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A Career-Building Summer for College Students

There are many options beyond an internship.

“Isn’t a summer internship the best way to acquire experience?”

“How can I get an internship when I’m miles away from a big city?”

“I’m only a first-year college student—all the internships seem to be for juniors. Does that mean my summer is wasted?”

These are the typical questions I hear every day from college students and their parents. The word “internship” has taken on almost a mystical reverence as something to be highly sought after and achieved. Many students and parents believe that not having an internship will somehow ruin their future opportunities.

Let’s look at the reality:

1) Most internships (particularly in finance and consulting fields) go to sophomores and juniors, not first-year students.

2) Many of the prestigious internships are located in major cities, making them inaccessible to students who can’t afford to live in or commute to those locations.

3) Many internships are obtained through connections and networking. College students can learn to do this (and can use their Career Centers for assistance), but particularly in their first-year, often have to rely on their family for their connections.

So are first-year or sophomore students out of luck? Not at all. What is more important in the summer is continuing to learn and developing potential connections—all of which can be done anywhere. In addition, more and more internships are virtual and can be found online. Lauren Berger's Intern Queen site is one place to learn more about virtual internships.

But whether you find an internship or not, here is a plan for making the most out of summer experience:

Start by setting some goals for the summer. What would you like to say that you accomplished over the summer?

  • Acquired a new skill or talent?
  • Built up knowledge in a particular field?
  • Developed a network of connections for future opportunities?
  • Earned an income?

All of these goals are reasonable and not limited by location or opportunities. Let’s break down the options for achieving these goals:

1. Acquire new skills or talent. Identify the skills you would like to have at the end of the summer. Can you acquire them through a summer job in your community? Can you find a volunteer opportunity that will allow you to develop new skills? If not, what about online learning? Would a Skillshare or Udemy course or YouTube video teach you what you need to know? Take advantage of the extra free time in the summer away from the traditional classroom to create your own learning experience. You can also look into community college classes if your schedule permits.

Never assume that your basic summer job isn’t a way to learn strong skills or knowledge. Learning to work with others, dealing with lots of different personalities, helping customers, etc., are all ways to learn on a summer job. Employers are always seeking individuals with strong “soft skills”—mostly related to getting along with others, showing emotional intelligence, etc. You can acquire these soft skills through your work. Check out this article from The Muse about soft skills.

2. Build up your knowledge of a subject matter. Again, with extra time in the summer and no required reading for class, it’s time to read books related to your future career field. Try a Google search of “best books for careers in ______” and see what shows up. If you don’t have the funds to purchase the books, take advantage of your community library. It’s likely they will have the titles in several forms: CD’s or ebooks, for example.

Another way to build knowledge (and your network) is to use social media to find the key players in your field. Who is active on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media sites? Who is writing/researching your field of interest? You can find terrific links to articles, blog posts, podcasts, etc., through social media and Google searches. Once you’ve identified key players or writers in your field, follow them. Get their emails, newsletters, or other resources (often free) that will allow you to learn more. Start building a list of potential contacts whom you could ask for guidance. Write questions or respond to blog posts, seeking the author’s advice. While many bloggers don’t have the time to respond individually to all questions, they might be willing to answer a question that is posed on their blog site or they might even write a blog about that topic in the future.

3. Develop a network of connections. Start at your current job. Let’s say you’re interested in advertising and marketing, but you’re working at a local fast-food outlet. Talk to your manager. Find out who the district manager is, or who connects directly with the corporation's headquarters. See if you can connect with the office that does the marketing/advertising for the company. Does your local manager advertise anywhere? How? Who manages that? Maybe you can set up a 15-minute phone conversation to learn more about how they promote their company.

As mentioned previously, social media can be a great way to start building your network. Contact your college or university and find out how to connect with alumni from your institution who are working in your field of interest. The purpose of this initial contact is not to ask for an internship or job, but rather to “meet” them online, let them know of your interest in their career field, and ask if you can contact them in the future for ideas and suggestions for getting into their field of work. You are information gathering for the future.

Another quick way to locate potential networking connections is through LinkedIn. You can do a search for graduates of your high school or college and see where they are working. You can then reach out to them through LinkedIn to connect with them.

4. Earn money. This is usually the number one goal for most summer experiences. Obviously, a job helps. If the only jobs you can find in your summer location are basic lifeguard/babysitting/fast food/retail positions—take one! Yes, they are career-builders even though they don’t seem like it. You can build your understanding of how workplaces function through these jobs—and you never know what connections you might make if you’re friendly to the customers. Many a Starbucks barista has found connections through providing coffee every morning to someone in their desired profession.

While you’re at it, think about other ways to supplement your income. What skills do you have that someone might pay for? Can you help a local entrepreneur develop their social media plan? Can you design a website for a new author? Can you add extra jobs (like babysitting or yard work) to your schedule? Develop an online course and teach others a skill you have? Nothing impresses employers like a hard worker—and while everyone says they are a hard worker, you will be able to prove it. You can even develop a small entrepreneurial business over the summer that you can add to your resume.

Taking the time to think through your goals for the summer, finding ways to fill your basic need for income, and creating a well-rounded summer experience will not only benefit you for future opportunities, but you will also help clarify your career plans and serve as the basis for terrific stories for future interviews.