It's the perfect time to gain work experience and put your new business skills to the test, says Diana Hinds

Helen O'Donnell's summer consultancy project with the Co-operative, contrary to her expectations, turned out to be the highlight of her MBA course.

In the final three months of her one-year MBA at Lancaster University Management School, 34-year-old O'Donnell, like many other MBA students, was keen to spend her summer getting some practical experience in a company, to put to the test her growing business skills and theoretical knowledge.

Through the Lancaster careers service O'Donnell approached the Co-operative, because of her interest in ethical business. Together with another MBA student, she was taken on to explore the company's youth engagement strategies and design websites and programmes through which the Co-operative could support young people. She carried out research, gathering data and conducting company interviews, and by the end of the summer had produced both a client report and an academic dissertation.

"It held together all my previous education and community experience in a corporate setting, and I really enjoyed it," she says. "But time management is crucial: I would have enjoyed it less if we hadn't been so organised. It was one of the hardest pieces of work for me, but one of the most rewarding."

About 10 to 15 per cent of MBA students at Lancaster opt for a library-based dissertation over the summer, the majority take on consultancy projects (generally unpaid), and a further 10 to 15 per cent seek out a more formal internship, becoming a full-time, paid company employee for a couple of months.

"The projects and internships are an invaluable way of students putting learning into practice," says Jane Johnson, Lancaster's corporate relations manager, who builds links with companies and asks them to put forward issues or problems they need tackled. "It's an opportunity to build on existing expertise, or, if you're looking for a career move, to try something different."

Lindsay Halliday, MBA careers adviser at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, agrees that consultancy projects/internships are increasingly important to MBA students and says they can often generate job offers.

"More and more the projects and internships are coming to the fore, because students want to get the value from their MBAs and gain as much experience as they can, not just theoretical but practical. Finding companies for students to work with is not a problem: companies need this kind of specialist help and it's a great opportunity for them to observe potential employees without having the recruitment costs."

Students on one-year courses, with dissertations to complete over the summer, tend to choose consultancy projects over more structured internships. But the two-year MBA course at London Business School allows more room for manoeuvre and operates more along the lines of leading US schools, with virtually all its students applying for a three-month internship at the end of the first year.

Internships at major companies are highly competitive, as well as lucrative, and the whole process is taken extremely seriously at LBS. Recruiters from investment banking, consulting and industry (including Johnson & Johnson, Shell, BP, Google) visit the campus several times a year and LBS grooms its students for interview from when they first arrive.

The internships run from mid-June to early October, and more than 10 per cent of LBS students now seek a double internship to maximise the advantages. A small number of students may choose to work for a start-up company rather than a large corporation, to get the experience of decision-making on a different scale.

"Many of our students are career-changers and the internships for them are essential," says David Simpson, LBS associate director, marketing and admissions. "For career-advancers, they are an important opportunity to apply what they've learnt or test out a company."

With LBS interns earning an average of £1,000 a week, the internships are also a "fantastic way to help pay for the MBA" (cost: £44,000), says Simpson, as well as a valuable period back in the workforce. Interns at major companies can also expect quite a few perks in terms of cocktail parties, glitzy lunches and dinners, as companies do their best to secure the most talented students.

After the internship, LBS students have a full year "to continue to brush up", says Diane Morgan, director of the LBS careers service, and at the end of it, a large percentage accept job offers from the companies where they were interns.

For Marc Smelik, director of the career management centre at Leeds University Business School, the key emphasis of the consultancy project should be problem-solving. Two-thirds of Leeds MBA students either seek out their own company project or find one through the school's links with companies in the region, for which they may receive a bonus payment but probably not a salary.

"What we don't want our students to do over the summer is just do a job," says Smelik. "We want them to solve a problem. They need to get stuck into a real problem or issue – and that's important for the process of finding a job when they graduate."

'It was one of the most useful parts of the MBA'

Chris Lawrence, 36, did a consultancy project for Turner & Townsend, the construction and management consultancy, to complete his one-year MBA at Leeds University Business School in 2007. He is now property and estates development manager for Bupa.

I had been running my own training and development consultancy, and thought an MBA would give me the skills and leverage I needed to work in a larger organisation.

Right from the start of the course we were encouraged to think about what we wanted to do in the summer. I chose the consultancy project, rather than a library-based study – partly because of the potential job at the end of it, but mainly because I wanted to gain experience in a larger company.

I approached Turner & Townsend, and constructed a project for them looking at good practice in stakeholder management. I spent three weeks doing on-site research, and the rest of the three months based at the university, completing my company report and dissertation.

It was one of the most useful parts of the MBA. It showed me I would be happy in a large organisation, and I was able to talk about my experiences when I was interviewed for my job with Bupa.