MBA Case Competitions: Win Cash and Build Your Skills

whiteboardFor many MBA students, money is a top priority. Not only are most working toward a degree with an eye toward a higher salary, but also actually paying for the degree is often a concern. While employers might cover some of the costs of a degree, managing a full-time job and school is a challenge. For those who don’t work full time, making ends meet while in school is a major obstacle.

So what’s an ambitious business student to do? One of the most commonly overlooked income sources is actually intrinsically related to MBA studies, and has the potential to be a significant source of cash to pay for school, cover living expenses, or pay off student loans. MBA case competitions offer large prizes — in some cases, $10,000 or more — to promising students who know their stuff, and aren’t afraid to show it.

Case Competitions Overview

Case studies are the cornerstone of business education. Most business case studies provide background on a company and a particular challenge that it faced and how it addressed that challenge, placing the concepts learned in the classroom into context. The idea is for students to analyze these cases to identify strengths and weaknesses in the company’s approach, learn best practices (and mistakes to avoid), and identify the real-word approaches that they can apply to their own careers.

In a case study competition, teams of business students, usually from the same business school program, compete against each other to find the best solution to a specific case. Depending on the specific competition format, the teams usually have between three and 24 hours to review the case and develop recommendations. They then present those recommendations and their rationale to a panel of judges, who then determine which team presented the strongest case.

Hundreds of different case competitions are held every year both in the U.S. and abroad. Major corporations sponsor most, but a good number are hosted by universities. Specific rules vary, but teams are either invited to competitions (in most cases, the sponsors will send notice to business programs asking them to send a team of students) or invited to apply to a competition.

The majority of teams consist of colleagues from the same school or program, but some competitions, like one at Ohio State University, create random teams of students from the entire pool of participants. In some competitions, the sponsors will pair the participants with experts and leaders in the field to provide guidance and feedback, while in others, the students are on their own.

trainingWhy Enter a Case Competition

The potential for prize money is a major motivator for many students to enter case competitions, but there are several other great reasons to seek out these contests. Winning or placing in a case competition is a great addition to your resume, and can help you stand out when you apply for jobs. In fact, even just participating in a competition shows your commitment to the field and you have strong analytical skills.

Case study competitions also enhance your learning. Not only do you get the opportunity to apply your existing knowledge to a case, but also you build your skills in making presentations, critical thinking, and analysis. Because your teammates bring different skills to the competition, you can learn from them, as well as the other teams in the contest who might take a different approach to the problem.

Of course, you can learn from your team mentor — who is likely to become an important contact in your network. In fact, the potential for networking is a third major benefit of case competitions. You’re likely to meet people from all over the country who are in different stages of their careers, and build relationships that can be beneficial to your career going forward.

Before You Enter

Entering a case competition isn’t something to be done on a whim, or taken lightly. These intense, multi-day events can be stressful, exhausting, and even frustrating. You must be prepared to spend up to 24 hours devoted entirely to your case, with your team, with little to no break (or sleeping) time. In addition, competitions aren’t free. It’s likely that you’ll have to travel to the competitions, and you may need to pay a fee to enter.

In addition, you need to be prepared to spend some time developing your application; most require a PowerPoint presentation or essay explaining why you are qualified to enter the competition and what you hope to gain.

However, despite the intensity and potential expenses of entering a case competition, the rewards from the experience are well worthwhile. If you build your experience and find success, you can boost your income and your experience and marketability to employers.