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6 ways to maximize your summer

college students outside in the sun

School's out for the summer, but soon-to-be employers still expect you to use those months to boost your resume — and that's a good thing. Summer is a fantastic opportunity for college students who would normally be mired in books and homework to explore future career paths, gain work experience and maybe earn some cash along the way. Here are six ways to make the most of your summer.

1. Work it

"If you're not doing an internship between your junior and senior year, you're making a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good decision," says Donald Asher, author of "Cracking The Hidden Job Market: How to Find Opportunity in Any Economy." "Having a stack of internships, it just trumps everything else."

Internships and cooperative learning programs not only offer students industry experience, invaluable networking contacts, references, mentorship opportunities and the ability to taste test a career field without getting strapped into a full-time job there. Data consistently show they also lead to better starting salaries. College graduates without an internship under their belts landed average starting salaries that were nearly $15,000 lower than their classmates who had paid internship experience, reports the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

2. Volunteer

Employers undoubtedly want to see you work — relevant experience is more important than academic performance according to a 2012 survey of hiring professionals by Internships.com — but internships aren't the only way to gain industry cred.

"My first piece of advice to a student who cannot find an internship is to volunteer," says Kelli Burns, director of undergraduate studies for the School of Mass Communication at the University of South Florida.

Volunteering provides students who want to work in the nonprofit sector with field experience, but it can also be a great way for all college kids to target skills they'd like to develop and take on relevant projects, Burns says.

3. Do your homework

Summer session classes can be a great way to pick up extra credits or experience, and they often cost substantially less than fall and spring courses. At the University of Chicago, for example, students who take a single summer classes will save nearly $3,400 over those who take one during another quarter. Since students typically leave campus during the warmest months of the year, both on and off-campus housing can be cheaper, too.

In addition to offering classes, many schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, offer summer research programs that can provide a nice addition to a resume or graduate school application.

4. Cultivate a network

Regardless of your work or school situation, summer is an excellent time to build your network, says Jennifer Dillenger, director of career services for Wofford College in South Carolina.

"There is no reason you can't take your time during the summer to get online, develop a LinkedIn profile, begin finding out who you're connected to and start setting up informational interviews," she says. "Go have coffee with someone; take somebody to lunch."

Kelli Burns says students using LinkedIn should start local by adding personal friends, professors and your parents' friends.

"Once you've built up a good network, then it's time to start branching out and reaching out to people that you might not know personally …," she says. "These might be people who work at companies that you would like to work at one day or companies where you would like to intern. I think the key here is to not approach those people until you have a solid network of connections and a filled-out profile."

Students can also build out their networks in person by reaching out to local alumni in their fields, getting involved in professional associations and attending conferences relevant to their industry.

5. Go rogue

Students can also create their own independent projects this summer and include skills developed and outcomes achieved on their resumes. Projects like directing your own movie, organizing a community event, studying for an Advanced Placement exam on your own or completing an extended travel experience can prove to employers that you're self-motivated and capable of managing projects with moving parts.

Students who go the independent project route should know how to explain their independent project to a future employer in a way that showcases why it's a valuable part of the student's skill set says Gene Wells, senior director for the Center for Career Development at the University of Evansville in Indiana. That means keeping tabs on what you did, what the outcomes were and how it impacted you.

"One of the things that many students don't do is keep track of what's going on as it's going on and then to take some reflective time," Wells says.

6. Build a business

Instead of wooing a boss, become one. Starting a business while in school worked out well for entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, but you don't need a multimillion dollar idea to get started, says Jennifer Dillenger.

"It doesn't have to be the thing that you do for the rest of your life, but these experiences bring with them a multitude of failures, triumphs, moments of learning that students might not get if they choose to be a lifeguard at the pool for the summer," she says.

As with independent projects, students who spend their summer honing their entrepreneurial skills should be prepared to clearly communicate how they built their business, lessons learned and metrics they used to measure their progress.

Sources:

Donald Asher, Author of "Cracking The Hidden Job Market: How to Find Opportunity in Any Economy," Interviewed by the author, May 30, 2014

Dr. Kelli Burns, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the University of South Florida School of Mass Communication, Interviewed by the author, May 28, 2014

Jennifer Dillenger, Director of Wofford College Career Services, Interviewed by the author, May 30, 2014

"Internships Survey Reveals the Increasing Importance of Internships for Both Students and Employers," Internships.com, Dec. 6, 2012,
http://www.internships.com/about/news/internships-survey-reveals-the-increasing-importance-of-internships-for-both-students-and-employers

"Class of 2013: Paid Interns Outpace Unpaid Peers In Job Offers, Salaries," National Association of Colleges and Employers, May 29, 2013,
https://www.naceweb.org/s05292013/paid-unpaid-interns-job-offer.aspx#sthash.13KsrLGA.dpuf

Undergraduate Research Programs: Summer Research Opportunity Program for 2014, University of California, Berkeley,
http://diversity.berkeley.edu/undergraduate-research-programs

Programs Overview and Financial Information: Summer 2014, Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, University of Chicago,
https://summer.uchicago.edu/students/financial-information#

Tuition by School/Division 2014-15 Rates, Office of the Bursar, University of Chicago,
https://bursar.uchicago.edu/page/tuition-rates

Undergrad Summer Research, University of Michigan Medical School,
http://medicine.umich.edu/medschool/education/phd-programs/about-pibs/undergrad-summer-research

Gene Wells, Senior Director of the Center for Career Development of the University of Evansville, Interviewed by the author, May 30, 2014