickly realized their mistake.  It’s much better to have a bad experience for a summer or a quarter than to spend your senior year searching for a job that it turns out you hate.  Finally, if you do well at an internship, there’s a good chance that the place will just hire you.


            It’s good to start getting interesting internships early in your college career since this will allow you to have more of them and thus get a wider range of experiences.  Better still, each internship you get makes getting your next one easier and can make you a more desirable candidate for more competitive internships later.  The joke that you want to get an internship in order to gain experience, but that most places won’t hire you without experience is just a joke, not an axiom, but there is some truth there.  As such, you might want to aim fairly low for your first internship with the hope of getting any professional experience on your resume as a start, so you can prove yourself for better spots later. 


            Sadly, some of the best internships in terms of gaining experience are also unpaid.  This is often a very worthwhile investment, perhaps financed by taking a part time job in addition.  Experience gained early may qualify you for better internships or summer jobs later that are both interesting and even paid, sometimes very well paid.  Even if you can afford an unpaid internship, it’s often a good idea to seek a paid one because firms often are more careful with how they use someone they are paying, whereas a free worker sometimes gets left with low value tasks. 


            But how do you get good internships?  First start looking soon.  Northwestern has devoted a lot of resources to building its center of University Career Services (UCS, at 620 Lincoln Street, by Long Field on north campus.  You should consult with them early and often, starting by attending one of their half hour information sessions that are held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3:30.  Through them you can get advice on internship search, techniques for various sorts of interviews, set up practice interviews, get resume help, meet Kellogg mentors, and find out about making contacts through campus industry presentations, job fairs, and through Northwestern’s Alumni Network.  The Career Development Center also runs an “externship” program where a student would get the opportunity to “shadow” a Northwestern alumnus at work for up to three days during the quarter. 


            In looking for internships, the best place to start is by asking your parents, your parents’ friends, your friends, and your friends’ parents to see what sorts of contacts they have.  Also, Northwestern’s placement center has listings from lots of firms that are advertising for summer and part time help during the year, although mostly in Chicago.  These listings come in all the time and also get filled quickly so it is a good idea to check them frequently.


            You should think about places you would like to work and areas or industries that seem interesting to you.  Then write or call these companies or organizations.  Think about what would be your dream internship, and contact that place to ask if they have a place for you.  You won’t get things if you don’t ask; and if you do ask, sometimes things work out, if not this year, then maybe next year.  Try companies, charities, government, community level organizations, arts groups, medical, scientific, museums, environmental, legal, lobbying, or anything else that you can imagine. 


            If you find yourself in the position of choosing between internships, there’s always an attraction to better-known places for the sake of your resume.  However, the best internships of all are those that would allow you to either rotate through a number of an organization’s divisions so that you could gain experience from several angles, or where you would be given some responsibility for some project that would allow you to display your abilities in a distinct and tangible way.  It’s always better to have “real” work that develops your mind, than to just be photocopying for some well-known firm. 


            Weinberg College has two formalized internship programs for credit.  As described above, you can apply for these through the Business Institutions Program and through the Chicago Field Studies Program.  The Business Institutions Program internships take place in the summer and can be anywhere in the world.  Chicago Field Studies has built up a long list of firms and organizations in the Chicago area that have developed approved internship programs that will have you involved in challenging and meaningful work.


Beyond what you can learn from internships, you can also gain a lot of insight into the business world and find out what interests you simply through regularly reading publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week.


Getting Admitted to Graduate Programs in Business


            There was a time when graduating seniors would apply to full-time, two-year MBA programs just like seniors do now for MD, JD, or Ph.D. programs.  However, at the top forty business schools, those days are long past.  All the top business schools require several years of work experience for their incoming students.  And, even if you could get in to the business school of your dreams straight out of undergraduate, you probably wouldn’t want to go.  Much of what is taught in business school is intended to build upon the business experience MBA students bring with them to the classroom.  Consider:  it’s probably hard to teach the fine points of the strategy of chess to someone who’s still mastering how the different pieces move.  Furthermore, much of what business students learn, they learn from each other by sharing their work experiences.  Without a few years at a real job, you will have a hard time contributing in teamwork situations. 


            The best way to prepare yourself for going to business school is to prepare yourself to get a good job upon graduation.  A job where you will reach a position where you are responsible for decisions that are important to the firm will give you the sort of background that business schools appreciate.  An excellent job for this is one that will give you a variety of experiences and allow you some chance to manage other employees.


            Job experience matters, undergraduate grades matter, GMAT scores matter, but in making their admissions decisions, top business schools are quite explicit about not caring about, or even looking at, your undergraduate major.  The only time MBA programs check undergraduate majors is after the admissions process is over, so they can compile a profile for recruiting new students for the following year.  The Kellogg Graduate School of Management is typical of top programs in that its admissions class tends to have the following composition:


Liberal Arts and Humanities, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology




Science, Engineering


Undergraduate Business


            However, admissions directors at graduate business programs do advise that you take a class in statistics.  Many of the relationships and subjects that are taught in business school are explicitly quantitative and a statistics class is itself good preparation and also good evidence that you will be comfortable with the sort of numerical analysis that will often be required.  Beyond that, we think it wouldn’t hurt to have classes in accounting, calculus, and perhaps intermediate micro and macroeconomics.  However, if you’ve managed to get and hold a good job for a couple years, then you’re probably ready to take in what business schools are ready to teach.