College business plan competitions are widespread and are held in most areas at least once per year. Most people assume that business plan competitions are helpful only for undergraduate and MBA students who want to become entrepreneurs. To the contrary, business plan competitions benefit anyone who wants to start their career on the right foot. In fact, many competitions are run by private venture incubators and do not even require school enrollment.

A business plan competition can provide you with valuable “real-world” skills that traditional students lack – skills that may help you differentiate yourself, land a job sooner, and climb faster through the executive ranks. You can find most competitions in this list of business plan competitions.

Why are competitions helpful?

So, why can competitions be so helpful? While most classes offer the theory on a specific subject (e.g., finance, marketing, advertising, or management), few classes ever provide the opportunity to apply this knowledge in a practical and comprehensive way.

Business plan competitions allow you to use all the knowledge that you have gained from school in a single place and for a single objective – launching a company. Competitions give you a chance to fully develop an idea, from beginning to end.  This experience teaches valuable skills that are useful in the workplace – not only for entrepreneurs, but for anyone who wants a great career.

Don’t take my word for it. Look around at work. I bet that those who advance quickly have these skills.

Skill #1: Understand how the whole company works

Most schools teach you how to perform a specific job, such as accounting, marketing, or sales. However, few schools actually teach you how to run a business. In my view, this shortcoming is a big failure of our universities. Knowing how to run a business is exactly the sort of training you need to be a successful executive.

Writing a business plan helps you understand how a company works – in detail. It helps you analyze all the things required to launch and operate a successful business. You learn all the company functions, understand how they work together, and recognize how they support the strategy.

Few job candidates, especially for entry-level positions, realize how important this understanding is for career advancement. Being able to grasp the big picture, while knowing the details of how things work, is a key skill for executives. Hiring managers often look for this skill.

Skill #2: Decision-making and trade-offs

One of the most important skills for any executive is decision-making. Knowing how to make decisions and trade-offs correctly is crucial for advancement. You learn this skill by experience, but writing a business plan can help.

As you know, startups often operate on a shoestring budget. When you write your plan, you need to decide how to allocate your limited resources so that you can accomplish your corporate objective. And when you present your plan to the panel, you need to defend these decisions – just as executives do at board meetings.

Skill #3: Learn and understand finance

Knowing finance is critical for career advancement. You will never get beyond a certain career point unless you can read financial statements and develop workable budgets. Fortunately, you can learn these things at school since there are plenty of classes in finance. However, most finance classes are not realistic and don’t teach you what you need.

Developing a business plan can go a long way toward helping you get comfortable developing and understanding financial statements. It also sharpens your forecasting skills, a key ability for executives.

Skill #4: Presentation skills

Most successful CEOs have outstanding presentation and communication skills – important skills for success in the workplace. You can learn these skills from the practical experience gained in a business plan competition.

The most important part of the competition is making a successful pitch presentation. You need to spend hours refining your presentation skills. By the time you are done, you will be comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. This occasion can be difficult, but remember: nothing builds “character” faster than presenting your plan to a panel of experts, while they rip it to pieces in front of you. This experience is not unlike executive boardrooms.

Skill #5: Making convincing business plans

Lastly, participating in a competition teaches you how to make a convincing business plan. The corporate world still uses business plans, both to run existing divisions and to launch new ventures. Few graduates know how to write an effective business plan. Having real-world experience in plan design is a key skill that employers seek.

Ok, so how does this help you get a job?

It depends on where you are in your career. If you just earned an undergraduate degree or an MBA, you can use the competition in your resume, cover letter, and interview.

However, you need to present it the right way. Be sure to focus on the skills you learned while participating in the competition. Explain to the interviewer how you have a better understanding of the global workings of a company, how you had to make difficult trade-offs and decisions, how you had to develop accurate financials, and how you had to sell the whole concept to a panel of experts. Be sure to mention how these skills apply to the job for which you are interviewing.

If you present these points effectively, you will get the attention of your interviewer and put yourself in an advantageous position for that job. And if you apply your skills correctly, you will also be in a position to advance faster than your peers.

Marco Terry is the managing director of Commercial Capital LLC, a company that provides funding to small and mid-sized businesses. He also has a blog called Factor This!

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